Maybe it’s because I live in Fresno — where seasons are a fading memory — but baseball sneaked up on me this year.
The real players are about to finish up spring training, and the digital boys of summer made their annual return on Tuesday with the release of “MLB 15 The Show.”
Sony San Diego’s triumphant franchise went unchallenged again in 2015. Its traditional competitors at 2K Games rode the pine, opting not to release a baseball game for the second year in a row.
The virtually unchallenged (sorry “RBI Baseball” franchise, you have a long way to go) sultan of digital swat did not rest on its laurels, however. “MLB 15 The Show” debuted with a slew of new and supposedly improved features — so many in fact that Sony San Diego didn’t give out review copies to me and the other reviewers until midnight Tuesday. We could only see the fully featured version to truly appreciate “MLB 15,” the developers told us.
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I’ve had about 15 hours with the game this week, and here is my take on the major changes.
Simplified hitting controls are an improvement
Overall, I am a fan of the changes to the hitting controls.
In previous versions of “The Show,” players had to move the right stick backwards to initiate a swing and launch it forward to finish it. Both steps had to be perfectly timed to make good contact. While I got used to this after hundreds of practice hours, I totally see the need to sharpen this up.
In “MLB 15,” players only need to flick the stick up at the proper time to swing normally. Players can still move the stick down and then up to do a power swing, or they can flick it either right or left to swing for contact.
But the contact swing doesn’t work for hits. Your player will only chunk the ball foul or chop it to third base.
In “MLB 14,” contact swings were useful in two-strike counts or hit-and-run plays. Now, they are garbage and should never, ever be used.
The directional hitting interface doesn’t work
Similar to the contact swing controls, “MLB 15” players can influence the direction of their hits by moving the left stick during the swing.
At least, that’s what the box says.
In practice, this mechanic takes all the sting out of your swing.
A perfectly timed power swing will drive the ball straight into the ground if you touch the left stick. The mechanic is supposed to let you use the whole field or intentionally pop the ball up in a sacrifice fly situation, but it just leads to awkward, tomahawking cuts at the plate.
The new item system is wrong but oh so right
For some reason, Sony San Diego saw fit to add an equipment system to “MLB 15.”
Your fictional player in the game’s career mode, Road to the Show, can now don magical cleats and gloves or wield a mystical bat that improves his hitting attributes. The equipment is also usable in the title’s franchise mode.
This isn’t the first time a sports franchise has dabbled in role-playing game loot. Electronic Arts’ soccer and hockey franchises have similar systems.
These items are randomly unlocked through achievements, booster packs purchased with in-game currency and just by turning on “MLB 15” every day. They can also be bought and sold in an online marketplace, which adds a completely new feature to sports gaming that will feel warm and fuzzy to experienced Massively Multiplayer Online game players.
I really got a kick out of the various items in the “ritual” equipment section. Players can assign a ritual such as wearing lucky socks or getting a good night’s rest that will give their slugger an edge in the game. My favorite so far is called “The Power of the Pouch.” It is just a tiny sack that gives your player a speed boost. There’s no explanation behind this.
The rituals are a little silly, but they show an attention to detail worth admiring. Baseball is by far the most superstitious sport in the U.S., and it always has been. A campy item system that tips a cap at 150 years of tradition works in “MLB 15.”
The equipment boosts, coupled with the simplified hitting, makes this the easiest “The Show” in five or six years. If you’ve been frustrated by the difficulty of past iterations, grab a friend and channel the optimism of Chicago Cubs fans: This is our year.
Year-to-year save function is a critical piece
“MLB 14 The Show” players can migrate their franchise mode teams and Road to the Show players to “MLB 15.”
This is an absolute no-brainer feature — especially for a baseball game. It can take two or three full seasons to grind your player up to the big leagues, so having to restart that process can be daunting for casual players.
I’m glad Sony San Diego took this simple step. The most obvious features are often neglected in annual video game franchises.