Baseball has something of a low profile in New Zealand. While Rugby and Cricket totally dominate it for mindshare, the sport doesn’t even make it to Wikipedia’s list of sports played here - while something called Kabaddi does. Chances are, if you’re a fan, video games and internet streams are about as close as you’re going to get to America’s “national pastime”.
Enter MLB The Show 19 - the latest officially licensed Major League Baseball (hence, MLB) video game and the fourteenth from series-veterans (and Sony-owned) San Diego Studio. It’s got all the usual things you’d expect from a licensed sports game, including likenesses of various players and teams, and more modes than you can shake a stick at.
If you’ve never played a baseball game before and aren’t familiar with the sport, MLB The Show 19 is probably not the best place to start. That's not because it’s bad (spoiler: it’s good), but because it doesn’t set out to explain the sport; rather, this is one of those “for the fans” titles that assumes you know your way around the game and the various American teams and leagues it simulates.
Veterans of the series will notice a few new things, including “Moments” and “March to October” game modes. In Moments you can “relive or rewrite” key moments in history, either experiencing things you’ve only seen in black and white or swapping players around to find out what would have happened in an alternate reality version of that famous game everyone remembers fondly.
March to October is a really exciting experience in which you’re charged with taking the reins of your favourite team as they head towards the crunchy end of the season. Rather than make you play all the games, however, the game drops you in for key moments only - and how you perform will influence how the game simulates the bits in between, during which you can only watch as your team sails towards (or away from) playoff contention. It’s crazy-tense, especially as a Dodgers fan (which I am), as the weight of expectation bears down upon your every swing or pitch.
The rest of the game is what you’d expect really; there’s lots of content here and you can tackle a detailed career mode, play through a season using real (or imagined) stats, and simulate or tweak whatever aspects you’d like, in order to get the experience you’re looking for.
I, for example, really like the twitchy feel of batting; no matter how good I get, I still strike out, miss clutch hitting opportunities, and demonstrate the kind of technique that can only be described as deserving of the dismissive commentary it generates. Tension really increases the chances you’ll mess it up, too, and getting lambasted by a commentator really stings when you know they’re right.
At the same time, I don’t really care for manual pitching, so I leave it set to a relatively “point and shoot mode” that leaves me in charge of strategy but doesn’t remotely tax my twitches. As for fielding and base-running? I’m too old for that, so my PlayStation handles that for me. This level of customisation is extremely welcome, and tinkering with the options reassured me that each was well thought out - there’s no obvious clunkers amongst them, that I could see.
Visually it’s an interesting combination of flashy graphics, rich animation, and very clean presentation. It’s almost too crisp; lines are straight, textures are washed out by the California sun, and it all feels… oddly clinical. Interestingly, I found things took a turn for the more realistic when I was streaming the game to my iPad; the slight blur and tweaked colours made things much more realistic than they are on my regular screen.
Animation is also an interesting combination; key characters from the actual MLB are instantly recognisable by the way that the move and yet… you can frequently spot transitions between animations and the game regularly stumbles head-first into the uncanny valley.
Still, there were several occasions on which I found myself unsure if what I was watching was footage of the real sport or an in-game sequence; particularly during the career mode’s excellent interstitials and colour animations. In general, the game’s presentation - of which the visuals are just a part - is excellent, with a good combination of commentary, music, and incidental audio that gives it realistic atmosphere 95% of the time.
One thing that did give me pause is the in-your-face integration of purchasable, collectable trading cards that you can use in Diamond Dynasty mode or sell to other players via the in-game trading hub. Access to these cards comes by playing the game or by purchasing with actual cash - and boy, the purchasing can get very, very expensive. Single packets of just a few random cards can cost up to $30 and individual cards can be seen for sale on the market place for far in excess of $150 each.
Access to these various storefronts are encouraged, too, with many high-profile interface buttons taking your right to the money-insertion-slot. Purchasing them isn’t required, and you otherwise earn cards at a reasonable rate, but seeing packs of virtual currency available in units of up to $160 still gives me an uncomfortable feeling and the draw of collectable trading cards - much as it is for me in real life - is undeniable.
If you’re craving for a fix or just want to show what your team is really capable of (that’s not my reason for playing - my Dodgers are more than capable of doing that without me), MLB The Show 19 is a pretty sweet way of getting the job done. It’s not perfect but there’s lots of it and it’s a lot of fun to play, especially when the pressure is on and that next swing (or pitch) could make or break your season.