October was a hell of a month here in San Francisco. There’s nothing like sports to shore up the bonds of comradely in otherwise disparate, eclectic pockets of the world. Just look at how the Olympics create a national binary; some seek sanctuary amongst the loudly irreverent while others buy into the nationalistic fervor. Those just trying to go about their lives get bombarded from on high by either side.
This year, the hometown Giants, a team I've followed with ardor since childhood, made history, winning nine straight do-or-die elimination games to propel them to the World Series, which they then swept against a favored Detroit Tigers team. This is a thing that does not happen, and has never happened before. And if you follow San Francisco game journalists or like sports, you probably heard about it from either side of the fence.
Come March, Sony's excellent MLB: The Show series will be making its yearly rounds, just in time for spring training and just in time to whet a collective appetite for the American pastime. There have been a lot of changes, not the least of which is the new Post Season Mode, intended to replicate that heart quickening post season play without the 162 games prior -- and to help build narratives like the one the Giants wrote with their historical 2012 run. Add in rebalanced gameplay skewed toward offense and the new beginner mode and you got something that's looking to be the most accessible, plainly fun The Show yet.
MLB 13: The Show (PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita)
Developer: SCE San Diego Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release: March 5, 2013
In San Francisco, you don’t have to be a big baseball fan to go to a game. In fact, I would hazard a guess that ardent baseball fans are the minority in attendance at AT&T Park, the picturesque ballpark on the bay. It’s both family friendly and great for getting wasted (public transport as far as the eye can see; drink responsibly!) Also, there’s baseball, which I happen to like quite a bit. MLB 13 aims to capitalize on a less fervent fan base in some admirable ways.
“This is the most fun game we’ve made,” San Diego Studios’ Community Specialist Ramone Russell said. “People always say, ‘Oh, the game is really authentic,’ but we didn’t hear that it was fun enough. Now you’re going to have those games where it’s 9-14, 6-9.”
Baseball is hard. It's often been said hitting a hand fruit sized target coming toward you at over 90 MPH with wicked movement is the hardest thing to do in sports. I get the desire to see exciting games busted open with offense, though the value of such games in baseball is their infrequency and novelty. I had more than enough big run count games to sate my appetite in last year's The Show despite mostly playing with an anemic Giants offense, so I hope that in the so-called "era of the pitcher" that has succeeded the homerun smashing steroid era, the game isn't tooled too much towards offense.
Still, the increased wiggle room in timing windows for hitting should allay a lot of concerns about getting new players into the series instead of leaving them struggling to make contact. At the same time there is, as always, the promise of a complex series of custom difficulty accordance for those wanting to test their mettle.
The new Beginner Mode is a welcome addition, meant to help new players get their legs under them in an organic way. I've tried to let new players take a crack at The Show and they always end up ceding control in embarrassment after their batter awkwardly flails at a pitch they had no business swinging at. It's a complex game, and having a mode in place to help organically teach players how to swing in time, how to identify pitch types, and so on is a great move.
Back to the side of "fun factor," there is a new Playoff Mode that starts players off smack dab in the post season, circumventing the arduous 162 game regular season. For those in it for the long haul, the finer points of franchise have gotten some love. “We ripped out three core systems. Our budget system, we started from scratch. Player training, we started from scratch. Scouting, drafting, player progression: all new code,” Russell offered.
Similarly, Road to the Show has seen some changes, focusing on your individual player more in terms of presentation and point of view. “If you’re making a left fielder, what you hear now -- you don’t hear any audio -- it’s all about the crowd noise. It’s about you trying to run and get a ball and you hearing the center fielder call you off. Or when you’re batting at running to third, you can’t see where the ball is. You’ll hear the base coach telling you to stop.” On top of this, the team will have a comprehensive leaderboard by league and position. Those in the number one spots were promised a cryptic “something special” at the end of the year.
One other neat addition to this year’s Show is a new throwing option. “Your initial button press fills up your strength then the meter comes up on the screen. If you stop it in the green, your throw is really, really accurate. If you stop it in the yellow, your throw is offline. If you stop it in red it goes over somebody’s head,” Russell explained. I found it preferable to the plain button presses, which don’t always put the throw outcome in your hand, and analog throwing.
The Vita version was also on hand and I'm glad to report its looking good as it’s become my favorite way to indulge in the series. There was noticeably less delay in menu navigation and an aesthetically altered HUD that made things feel snappier. Vita players will be able to play Homerun Derby online with PS3 users this year, but don't expect a cross buy level of parity any time soon. “There’s 6gbs worth of audio [in the PS3 version]. We could fill up the Vita disc twice with just presentation elements,” Russell said when asked about the possible parity between systems in the future. That being said, those with both versions of the game can still shift saves between the two, while a new universal profile tracks stats and experience across both platforms.
Online play is also being addressed. Shaky connections have plagued The Show for some time now and delay is hard to get over when you’re trying to hit a pitch coming at you at nearly 100 MPH. To address this, the game focuses resources more purely on the batting/hitting while online. Additionally, a ping indicator can warn you of opponents with bad connections. There is also an online pitcher rotation system in which aces will get tired with overuse, requiring players to go to their lower tiered starters on occasion to keep every game from being an ace on ace pitcher’s duel, which should add some variety and allay some frustration of always having to hit against CC Sabathia.
Both versions feel great to play. The added animations, batting stances, and physics-based ball reactions are all as welcomed as ever and making solid contact still feels satisfying. I’m particularly excited to see how the Vita version, now in its second iteration, fairs, especially given how admirably it stood beside last year’s PS3 release. Book your tickets to The Show March 5.