Like so many things in life, baseball is a game that becomes more interesting the more you know about it. Newbies to the ballpark often find the game slow and boring, but once you learn to spot baseball’s elegant structure and subtleties, it’s all over: You’ve got a lifelong obsession on your hands.
These days, you can make a strong case that the best way to learn about baseball – aside from actually playing it, I suppose – is via the high-end video game sports simulator. In recent years, sports video games have made interactive challenges out of all facets of the sport – from the on-field action to the dugout strategies to the backroom deals.
To wit: Sony’s long-running baseball franchise returns this year with “MLB 14: The Show,” the ninth title in the series and the first to be made available on the super-powered PlayStation 4. Not much has changed in terms of gameplay in this latest iteration, but if you’ve upgraded to PS4, be prepared for a huge leap in visuals and sound. (PS3 users can still get the full gameplay experience on the older console.)
Now that 2K Sports has discontinued its competing franchise, “The Show” is the only game in town for hardcore baseball sim action. The lack of competition hasn’t shown any effects yet. The latest version retains the game’s main strengths, plus the most popular incremental upgrades from the last few years.
Customize your game
If you want to jump right into the action, “The Show” makes it easy to set up local or online multiplayer games within seconds. Select your team from the major or minor leagues, tweak your roster, choose a stadium, and play ball. Returning players will find that the control scheme is virtually identical to past versions of the game, through a few of the buttons have been remapped to accommodate the new PS4 controller.
Where “The Show” really excels, though, is in the level of customization you can apply from here. If the game seems too hard, you have literally hundreds of options, tweaks and difficulty sliders to adjust your experience. You can fine-tune the controls for all aspects of the on-field game: pitching, hitting, fielding, throwing and base running.
Dial everything down, and the computer will manage pretty much everything except hitting the ball. Dial the difficulty up, and you’ll choose every pitch, every location, every defensive alignment, etc.
The game’s most popular option, for solo play, is the “Road to the Show” mode, in which you create a brand new player and take him all the way from draft day through the minor leagues and into the majors. Actually, the game has added a new twist this year – a three-game showcase before you sign your deal that will actually determine your position on draft day.
Another small but clever upgrade this year is the “quick counts” feature, which speeds up gameplay by putting you deep into the count before you take your first swing. Pitcher-versus-batter showdowns are part of baseball’s unique appeal, but they can easily turn a quick half-hour game into a two-hour marathon.
Update stats, rosters online
As long as your console is Internet-connected, “The Show” continually updates team rosters and statistics, so you can keep tabs on your favorite teams from within the game. My 11-year-old son does just that, actually, pretty much every day. When I was his age, I clipped box scores from the newspaper, but clearly times have changed.
In fact, my son has learned most of the nerdy, stat-head parts of baseball from fiddling around on the PlayStation, and has brought that knowledge with him to the actual Little League fields. It’s nice to see, and makes me feel less guilty about all that screen time.
My advice to parents: If you want to turn your kids on to the noble game of baseball … take them to a ballpark. But after that, buy them “MLB 14: The Show” and cut ’em loose.
“MLB 14: The Show” is now available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Vita.
New this week: Mixed martial arts with “EA Sports UFC” and draconian adventures with the movie tie-in title “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”