It’s amazing to think how far SCE San Diego and the MLB: The Show franchise have come over the past decade. The first entry in the revitalized series was a pleasant enough surprise, but was still overshadowed by the more well-known MLB 2K series. Over time, though, the quality of The Show began to steadily improve, and in turn, gamers turned to it in order to get their digital baseball fix.
Now, after several years of dominance, MLB 15: The Show essentially finds itself alone on the marketplace, as SCE San Diego’s digital replication of America’s pastime has turned away all competitors. With little opposition, outside of the digital only R.B.I. Baseball series, the question has turned to whether the studio would continue to innovate, or whether they would become complacent with their success.
At this point, it almost feels ridiculous to talk about the core gameplay of The Show franchise. SCE San Diego has long mastered the art of hitting and pitching, and minor tinkers aside, their blueprint remains the same here. Becoming a hitter on the level of Miguel Cabrera requires a strong eye for the ball and excellent timing, while pitching boils down to how accurately you can place the ball, and how you factor in the atmosphere around you.
The biggest gameplay addition comes from the implementation of directional hitting, which gives batters the chance to influence which direction their hits go. You still need to be able to recognize certain pitches in order to put the ball into play, but the ability to induce ground or fly balls is more in your hands than ever before. It’s technically a system that has been in place for awhile, but this feels like the first time it has truly been showcased.
If there was one thing that bugged me about the gameplay in MLB 15, though, it’s the fact that the fielding still feels unresponsive at times. I understand the timing based system they currently have in place, and I’m willing to admit that there were plenty of instances where I screwed up. However, even when I know I did everything correctly, my fielders would sometimes still hold onto the ball for longer than any Major Leaguer should. All too often this would lead to hitters stretching would-be singles into doubles, or worse. It’s frustrating to deal with, especially when you are trying to drag a crappy 2015 Yankees team to a hard fought victory.
Much like the core gameplay, the basic modes of the franchise are retained in MLB 15: The Show. You have your traditional exhibition matches, seasons, franchises, Road to the Show, and online modes. The big change this time around comes from the much improved Diamond Dynasty mode. Taking a cue from EA Sports’ popular Ultimate Team, Diamond Dynasty has players creating their own teams and acquiring players through card packs.
Due to the micro-transaction heavy nature of Diamond Dynasty, your mileage may vary with this mode. So while you may not want to spend actual money in order to acquire either top tier players such as Mike Trout, or legends of the sport like George Brett, others have and will. You can earn in-game money slowly by playing games with your created team, but it can be rather slow-going in order to acquire the funds to purchase another pack of cards. And even when you do purchase a pack, there is no guarantee you’ll get anything worthwhile.
Even if the Diamond Dynasty is not to your liking, Road to the Show remains excellent. The ability to craft your player to your exact specifications, and then go out and make the jump from prospect to All-Star is as engaging as it has ever been. Once again, though, it would have been nice to see more interaction over the course of your career. Give me cheesy dialogue between teammates and reporters if you must, but it would just be nice to have some personality on display. The fact that you can now transfer your career from last year’s iteration at least means that you may not have to suffer through AA or AAA ball again.
Regardless of how fundamentally solid MLB 15: The Show is, though, my time with the title left me feeling rather unsatisfied. I think that feeling may stem from the fact that after improving so much over the past decade, the franchise may have plateaued already. There’s little difference between this year and last year’s entry, and considering I only just stopped playing that one, the two often felt one in the same during my time with the game. It feels unfair to levy this charge against the title, but even the best series can begin to feel stale if they remain the same.
Of course, since the game feels like a simple retread, I suppose it would make sense that the biggest problem here is a carry-over from the previous year: the frustrating online play. While it is an improvement over last year’s technically troubled release, playing online is still frustratingly inconsistent. Sometimes I was able to find a smooth connection and hop right into a game, and other times I would wait and wait for something, only to have it break down on me anyway. Things have gotten better since release, yes, but it appears that poor online play is going to continue to be a defining trend this console generation for a little while longer.
Despite the relative staleness of the game, though, the graphical wizardry of SCE San Diego is as potent as ever here. Last year’s release was already a technical marvel, but MLB 15: The Show manages raise the bar even further for other current-gen sports titles. Player models, which already looked quite accurate, are further accentuated thanks to minute details such as hat placement, uniform position, or the presence of additional accessories.
The same graphical flourish can be seen in the stadiums. Transcending simple background staging, each stadium is accurately modelled after its real-life counterpart. So yes, you can mash dingers in Marlins Park with the appropriate amount of pomp and circumstance. What really makes the difference with these locations, though, are the much improved crowds. What was once bland and lifeless has become amazingly lifelike, as the crowd realistically reacts to the game taking place. Simply put, I believe it is the best depiction of a crowd in any sports game, ever.
The animation system is mostly made up of the same assets carried over from the previous year, albeit with some tweaks. Outfielders have more of an actual grace to them, rather than the herky jerky movement of old, while baserunners now react accordingly to the play developing around them. Everything about the movement of the athletes just feels much smoother than in years past. The Show was already head and shoulders above its sports game contemporaries in this department, but now EA Sports and 2K Games really need to step up.
Ultimately, and perhaps unfairly, MLB 15: The Show is bogged down by the past success of the franchise. It remains not only a technical marvel, but a game that fully understands what it takes to accurately represent the sport of baseball. It’s just unfortunate that SCE San Diego’s latest is not only hampered by the same recurring online issues, but that it barely tries to improve upon previous outings. I have no doubt that the series will continue to be well received, but the developers will need to go back to the drawing board in order to truly move the franchise into the current console generation.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which was provided to us.