March 12, 2013
Painting the Black
MLB The Show 13's tagline boasts that the game is, "So real it's unreal." How real is it? So real Aaron Hill holds his hands at helmet-level; so real Luke Scott resembles a Civil War re-enactor; so real Nike's swoosh receives prominent placement on players' undershirts (for realism's sake, of course); and so real that, at its best, it blurs the line between playing and watching a game.
Part of The Show's charm is capturing nuance. While replicating every player's stance and delivery is an impossible task, The Show does get many right. Anthony Rizzo holds his bat at his belly and wiggles it around while Fernando Rodney shows a minimal leg lift before delivering the ball. There's an added layer of realism involved as pitchers pronate their arms and batters roll their wrists during swings; necessary actions in real life yet ignorable within the friendly confines of a game. Replay functions have been in sports video games for years now to varying degrees of use. The Show gives you reason to examine the finer details—from pitch grips to crow hops—because the level of care is evident.
The dedication to realism goes beyond cosmetics. MLB.com provided the developers with real-world spray charts. The result is a gameplay experience that sees extreme pull hitters treated with virtual shifts. You're still not managing against Joe Maddon here, but it's one of those things that's easy to see and easier to overlook. Then there's the franchise mode. The addition of a top-50 prospect icon is a nice touch, though the real upgrades are in the form of revamped postseason and scouting experiences. Thanks to new sounds and sights the postseason feels like the postseason.
Scouting has undertaken a different feel as well. You get to hire, fire, and assign scouts based on different criteria. Every team has a list of the upcoming drafts' blue chippers available to them, but reports o>n other players are only available with careful scouting. There's even the ability to craft an organizational philosophy available here, as you can tell your scouts which attributes to focus on. This means disgruntled Twins fans can have their virtual scouting staff eschew command for movement or velocity in their pitchers. It's a nice touch, and a step in the right direction toward recognizing the importance of scouts in any organization.
There are two more features worth mentioning. One is The Show Live, which promises up-to-date rosters and the ability to play any regular season matchup. The other is how players' Twitter feeds are incorporated into the game, either on a team-level or on each player card. Right now it seems to be hit or miss on whether players' feeds are included. David Price's, for instance, is in there, but Jose Molina's is not. It's unclear whether the game will continue to add feeds as the season winds on or whether the focus is on the top players (or tweeters) rather than depth.
Yet in a sea of realism the unrealistic aspects stick out like navigational buoys. The game's commentary crew, now with Steve Lyons instead of series staple Dave Campbell, provides wanting analysis and insight. There are amusing moments on occasion (Matt Vasgersian saying "Jeff Francoeur draws a rare walk," for instance) but too often the commentary is stifled or nonexistent. Perhaps part of the problem stems from the group not being a true-to-life combination. Or maybe it has to do with the recording or writing process itself. Whatever the cause, it's hard to consider the announcing a plus.
Likewise the ratings are at best inconsistent and at worst a mess. Adrian Beltre is rated as the best defensive big-league third baseman in the game. Fair. Michael Young is the second-best. Foul. Similar moments of cognitive dissonance are easy to spot, even with things less difficult to quantify than defense—like clutchness. Somehow Eduardo Nunez receives a higher clutch score than Derek Jeter and many star-quality players; Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp aren't considered good basestealers; and Jason Bourgeois has a higher overall rating than Matt Joyce. This is nitpicking but these ratings matter. There is a human element involved, of course, however the ratings play into the game's probabilities. Besides, it's hard to take the game's commitment to realism seriously when it holds such unrealistic opinions of players' attributes.
Even with some blemishes The Show is a worthy purchase that shows creativity in how it adheres to realism. The question facing the developers heading forward is how far into Wonkland they are willing to travel. Will they build upon the idea of managing scouts and allow you to build a cabal of quants? Will they continue with the spray-chart data and implement things like platoon and batted-ball splits? And what about using actual stats to determine how the virtual skippers manage or how pitchers and hitters attack at-bats? There's a whole world of possibilities out there. The Show just has to figure out much of it they're willing to encapsulate.