He is as old and heavy as a Zenith console TV, and only slightly more mobile. Still, over the past eight years, I’ve never seen David Ortiz, the Red Sox’ 39-year-old designated hitter, run to first base at anything less than full speed, with all of his natural god-given ability.
Well, on the PlayStation, that is.
For a sports video game that fetishizes detail and prides itself on pointilistic accuracy like no other, Sony’s MLB The Show series has never shown hitters — Ortiz definitely among them — performing one of the most common acts of baseball: dogging it to first base on a routine groundout.
That’s going to change with MLB 15 The Show, coming out on Tuesday.
“In the game, as soon as he looks at the fielder and sees that he’s made the play, he throttles down,” Ramone Russell the longtime designer and community go-to-guy for MLB The Show, told me. “If it’s a harder hit ball and he doesn’t know if the guy’s gonna get it, he’s gonna bust it out. But it’s not like, every single time, the guy is gonna bust it down the first baseline.”
“Authentic half-assing it to first base” is hardly what I’d give to a marketing team looking for back-of-box bullet points. But the fact MLB 15 The Show, which launches Tuesday, has time to put this into the game speaks to the series’ overall quality, and the things it has time to refine one year after a successful — if harrowing — debut on the PlayStation 4
“That cycle [last year] really killed us,” Russell admitted. “We just wanted to get the game out with all the features it had on PlayStation 3 also there on PlayStation 4. The fact we did it, I’m still kind of shocked.”
Last year, MLB 14 The Show pushed through big changes, particularly in helping players finish the longest season in professional sports without feeling shortchanged by simulating large chunks of the season. This year, while Russell and Sony are touting a comprehensively different game, it figures that will become apparent only over the longer term.
Baserunning is an example. Let’s face it, nobody goes to first like Pete Rose on every ground ball. The fact The Show did, even with players like Ortiz, turned many routine throws a white-knuckle affair. In a single instance, this is no big deal, but baseball — with its 162-game schedule — a large sample size can create trends that greatly diverge from reality. MLB 15 The Show hopes to clean that up.
More importantly, players should see a different game because of this, Russell says.
“It allows us to display way more animations that have been in the game but have never played before,” Russell added, “because when everyone is running every ground ball at full speed, you only see that sped-up animation at the end that gets the guy out.”
In core gameplay, one of MLB The Show’s biggest struggles over the years has been in creating a fielding setup where big plays were legitimately challenging, without making routine ones unfairly hard. Computer-controlled fielders have always known exactly where to run once a ball was in the air, so whether they caught it depended on whether a player was fast enough to get there before it landed. This would be true even if you stuck Ortiz in center field.
Now, a computer-controlled player’s fielding rating will inform the route he takes to a ball in flight, theoretically leading to more misplays in the outfield, and the extra bases that come from them. This helps human batters against a CPU opponent; it also puts human pitchers with CPU-controlled fielders on notice in the Road to the Show career mode.
“We were hearing complaints all the time that the computer fielders were always psychic,” Russell said. “Even if it was hit all the way to the wall, they’d park right where it lands, because the computer would always take the X and Y axis to the ball.
On the flip side, computer-assisted outfielders are going to have a harder time running down fly balls. This is a big deal for those who play as a pitcher in the Road to the Show career mode, where all of your teammates are controlled by the computer. In the past, once a ball was in the air, the computer would run the fielder to its projected landing spot. Whether he made the catch would depend largely on his speed rating. MLB 15 The Show will make fielders take different routes to the ball, dependent on their ability and reputations as fielders.
This is key because MLB The Show, of the major licensed sports simulations, has probably the weakest presentation. That’s the suite of commentary, graphics and replays that make you feel like you’re watching a game on regular television. The Show has best-in-class visuals and as such has been content to rely on what its cameras are already showing for its broadcast fidelity, and the game reacts to that. But if big plays become routine because of overpowered fielders, the game is then boring on two levels.
MLB 15 The Show‘s simulated telecast probably won’t make things more interesting — I still recommend just turning off the commentary — but a “radio show” that airs after all of a day’s games have finished in the career mode should connect players more to the story of the fictitious seasons they’re playing out.
“What we heard was, in Road to the Show and Franchise (the two most popular career modes) was that people knew what was going on with their player and their team, but they were out of the loop with the rest of the league,” Russell said. “There was nothing to let me know what was going on elsewhere in the league. If Miguel Cabrera hit his 500th career home run, the only way you’d know that is if I’m in that game.
“Now, after you simulate a complete day, [the radio show] will kick off,” recapping what happened that day, Russell said. “This pitcher got the win, this one the loss and the save. None of the lines are baked in. If someone throws a perfectgame, they’ll talk about that. If a closing pitcher got his 50th save, they’ll tak about that. If someone’s three games back in the division, you’ll hear that.”
If nothing else, this sounds like a great replacement for the obligatory soundtracks sports video games have offered. After a week of menu management, the earworms these songs create are insufferable. Russell said an audio show offered a unique advantage to MLB The Show because players could still do work in the game’s menus, where a video recap or other highlight feature would require a player to sit there and watch it, or button out of it.
Another feature that’s hard to sell: Authentic sunshine. Really. Shadows in April will be different from shadows in the fall. Importing Google Earth data for the sun’s position means more than just watching long shadows spread on the field at AT&T Park in the late summer. It means 11 a.m. start times are now available, of particular relevance to Red Sox fans who observe Patriots Day on April 20.
“Because we’re an iterative franchise, we have a 2-, 3-, or 5-year road map,” Russell said. Last year, The Show rebuilt all of the stadiums in the game — a huge undertaking, especially considering how the unique dimensions of a baseball park affect play more than any other sport. Without that in place, the more exact day-night modeling wouldn’t have as much meaning.
And it is a true day-night cycle, Russell told me. “If you begin a late-night game, and go some crazy number of innings, it is possible for you to see the sun rise in this game.”
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.