Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend a special preview of MLB 14: The Show on PS4.
Despite the event being deep in the heart of the Sony, it felt anything but corporate. Instead, the morning felt more like hanging out with a bunch of baseball fans, including Ramone Russell, talking sports and video games. We discussed everything from the MLB replay system to NFL 2K5, all while playing the next-gen version of everyone’s favorite baseball game.
In fact, playing is what we did for the majority of the event. My goal was to experience the game as a whole, and not to dig into specific portions of the game. I didn’t visit every stadium (in fact, they weren’t all available in the current build) or dissect individual player models. Only exhibition and head-to-head modes were available. This objective colors the below observations which, again, are rather big picture.
Same Game, New Look
One of the first things I’d like to emphasize is that this is still MLB 14: The Show. And that’s a good thing.
When you purchase The Show on PS4, you are getting a feature complete version of the title, with everything you’d get on the PS3 and the Vita. This is important, and seemed to be a core goal of the development team.
That said, don’t expect radical changes to gameplay or presentation. Audio, commentary, and replay pacakges are the same. For those of you who’ve played The Show for years, you’ll feel right at home. There’s not one huge gameplay improvement, like jump the running game took in Madden 25. Rather, there are a number of small enhancements, most visual, that lead to a game that feels the same but looks a lot better.
For me, the most noticeable change was the lighting, which dramatically improves how realistic games look. This is especially apparent during night games, which no longer look washed out; instead, colors and highlights really pop, just as if you watch a night game on television. For those games starting before dark, the dusky sky looks amazing.
The lighting improvements extends to surfaces as well, which now reflect light at different levels and consistencies. Leather has a subtle shine, grass casts its own shadow, and skin looks appropriately “fleshy.” Helmets have real-time reflections that look great, and uniforms contain VERY detailed stitching and fabric textures that are visible during normal gameplay. All of these changes are pretty minute, but when taken as a whole, really change how incredibly realistic MLB: The Show looks.
Again, the PS4 version of the show plays very similarly to the PS3 version; however, that doesn’t mean everything is the same. A slew of new animations help differentiate the two titles, taking advantage of the increase in hardware capability.
One of the first things I noticed were the flags in the outfield. Instead of hanging limply on the poles, they were fully animated, whipping in the LA wind at Dodger Stadium. When I asked, Ramone told me that the flags do respond to the actual wind present in the game.
Ramone also pointed out dirt clumps at the plate, which instead of being a canned animation, are now physical properties. I noticed a bit of this in the infield as well.
There are some PS4 specific animations as well, though the only one pointed out to me during gameplay was a Japan-style slap swing. This animation looked really good, especially given the context of the pitch and the trajectory of the ball.
I also saw some nice physics work on balls put into play. I witnessed some really interesting interactions between the ball and the edge of the grass that I don’t recall seeing before. When my batter drove the ball straight down in front of the plate, it “caught” the edge of the infield grass and carromed up realistically, instead of out toward the pitcher. One of the other reporters relayed an instance of a ball skirting the third-base line, hitting the edge of the grass, and then dribbling harmlessly foul. If these types of physical responses were present in the PS3 version, they aren’t quite as noticeable or as frequent; that said, they weren’t overdone in the PS4 version.
While we didn’t get to explore every stadium, I did get to see about ten parks in various capacities, from quick looks at graphical features to hosting a full game. Parks that stood out to me as being really well-made included Camden Yards, AT&T Park, Fenway, Wrigley, and the aforementioned Dodger Stadium. Again, these stadiums are being rebuilt entirely, so not all were in playable form.
Like many areas of the game, aspects of the stadiums have been improved to look remarkably better. From the flags to textures, each park I played in had noticeable improvements. Ramone pointed out how certain aspects, like individual cameras in the camera wells, weren’t possible using last-gen hardware. When looking at a side-by-side comparison, its hard not to notice how barren and flat some areas were on the PS3. These spots are now textured and “filled in” with odds and ends you’d really find at those parks.
For instance, the scoreboard in Fenway now has multiple textures and looks less like one flat object and more like a conglomeration of metal, wood, and numbers. In fact, dents from hits are readily apparent (though I’m not sure that they are dynamic).
One can’t mention improvements to the stadium without talking about the crowds, which look really good. For one, you won’t see multiple “clones” of the same character moving in tandem in the same section. I tried hard to find sets of similar fans (which I feel are apparent in nearly every sports game), but I didn’t spot any, even when the camera panned over large sections of the crowd.
Moreover, the individual fans are quite varied. There are tons of different pieces of apparel for each team’s fans, which really helps differentiate the masses. I also noticed a lot of kids in the stands. What I didn’t see, and this is doesn’t scientifically rule out their existence, are the guys who walk to the bottom of the stairs, turn around, and walk back up for no apparent reason. I did see a lot of people moving, but I didn’t ever catch those aimless walkers --which are easy to spot in the PS3 version.
One thing about the crowd, and humans in particular in this game: they are quickly approaching Uncanny Valley. That’s not to say that they don’t look good; in fact, I’d wager that the player models are as good as any found in sports games today. However, there’s something just a little off when watching the crowd or the facial expressions of the players. I don’t feel this is Sony’s fault or even their problem exclusively; just be ready for the occasional jarring stare or body movement. Just as it took computer animation a long time to make realistic looking people (think the original Toy Story or The Polar Express), these models aren’t quite fooling us into believing that they are actual people -- yet. Again, I would place these models ahead of those in Madden 25, FIFA 14, or even NBA 2K14.
Since my time was spent playing games and not dissecting them, I should emphasize that MLB 14: The Show on PS4 was a blast to play. All of the improvements from the PS3 version, including the new dynamic cameras, work here as well. With all of the visual improvements, it feels like playing the older game while wearing a new pair of glasses. Everything looks better, but no aspect of gameplay seems to have been sacrificed to achieve this new visual standard. I didn’t see any red flags that would lead me to believe this game will be a better looking but subpar sports title.
If the final judgement of a game lies with its ability to entertain, MLB 14: The Show on PS4 should pass with flying, well lit, and realistically textured colors.
(Disclosure: Sony paid Caley's travel costs to the preview event. While this did not influence Caley's opinion on the game, we feel it's always prudent to let our readers know about these things as they read our opinions.)