When it comes to baseball video games you know what you are going to get, it’s just a matter of how it’s presented and what comes along with it. And when it comes to baseball simulators, there really is no question that the MLB: The Show series has the main aspect of the game locked down. Year after year the mechanics of the franchise keep bringing people back, and the new features keep them engrossed until the next offering. The franchise is the Mark McGwire of the 90s, back when he could excite thousands of people just by showing up (and possibly crush naysayers with his giant, meaty fingers.) It was a simpler time.
But the curse of any annual franchise like this is how to keep the game feeling fresh without straying too far from the core game being represented. It would be a odd to suddenly feature aliens and grenade launchers. Granted, that might make for an awesome variation and a way to break from the mold, but it might be a tad alienating to the core audience to see Derek Jeter turn a rocket launcher on the Red Sox – to most, at least.
But with MLB 13, the newest offering in the franchise sticks close to what has been proven to work. Very, very close. The changes are minor – at least at first glance – but they do show a subtle shift in the direction of the series. There are no new features to speak of though, and while the Vita cross-play again offers some remarkable functionality, the real changes are tweaks to make the game more accessible. It succeeds in that, but don’t expect a huge step up from MLB 12.
MLB 13 is made for people that aren’t familiar with the series or who have dropped off in the last few iterations. Those that have played the games for years and look forward to the annual offerings are going to find the game much the same with a few key exceptions, especially regarding the batting. The graphics have improved a bit as well, especially in the lighting and shade, but the jump isn’t especially significant. Character models remain the same as ever though, for better and worse.
When it comes to the character animations The Show is one of the best sports games out there, and in the sports genre that is really what matters. The player movements are smooth and fluid and they respond naturally, making it possible to play the game as it’s meant to be played. If you take control of the fielders, you can watch how they move to make a play, not just put the right bodies in the right general areas. It’s something we are fast approaching taking for granted in sports games, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. The occasional glitches where a player suddenly develops superpowers and can teleport to catch a ball or run right through a wall like Kitty Pryde of the X-Men do crop up, but they aren’t common enough to be a huge issue. Perhaps the game is just bracing us for the next wave of player “enhancements,” when they begin to chew plutonium to gain a bit of an advantage.
The glitches combined with the minor player details do show the age of the series. Body types, while sometimes hilarious, are often unnatural. Players’ guts often hang over their belts in geometrically improbable ways, and it’s universal. The facial animations are also a bit horrific, as faces tend to look like the nightmare-fueled facsimiles of their real world counterparts. These are minor issues, but they do occasionally take you out of it.
The audio remains a highlight, and the crack of a bat and roar of the crowd are well handled. Commentators Eric Karros and Matt Vasgersian return, and bring with them the occasional recycled line of dialogue. Much like real life. It will only make a difference to those that played the previous game enough to grow tired of the commentary. To break it up, Dave Campbell has been replaced by Steve Lyons.
The pitching remains the same, which is a good thing. MLB: The Show has fine tuned this for years. There may be a new innovation coming in the near future that will blow our collective minds and make us wonder how we ever survived while using such primitive pitching mechanics, but for now it is fun and engrossing, and feels like the top evolution of the mechanic. For now, at least. Fielding also retains the previous feel, and a power gauge to help you throw makes this seem more like an important part of the game and not just a stop gap measure to prevent runners advancing.
The biggest change to the gameplay comes in the hitting. In previous offerings, hitting was the thing that turned off most people. It wasn’t easy, and even veterans had troubles. It was a double edged sword though. While it made it inaccessible to the impatient gamers that weren’t diehard fans to begin with, it also gave the series vets something to constantly try to improve at. Each pitch was a challenge, and every game was different – if you had the patience to practice.
The new batting system is much simpler and more streamlined. You can just swing away and hope for the best, or you can pre-select the general area you think the ball will go and swing. It will lead to a few more homeruns, but more often than not it will lead to fly outs. But at least you’ll make contact, which should help to bring new fans in.
This reflects the biggest change for the series – not the new features or altered gameplay, per se, but the decision to try to be more appealing to a larger audience. To this end, the game has introduced the “Beginner Mode,” a tutorial that helps you along every step of the way. The better you do, the more the difficulty increases. Once new gamers are hooked they can then move on to the game’s real highlight, the Road to the Show. The RPG-like mode remains a wildly addictive mode.
Beyond that though, the changes are very minor. Online play returns as well, unchanged for the most part, and the Vita cross play returns with cloud storage that makes it possible to continue your stored seasons on the go. This functionality isn’t new, but it does make the game more intriguing – assuming you own a Vita and don’t mind buying the game a second time.
The franchise continues to dominate the baseball genre and remain one of the top sports series available, but it’s also geared for a new group of fans: Beginners to the franchise, rather than just the stalwarts that continue to keep the franchise viable.
MLB 13: The Show does what it needs to in order to attract new fans to the series, but nothing more. With the next generation of consoles on the way, this will be the last MLB: The Show designed for this generation. The next game or two will also be released on the PS3, but the push will be to introduce the Sony exclusive as a PS4 title. Hopefully, with the new console will come new innovations and features. If SCE San Diego can do that while still trying to lure new players, The Show is likely to remain on top for a long time to come.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PS3, on a copy provided by the publisher)