Baseball, that most American of sports. Random armour, comedy organ music, bubblegum cards – baseball has all the hallmarks that you’ve seen in countless TV shows and movies, even if you haven’t experienced them in the flesh yourself. More than just cricket standing up, more than rounders with more innings, baseball is a sport that’s easy to misunderstand and difficult to master, with so much more strategy than you’d expect from a game where one guy lobs a ball at another guy who sometimes manages to hit the ball into the hands of other chaps with big leather gloves on. It’s also ridiculously slow and painfully dull for a lot of the time in real life, which is one of the reasons why it’s so great to get hold of the best bits in gaming form.
Of course, if you fancy swinging a Wii-mote around you could have been getting all the arcadey baseball fun you’ll ever need for years already, but sometimes you’ve got to gently place the motion controls down on the table and get deep down and serious with some hardcore sports simulation – and when it comes to baseball you’ll not find any better than Sony’s very own MLB: The Show. Although that might be because it’s been successful enough to squeeze pretty much every baseball sim apart from some niche Japanese releases out of the market. Returning this time with an innovative 14 in the title, MLB 14: The Show also brings the shiny new options of ‘Quick Count’ and ‘Player Lock’ to the fold in an attempt to make playing through a game a little quicker.
But before we get our teeth into the new features let’s chat about entering the game as someone entirely new to baseball. Baseball may seem painfully obvious to the aficionado, but to everyone else it’s a maze of inaccessibility floating within a sea of acronyms. It’s fortuitous then that MLB 14: The Show manages to break down the mechanics of the simulated game excellently, providing a beginner’s mode that walks you through the very basics at both the mound and the plate. As you gain in experience and skill the difficulty gently increases, introducing new functionality and increasing the quality of your AI opponents. Complemented by a comprehensive set of human and CPU skill sliders even someone completely new to the sport will find easy enjoyment here, although you’ll probably want to check out the official MLB abbreviation list just so you know the differences between an RBI and an R, or between a SB and a CS.
If that wasn’t enough for you then once you’re done with being a complete scrub you can set the game to a dynamic difficulty setting that then continues your learning experience as your gametime racks up. As with any sporting simulation, however, you’ll need to complement your growing mechanical skill with a deeper understanding of the actual sport – an appreciation of why you shouldn’t be trying to bat every ball out of the park, for instance, is probably something you should gain sooner rather than later. And trust me, if someone as raw to the sport as I was can gain that knowledge by paying attention to the game and the odd bit of online reading then you have no excuse not to follow suit.
Once you’ve become nearly competent at your pitching strategies and batting timings you’ll have a range of control options that give you greater granularity than simply hitting X. Some of the stick based movements can feel a little clunky with the Vita’s shorter analogues, but it’s likely that everyone will find something here that suits them – indeed, simply being able to decide where to strike with your bat should pull you out of the most basic timing option sooner rather than later. Several UI options exist for these more advanced systems, allowing a certain degree of customisation - although nothing will help the meter pitching bar look like it fits in with its surroundings.
It would be a shame to waste of all these newly accrued skills in constant exhibition matches, and just as in past entries MLB 14 has you covered with the return of the ever popular Road to the Show and Franchise modes. Road to the Show sees you take a young kid and bleed him in the Minors, paying your dues and slugging your way into the Majors. Stadiums from bottom to top are lovingly recreated, and the passion and evocative nature of MiLB comes through just as well as the big business fanaticism of the major franchises. With play concentrating on just your player, the games can sometimes be completed in a matter of minutes, a far cry from the time investment required to play through an uninterrupted nine innings with full control – no doubt this accessibility is key to the popularity of RttS, especially combined with the player-driven customisation options that see your guy grow over the seasons.
Franchise, on the other hand, is a much more in-depth mode, giving you control of a MLB franchise and sending you off into the big bad world to play through season after season of baseball. If you’re not aware, baseball seasons last for about a million games over the course of a year so you’ll be playing a lot of ball. Budget decisions, drafting and other management options pop up constantly – feel free to check out this user managed GoogleDoc to get a feel for how much there is going on. It’s not quite as deep as, say, Football Manager but there’s nothing else around on a handheld that’ll give you both strategic and match control like this.
It’s not all peaches and cream (or should I say Cracker Jacks and beer?) with this Vita port however. Take a glance through the stadium listings for example and you’ll notice many omissions when compared to the PS3 release – as the game comes in at around 3.2gb with a couple of saves you have to imagine that Sony had the room to squeeze these extra locations in. You’ll also find the odd bit of slowdown when cruising through locker-room lists over in Franchise, although thankfully the framerate is always steady within the game. Perhaps the most glaring omission is the lack of any multiplayer modes outside of being able to play Home Run Derby online; exhibition mode especially screams out for a bit of human-on-human action, but alas you’ll have to return to your sofas and main Sony consoles for that this time round. It’s made even more confusing as MLB 14 on the Vita has the ability to access the online MLB News feed and the rather awesome The Show Live, receiving updates on every game throughout the season and allowing you to replay any of them – or even head forward in time to check out a coming matchup. All this and no real multiplayer? Shame on you Sony!
But enough of this lamenting, and what of the newer features we mentioned so long ago? Quick Count is a setting that sees each at bat starting at a deeper count than 0-0 – and sometimes that count can be very deep indeed! As a tool for experienced players looking for a quicker game it allows them to get directly into the action as every ball will count whether you’re batting or pitching; for the newer players however the option isn’t always entirely welcome as it helps perpetuate the awful beginner belief that you should swing for every ball in the zone. Depending on the luck of the count you may find that it makes bunting or base stealing far riskier than they could have been had you retained complete control, but thems the breaks for a quicker baseball experience. Player Lock, on the other hand, is a cracking little addition that allows you to bring the RttS experience into any of the other modes, giving you control of a single player throughout the whole of a game. Accessing it is fairly hidden on the Vita however – hold R and point the right stick up while selecting the relevant player in a line-up pre-game or in-match to turn the feature on. You can switch between locked players during the course of a match, or even turn it off completely and take total control once more. It’s a great feature to get a few quick games of baseball in, and shines especially in the Franchise mode where suddenly you can retain your backroom control and get through the matches in RttS style speeds.
MLB 14: The Show is almost an oxymoron – an accessible and ever-entertaining game based on what is, on these shores, an extremely niche sport that is accused of being rather dull. For both novice and veteran the game demonstrates what an annual sports franchise should be, and standing alone the Vita version would be more than sufficient. It’s only in comparison to its bigger siblings on the PS3 (and now the PS4) that the foibles become clear, the omissions become painful. If you want baseball on the go then this more than delivers, if you want a deep sports simulation on the go then you’ll not find the mixture of management and actual match play anywhere else in handheld land. As long as you’re happy to get your online kicks on the TV then you’ll be more than fine with this Vita edition – and, if you don’t get anything else out of the game, at least you’ll appreciate the differences between this and cricket forever more.