The first edition of a sports game on a new console is like the first game in a new stadium: The place looks great, but management may not yet have worked out the kinks at the ticket lines or the concession stands.
“MLB 14: The Show” (Sony, for the PlayStation 4, $59.99) is no exception. In the latest upgrade of the stellar baseball franchise, the players look more realistic than ever, and their individualized animations bring them ever closer to the athletes you see at the ballpark. Sony’s San Diego Studio has also refurbished every major league stadium, from Boston’s venerable Fenway Park to Miami’s flamboyant 2-year-old Marlins Park.
The most notable flaws are some excruciating loading times, especially when starting a new game or switching between different play modes. And there are a few graphical stutters that destroy the generally well-crafted illusion of watching a TV broadcast.
Otherwise, most of the new features in the PS4 version of “MLB 14” are the same as those introduced a few months ago on the PS3 edition. The most radical revision is “Quick Counts,” in which each at-bat begins a few pitches in. It’s a bit of a gamble, since your batter can just as likely come to the plate with a 3-0 edge or a 0-2 disadvantage. Purists will grumble, but it’s useful if you have just 30 minutes or so to squeeze in a game.
The highlight, as always with this series, is the absorbing “Road to the Show.” You create a player from scratch, but this year you can model your guy on a real-life major leaguer. My doppelganger, the scrappy second baseman Louie Kesten, is based on young Washington Nationals infielder Anthony Rendon. Unfortunately, I’m still struggling to make an impression on the Philadelphia Phillies’ AA farm team, the Reading Fightin’ Phils.
Sony has revamped some of the player training and performance evaluation in RTTS, but the essence remains. You see only your character’s at-bats and fielding chances, so the focus is less on winning the game than on making sure he contributes positively. A game only takes five minutes, so you could whip through an entire season in a day.
“MLB 14” takes that single-player focus and brings it to other game modes as well. A new “Player Lock” feature lets you pick any big leaguer and play multiple seasons as just that guy. Is fiery Los Angeles Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig a flash in the pan or a legend in the making? Player Lock lets you determine his future.
If you’re looking for a really brief game, you should check out the new “Community Challenges.” Each challenge plops you into a pivotal game situation — say, coming to bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th. You can also create your own challenges and present them to other online players.
“MLB 14” doesn’t radically reinvent the series for the PS4, and if you’ve already bought the PS3 version, you aren’t missing much if you don’t upgrade. It still has so much packed into it that it should satisfy anyone, from casual players looking for a quick contest to fantasy geeks who want to assemble entire leagues from scratch. It remains one of the finest sports games on the market, and an essential purchase for baseball fans.
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