Writing criticism of sports franchises is a difficult pursuit. While most of my reviews end up being about how a game made me feel, it’s difficult to get that same sort of gut reaction from a game with any measure of difference from the year before. The task becomes even more arduous with a series such as MLB The Show, whose efforts have so long been at the pinnacle of the sports genre. Reviews under such circumstances tend to degenerate into a point by point analysis of this year’s model compared to last years. The watchwords become “new animations” and “new control settings,” and that side-by-side analysis becomes the finality of our opinion, as if my feelings about this year’s game are direct descendants of last year’s. So since my review of MLB 12: The Show declared the game to be the best sports game of all time (something Vagary verified in its end of the year awards), under these narrow parameters MLB 13: The Show has only a couple of options. It can “take gaming to new heights” or it can “fall short of its predecessor.”
The problem in this situation is that sports sequels typically reach for refinement. The occasional game will do more, but largely, especially the sequels to well received games, don’t reach all that far. MLB 13 is no different. It attempts to build on its predecessor without leaving it behind. Risks aren’t taken so much as previously identified weaknesses are rectified. The results, save for one particularly glaring area, are a game that is more attractive, better animated, and a better spectacle. The core play itself is little different from last year, with the focus on achieving a much more complete presentation experience, especially in Road to the Show mode. But the emergence of wonky base running controls mars what otherwise is an utterly too familiar experience. The game, in one core area, fails, a stumble which causes MLB 13 The Show to be less of a game than its predecessor.
I must first, however, praise this game’s efforts on the presentation front. Numerous tweaks to player animation, voice work (welcome, Steve Lyons), an excellent soundtrack, and numerous other cosmetic improvements give the game a fresh and wonderful look. MLB 13 The Show is beautiful to behold, almost entirely free of those oddly scripted player animations that involve, say, the batter walking right through the catcher after striking out. A focus was made this year on making the game look as realistic as possible, and it showed.
This presentation upgrade was extended in a very welcome manner to Road to the Show (the series’ create-a-player mode). In previous editions, participation in games would be the snippets that pertained to that particular player and nothing else. Events would occur seemingly out of context. This year, that context is provided with the addition of a live box score that stops only when your player is to participate in their next event. It’s a wonderful addition that adds weight to your impact on the game. Additionally, those snippets of play are no longer announcer voiced. It always felt weird to be out on the basepaths with the announcer’s voice ringing in your ears. This year, you won’t hear that at all. Instead, you’ll listen to the players talking on the field, the calls of the umpire, and the preaching of your base coach yelling at you to dig it out as you run to first. This is a welcome change that really adds to the game’s authenticity.
Still, other changes to the mode really put a damper on my enthusiasm. It saddens me how manufactured the results of Road to the Show mode feel. The game overpowers you in AA, making your player a god amongst youngsters. I smashed homer after homer, and was quickly promoted to AAA. My success in AAA was also unbelievable, as I batted .500 and hit a homerun every 8 at-bats (which is an insane rate). Then I was promoted to the majors, where I shriveled. I wasn’t hitting the ball any less frequently or less squarely. It’s just that the results of those hits felt so anemic. It just felt so backwards- as my player’s metrics improved in each level, his ability to hit seemed to fall. My upperdeck power became warning track power. I’ve been told that it was the intent this year to make the advance to the majors easier. The effect of this quicker advancement, though, seems to result in a confidence that is shattered by an inadequate ability to play at the major league level. By moving up so quickly, I moved with a player who wasn’t ready, and was forced out onto a stage where the only result was failure.
But that, an annoying consequence of a too-quick league progression combined with too-slow player development, was not my chief worry. No, the part of the game that I found endlessly frustrating was the baserunning. In every mode it seemed to rear its ugly head, stemming from a combination of controls that were awkward at times, unresponsive at others, and in a few cases, proved absolutely insane. In order to advance running, you’re required to hold one button while pressing another. While this doesn’t seem difficult, in the heat of a game, you see how slowly it causes your players to react. In Road to the Show, you can use the left thumbstick to guide your player to the next base. The dancing camera combined with a complete lack of responsiveness made the two button method infinitely more desirable. While running into the bases, you can use the right thumbstick to slide. However, far too often your player will ignore your input, round the base without stopping and go on to the next one as you swear and stomp your feet. But nothing topped the time I put my controller down and was reading a blog post on my laptop. My player was on first base, and the bases were loaded. As I watched in horror, my player tried to steal second base. When the bases were loaded. When I wasn’t holding the controller. The baserunning as presented in this year’s edition (I don’t remember it ever being an issue before) is problematic at best, and game breaking at times.
Those criticisms aside, the game provides an incredibly large number of different gameplay modes. This year you have access to Post Season mode (an excellent idea for those of us who don’t have time for those other 162 games). Home run derby is now cross platform with the Vita version of the game (allowing you to smack the heck out of those weakling handheld gamers). But my favorite new addition is The Show Live. This allows you to play games from the current regular season day (or any day earlier in the season). That game includes stats from the current day, and even some current day announcing dialogue. It’s really a compelling addition.
Still, despite the new additions, it’s difficult for me to recommend this year’s version over last year. Yes, it looks better. Yes, it sounds better. And yes, there’s more compelling things to do. But the game seems to play worse. Last year, I lauded the game’s ability to reflect the battle between batter and pitcher. This year, that battle seems to be dominated by player statistics much more than player skill.