With 2K Sports throwing in the towel back in 2013 and R.B.I. Baseball failing to deliver (it didn’t even make it to the UK), the Xbox One has been painfully short in the baseball department since launch and with MLB: The Show continuing to deliver one of the finest sporting games on the market, it seemed for the longest time that baseball fans had no choice but to go with Sony’s baseball friendly, PS4. While I won’t go as far as to say that Super Mega Baseball: Extra Innings has turned the tide (it has been available on PS4 for nearly a year after all), it does provide a genuine and surprisingly deep alternative to the more simulation-based Sony franchise.
Before Xbox One owning baseball fans go running for the celebratory champagne though, they do need to ask themselves one very important question – how important are graphics to you? It’s a question that is asked often in our industry, but one that is often geared too heavily towards the technical aspects of visual design. More often than not, it’s the art design rather than the technical specifications that ultimately make all the difference – as they do here. I like to think that we are a long way beyond polygon counting, and if nothing else, games such as this certainly suggest that we should be. Super Mega Baseball is graphically sound on a technical level – its light-hearted, arcade-inspired take on the sport certainly gets things right tonally (photo-realistic visuals ala MLB: The Show would look wholly out of place here) – problem is, while the visuals are fine from a technical perspective, I really do dislike them from an artistic standpoint…..and when I say dislike, what I really mean is hate. In fairness, the themed stadiums actually look pretty cool, but man, I sure do ‘dislike’ the character design.
That might seem like an odd way to start a review for a baseball game, but honestly, it’s something that I had to get over. Others might like the art design, and again, from a technical perspective, the game has no issues, it’s just that, God, those characters sure are ugly. Other than the God-awful character design though, Super Mega Baseball is an unquestionably fantastic game. There hasn’t been a genuinely great arcade-style baseball game for years and despite MLB: The Show’s on-going stranglehold on the simulation side of things, there has been very little for casual fans such as myself to latch onto since the solid but ultimately rather mediocre, The Bigs series from a few years back.
So, horrible character design aside, Super Mega Baseball is ace, and for all of my criticism, I did get over the odd Muppet-ish look of the players relatively quickly and simply got on with enjoying what is a fundamentally fantastic take on the sport. The fact is, there is far too much good here to get caught up with one issue that is based almost entirely upon personal taste.
The controls are basic but nuanced with enough leeway to give beginners a chance while offering plenty of subtle depth to give fans reason enough to keep coming back to the plate. The pitching in particular, although similar to other baseball games out there, is consistently brilliant. It’s fundamentally simplistic with pitch types selected via a flick of the analogue stick and aiming based around a combination of careful manipulation and good timing, but it hides a huge amount of depth with extended play revealing a system that is ultimately easy to pick-up but very difficult to master. Despite the fundamental simplicity of the pitching mechanics, to get consistently impressive pitching figures, you’re going to have to put the ball right in the corner of the hit box and, while this is far from impossible to achieve, is certainly something that takes practice if you plan on doing so on a regular basis.
The batting is also relatively simple in terms of basic mechanics, but much like the pitching, requires plenty of practice for those looking to get their timing down. Contact isn’t hard to come by (well, not too hard anyway), but if you plan on racking up base hits and home runs, you’re going to need to put in a little time and choose carefully between standard strikes and power shots. Like the pitching, it all feels perfectly balanced and brilliantly intuitive. It’s the kind of simple success that raises the question of why more games haven’t got it right in the past.
The fielding is a little more awkward with fielder movement slowed down considerably to compensate for the smaller fields and the unique pace of the game. It’s far from game breaking and if anything, is the most simplified aspect of the entire experience, but diving and even standard movements do feel somewhat cumbersome. The physics and ball movement are actually of a considerably high standard (making these minor issues that much easier to ignore), but when it comes to plucking the ball out of the air, things can quickly become annoyingly fiddly. In fairness, the game is built in such a way that problems with the fielding (if you could even call them problems) feel largely insignificant due to the obvious emphasis on batting and pitching, but still, other than those odd character models, this is arguably the games’ only other issue of note.
Despite its simplified core mechanics, this rarely feels like an overtly simplistic game thanks to an array of small but significant touches that ensure games remain tense and that the experience doesn’t lose its charm after the first few games. The ‘Mojo’ system ensures that any two individual encounters are rarely the same while an array of additional variables that can effect a specific player’s performance thanks to issues such as pressure and confidence mean that each pitch and swing of the bat feel like compelling events in their own right. These mood swings (no pun intended) and variable degrees of confidence also help to give each player their own unique personality that, despite my issues with the art design, are assisted by the unquestionably unique character models. They might not be to my taste, but there is certainly something to be said for easily identifiable characters, characters that feel increasingly individual when you take in to consideration their unique attributes and character traits. It’s something you rarely find in sports games, but something that has been achieved with a great deal of success here.
It might not have a ton of content, it’s still lacking online play of any kind and the fact that there are only a handful of stadiums to choose from will certainly be an issue for some, but what is here is almost universally fantastic with the brilliant fundamentals combining beautifully with an array of minor but nearly always effective details to create what is a polished and incredibly likeable sports game. The visuals might not be to my taste, but I tell you this much, ugly or not, after half a season, I know and care about just about every player on my team. Edited or not, there is just something about this game that compels you to invest in your team and their on-going success. It might the lack licensing or additional content found in other sports games, but make no mistake, the biggest games in the industry (and that includes MLB: The Show) could certainly learn a lot from this humble, fun and extremely addictive take on America’s favourite pastime.
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