Why the Best Action RPG is a Sports Videogame

Bill Loguidice's picture

As I sidled up to the sofa for yet another hour of Sony's MLB 14: The Show for the PlayStation 4 yesterday, it dawned on me how, despite the obvious sports trappings, it really is the ultimate action Role-playing Game (RPG), setting a standard that the more typical fantasy-themed games in the genre would do well to emulate. Now, don't get me wrong, for the most part, MLB 14 is a standard sports videogame, one obviously themed to the well worn game of professional baseball. However, it does have among its cavalcade of modes, Road to the Show, which is as much of an RPG as any RPG that ever RPG'd (or something like that).

Road to the Show lets you create a baseball player from scratch. You have a pool of stats to distribute over a wide range of abilities (hitting, throwing, running, fielding, etc.), determine physical characteristics, design the player's features, determine preferred position, decide on the player's age, etc. In short, you can mould exactly the type of character you want to play, albeit only a male one (you can thank Major League Baseball for that particular restriction), right down to the name, which can even be spoken by the announcer who calls the games if you choose something common enough (my first name was there, "Bill," but not my last, so I chose a nickname of "Train," as in, "freight train - look out!," for my last name (don't judge me!)). (Read more)

Once your character is created, it's time to see who drafts you (though you can also force being selected by a particular organization). I forget how it works at the beginning, but more or less once you play a showcase game or two, you start at a low level in the organization's minor leagues, then - and this is where the experience truly begins - try to improve over time and work your way to the high minors and finally, assuming all things go well, the major leagues. Once in the majors, it's not only your mission to keep your job at the highest level of the sport, but also to eventually reach the hall of fame. Otherwise, it's knock around the majors (or minors) as a middling (or worse) player until you inevitably decide to retire and try your fortunes as someone else.

What's particularly fun is that you can just play the moments that your player is involved in. Let's face it, baseball is a long, sometimes tedious game, and having to play all of the positions on a team can be a drag, particularly if you're trying to play through entire seasons of 162 games (plus Spring Training, playoffs, etc.). What's nice about this feature is that you just skip to the good parts, i.e., anything that directly involves your player. For instance, I'm an outfielder, so, unless a ball is going to be hit in my general direction, I'm not actively playing the game, it's instead being quickly simulated. Of course, if I'm up at bat or used as a pinch runner, for instance, I get to play that. Naturally, if you're an infielder and especially a catcher, you're going to be involved in pretty much every play of every game you're involved in, so keep that in mind when choosing. As a starting pitcher, you'll probably pitch every fifth game, unless of course you're a reliever, where you'll then get a chance to play more regularly, though for limited innings.

Anyway, as an outfielder, I get maybe half a dozen chances to catch or go after a ball a game. As a power hitter for most of my career to this point, I'm in the middle of the line-up, so I generally get four to five at bats per game. This means that I can play an average full game (again, just the moments that I'm directly involved in) in about 10 minutes. That means in my average play sessions of an hour or two every day or so, I can get in five or more games each day. The only thing slowing things down a bit are the load times, which are rather tedious even on the PlayStation 4, and the fact that you'll occasionally want to take batting practice before a game starts to get used to the nuances of the ballpark (lighting, coloring, distances to walls, etc.) you'll be playing in that day.

Each action performed in-game is judged on the spot. For instance, if I strike out on three pitches, I lose experience points. If I instead hit a long line drive that finds a gap and I end up on second base, I gain experience points. In fact, it can even be more nuanced than that. If I successfully steal a base, I gain experience points. However, if my jump off the base is poor, I get a few points docked even if my steal is successful. Same thing with catching the ball. If a ball is hit my way and I get a poor jump on it but still catch the ball, I'll get fewer points than if I both anticipated correctly and caught the ball. Of course, you're also judged on making smart baseball decisions, like tagging up on a fly ball or throwing to the correct base to head off a runner's advance. It's a wonderful, nuanced experience, and completely transparent. You quickly learn why you are or aren't improving.

After each game, even if you generally do poorly, you'll gain points that can be applied to improving your stats. Wise application can mean the difference between turning your player into a superstar (assuming you play well enough with the controller, though of course you can simulate EVERYTHING and just work with stats, but to me that takes the fun out of it) or someone who is not particularly good at anything. In my case, for my player, I primarily focused on hitting and power. I'm a poor fielder who frequently makes errors, but I decided to prioritize hitting in my early career (I'm presently only age 19 in-game) since I felt that would be my quickest ticket to the big leagues. I did well in single A, then triple A, then had a brief appearance in the majors before I was sent back down to the minors for poor performance. I worked my way back up the same season and am presently getting myself on track to stay for what should (hopefully) be the remainder of my career.

What's nice is not only is there the in-game stuff and then the post-game stats, but there are times when normal baseball things happen. Some of these you can influence, like requesting being moved up in the batting order, changing position, or being traded. The club won't necessarily agree to any of these. Some of those actions will also happen automatically at the club's discretion. The whole time you can also see your relative performance, ranking, club opinion (failing expectations, meeting expectations, etc.), etc., against other players in your organization and elsewhere. What's nice is that as a baseball game, tons of stats are tracked and suitably simulated. There are also the occasional "training missions" where an opportunity between games presents itself where you can, for example, test your "bat control" ability, and can earn a gold, silver, or bronze medal (or nothing) and additional experience points if you do well.

Naturally, there's a lot more to it, but even just what I've already discussed is enough to classify it as an RPG. If you take the comparison a bit further, however, you can consider your team as your adventuring party. You don't (and can't) do everything by yourself. You have to rely on your teammates to move you up a base, pitch a good game, hit well around you, etc. In turn, you will inevitably be in control of key game-changing events. Are you up at bat with runners on second and third and one out, down one run? In that scenario, if you hit into a double play, your team may end up losing the game. If you hit a sacrifice fly and tie the game, you might get your team into extra innings, where anything could happen. If you get a solid base hit, both runs are likely to score, and you may in fact have just won the game for your team (the same thing applies in the field of course--bobble a ball and let some runs score that shouldn't have and you may have just helped your team lose!). Do this over enough games and you can in fact have a genuine influence on whether or not your team reaches the playoffs, and maybe, ultimately, the World Series.

Of course, there are personal milestones, all of which are tracked. For instance, hit 20 home runs in a season, that's tracked and noted. Hit 80 home runs in a season and that's similarly tracked and noted, but also compared against the all-time record. Hit enough home runs over a career (again, just one example), and you can make it into the hall of fame. In short, you can think of each game played as a mini-mission, each season as a campaign, and entering the hall of fame as the end game (the fantasy equivalent of killing the big bad or getting the crown). Even though there's some repetition, each and every game has spoken, real-time commentary from a two man booth, and they'll often reference previous games, present performances, future projections, etc., giving further life to the proceedings. Take that, generic fantasy RPG (of course, on the downside of the in-game audio are the atrocious musical interludes on the loading and menu screens and certain other situations - a mish-mosh of a meager selection of driving modern music that gets repetitive way too fast)!

Not only are single seasons simulated, but so are multiple seasons. Your player and the players around you will age (eventually your skills decline due to age). A league filled with real life players over time will similarly age, get hurt, get traded, retire, etc. Even you can get hurt and not be able to play; of course, that's also another stat you can improve.

Even if you don't necessarily like baseball, I'm sure there are elements of the game you would enjoy if you have the right mindset going in, carefully choosing your position, how you tweak the in-game settings, etc., which will go a long way towards increasing that enjoyment. There are a ton of different options for hitting, throwing, running, etc., from standard button-based controls, to analog controls, and even motion controls. I prefer the button-based controls and like timing-based hitting and more simplified fielding and running (stealing a base is a game in and of itself). For me, it's the right mix of challenge/success.

Take away the "sports ball" theme, and you have the foundation of a stunning action RPG that could be set in the usual fantasy or science fiction world. It's really striking how much those types of games could learn from the type of deep, fulfilling experience a game like MLB 14 offers. It's also important to note that MLB 14 is more or less the same game as past entries in the series (so you could just as easily check one of those out on any of the other Sony platforms), albeit with the usual audio-visual improvements and minor gameplay tweaks, so this model has been present for a number of years now. If we could have the non-sports equivalent of this, I think we'd have an all-time classic on our hands. In the mean-time, I'll likely be putting dozens more hours into "Bill Train," semi-struggling left fielder for the Boston Red Sox on my mission to level up, get some big-time trophies, and eventually become an in-game legend.

Comments

Michel Medina (not verified)
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