Category Archives: Sports

A Week With the WWE Network

sg-ntwk_sizzle_today_revIt’s been a long road for World Wrestling Entertainment to launch its own network.  As early as September 2011, the WWE was teasing the network to its fans.  Once the calendar flipped from 2011 to 2012, WWE was ready to announce that its own network would launch by year’s end.  2012 came and went, with nary a word spoken about the network.  Fans were left to wonder if the network would go the way of GTV and vanish from thought.  After all, no one even knew what the WWE was trying to do with its own network.  Was it to be a premium cable channel?  An on-demand network?  What kind of content would fill the network?  Did anyone even really want a channel dedicated to wrestling 24/7?

WWE was quiet until late in 2013 when it came to the subject of its seemingly dead-on-arrival network.  And then, like a perfectly executed heal turn, the network was announced to great fanfare.  The long hiatus was put to good use by WWE as nearly every question that could be asked was answered immediately.  The WWE Network would be an on-demand internet channel in the same style as Netflix or Hulu.  For ten dollars a month, fans would receive access to the network and their ten dollars would go a long way:  access to new series, access to every WWF/WWE/WCW/ECW pay-per view, on-demand episodes of Raw, Smackdown, Nitro, Hardcore TV, etc.  And the kicker, every new WWE pay-per view was included live.  That meant that individuals who subscribed in April would get all of the historical content plus Wrestlemania XXX for just ten bucks.  The catch?  Well, the only catch was the announcement that a subscription was a six month commitment making the entry level price sixty bucks for Network access.  As far as catches go, this is a perfectly reasonable one otherwise fans would be constantly signing up and canceling their subscriptions just for ten dollar pay-per views (for those unaware, a WWE PPV usually runs fifty to sixty dollars, with Wrestlemania sometimes going higher).

The WWE Network has a very simple and easy to use interface, though improved search features would be appreciated.

The WWE Network has a very simple and easy to use interface, though improved search features would be appreciated.

This past Monday, the WWE Network was officially launched.  The Network is available on several platforms including PC, Mac, iPod/iPad, smart phones, PS3/PS4, Xbox 360, Roku, and probably some I’m forgetting.  The only notable exclusions right now are Smart TVs (other than Samsung), Nintendo devices, and Xbox One.  Some Smart TVs will receive support this summer, as well as Xbox One, though no word on the Wii U.  Regardless, most households have at least one of those things and should be able to access the WWE Network provided they have a broadband connection.  The first week is free on laptop and desktop devices, but I was intrigued enough to pay the sixty bucks for the six month commitment.  After one week, how do I feel about my purchase?

Initially, a little wary.  Because of the hype, and because of the free access, the servers were absolutely flooded when the Network launched on the 24th of February.  I didn’t have any problems signing up for it (unlike many folks), but when it came time to watch it quickly became obvious that the Network could not meet the demands of wrestling fans.  I first tried watching Wrestlemania XIV on my PS3.  My PS3 is on a wired connection (unlike my PS4, plus I have a remote for the PS3) so it seemed like the best way to view the network.  The PPV started with no problems and I was having a pretty damn good time with it.  The picture, up-converted since it wasn’t originally aired in HD, was sharp.  Best of all, the old WWF logo wasn’t blurred out, nor were Stone Cold Steve Austin’s one-finger salutes.  I was quite impressed and genuinely surprised at how well the experience was going, until I tried to fast-forward.  That’s when everything went to Hell and the PPV endlessly went into a buffering loop until eventually the PPV quit and I was back at the main menu.  Repeated attempts to re-launch the event stalled, and I eventually gave up.

Night two went even worse.  It started off the same, but when trying to launch an event it would only last a few minutes before crapping out.  I tried the Network on my laptop over Wi-fi, just for the Hell of it, and had the same results.  Night three was more of the same as well, and it wasn’t until Thursday that I finally was able to view an entire PPV event.  By then, the interface had been improved slightly by adding chapters to each event, making navigating to a favorite match a lot easier.  And ever since then, everything has been running smooth as silk.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been practically glued to my couch all weekend basking in wrestling nostalgia.  I’ve watched several events at this point, mostly reliving the glory of the Attitude era, but also pausing for some WCW and ECW events.  I made it a point to check out some of the more controversial items to see how WWE handled them, below:

The brief Owen Hart tribute that appears before Over the Edge '99.

The brief Owen Hart tribute that appears before Over the Edge ’99.

Over the Edge 1999 – this is the event made famous for tragic reasons as Owen Hart fell from the rafters and perished in the ring.  The camera did not catch the accident live, but the original broadcast obviously couldn’t ignore it.  WWF chose to continue with the show, but it has never been aired since or released to home video.  The WWE Network version contains a tribute to Owen at the beginning, and all mention of the accident has been cut from the program.  It’s pretty eerie watching the matches that took place after it, as it’s easy to see the concern and dread on some of the wrestlers faces.

Chris Benoit – Benoit is famous for pretty horrific reasons, and ever since he murdered his wife and son in 2007 he has not been mentioned or shown in video by the WWE.  All events that he took place in are here on the Network, uncut.  I heard there was to be a disclaimer before events containing him, but when I watched Wrestlemania XX and ECW One Night Stand there was none.  I though perhaps they would cut some of the praise aimed at Benoit from the announcers or promos, but no alterations appear to have been made.  Benoit and Eddie Guerrero’s past match celebration at the end of Wrestlemania XX is even still intact.

Other censorship – WWE promised there would be no censorship, but there are edits made to some programs.  Brief nudity, such as was the case at Fully Loaded ’98, has been blurred.  Some licensed music tracks have been removed as well, and oddly, some wrestlers have their entrance music changed.  I watched a match between Chris Jericho and Fake Goldberg which took place at WCW Fall Brawl and Jericho’s music had been replaced with his WWF Y2J theme.

In addition to all of the past PPV events, the WWE Network will have original programming as well. Of the ones announced, the Monday Night War has the most potential.

In addition to all of the past PPV events, the WWE Network will have original programming as well. Of the ones announced, the Monday Night War has the most potential.

Currently, there are no episodes of Nitro on the network and the advertised Monday Night Wars program has not been added yet either.  One surprising inclusion so far has been DVD only programs.  Last night I enjoyed watching Stone Cold Steve Austin:  The Bottom Line on The Most Popular Superstar of All Time, the documentary released on home video in 2011.  Either WWE is pulling out all the stops early, or this is a sign that other wrestler documentaries will be added that were previously only available on DVD/Blu Ray.  Other original programs, such as Legends House, have yet to be added but I don’t know if anyone is really looking forward to that one…

The real test for the WWE Network is coming:  Wrestlemania XXX.  Will the servers be able to handle it?  I’m also curious about their plans for the future, as right now all of the press releases for the Network make it a point to say 12 pay-per view events are included.  Does that mean the pay structure will change by this time next year for pay-per view events?  Questions aside, right now I would call the WWE Network a success.  It’s quite possible that after six months I’ll have had my fill, as I’m not huge into the current product, but maybe I’ll be convinced to keep it.  If you’re a long-time fan though, or someone who’s into the current product, this is for you!

For All Mankind: The Life and Career of Mick Foley

For All Mankind:  The Life and Career of Mick Foley (2013)

For All Mankind: The Life and Career of Mick Foley (2013)

A great source of nostalgia for me is the mid to late 90’s wrestling scene.  Any time a DVD or Blu Ray is released high-lighting the career of a popular wrestler from that era it always grabs my attention.  I’m usually able to resist and wait for the price to come down, but every now and then I feel compelled to jump in right form the start and that was the case for me with the latest Mick Foley collection titled For All Mankind:  The Life and Career of Mick Foley.

Foley is the wrestling superstar who was never meant to be a superstar.  Bad-bodied and lacking any sort of flash, Foley seemed destined for mid-card status.  His defining trait was a willingness to sacrifice his body for whatever promotion he happened to be working for in such a way that it made other wrestlers look good.  This lead to the occasional program with some main event types like Sting and Stone Cold Steve Austin, but the glass ceiling was always firmly kept in place.  This changed though in large part to the WWF’s Attitude Era which gave wrestlers the freedom to express themselves to the audience on a more personal level.  The rise of the internet also helped spread the tale of Foley’s hardcore exploits in smaller territories and he fast became a legend amongst the diehard crowd.  As wrestling gained in popularity, the diehard audience became the mainstream crowd and the WWF saw fit to throw Foley a bone in the form of a (brief) reign as WWF Champion.

The story of the unlikely hero rising to the top is a familiar one, but Foley’s always felt special.  A major assist for that goes to Foley’s best-selling autobiography Have A Nice Day! which he wrote without the aid of a ghost writer.  When the book hit newsstands, Foley had already risen to the top so the book can’t take credit for that, but it can take credit for making Foley something more important to me than just another wrestler.  Foley’s writing was both witty and articulate.  He has a natural sense of humor and he comes across as 100% authentic.  He’s not afraid to boast of his good qualities, but he’s also quick to point out when he stinks up a match.  I can see how his willingness to pat himself on the back could rub people the wrong way, but I never found it off-putting.  He takes his job and his legacy seriously and he has a strong opinion of how the business of wrestling should be run.  This did get him into some trouble when he spoke ill of Nature Boy Ric Flair’s booking, but it’s the kind of thing readers are looking for when they buy this type of book.

With his unkempt hair and gap-toothed smile, Mick Foley never really embodied the image of WWF Superstar.

With his unkempt hair and gap-toothed smile, Mick Foley never really embodied the image of WWF Superstar.

Foley’s reputation for being a hardcore legend naturally sparked a great deal of curiosity on the part of wrestling fans who missed out.  A lot of these matches occurred in Japan or smaller promotions in the US which were never commercially released.  Fans were forced to purchase low-quality VHS bootlegs and trade them amongst each other.  As a result, Foley’s career has lent itself well to home video.  For All Mankind is his second major collection released by WWE following the more match-oriented Mick Foley’s Greatest Hits and Misses.  That collection contained a lot of the matches fans really wanted to see.  For All Mankind chooses to focus on Foley’s life and in many ways is like a visual complement to his written autobiographies.  There are matches included as well, but they’re secondary in this case.

I own The Greatest Hits and Misses set so I was more interested in the documentary this time around.  It runs around 2 hours and covers a lot of the same ground the books do but the visuals are a great benefit as some of the wrestlers Foley talks about have been almost forgotten.  It’s certainly familiar territory but the documentary livens things up with interviews from wrestlers past and present as well as some of Foley’s friends and family.  Surprisingly, we never hear from Foley’s wife which is too bad as I would have liked to have heard what was going through her mind every time her husband agreed to partake in some crazy barbed-wire death match or whatever.  Less surprising, but equally disappointing, is the absence of the Undertaker who was a big part of Foley’s WWE career.  The Undertaker is one of the few wrestlers left who basically refuses to break character so I didn’t expect to hear from him, but it didn’t stop me from holding out hope for it.

The documentary basically covers Foley’s entire profressional career, though it does refrain from acknowledging Foley’s run with TNA which is understandable.  There’s probably close to 45 minutes of outtakes on the Blu Ray release.  Most of these include funny stories from other wrestlers such as Triple H recalling a doomed attempt at a top-rope dive from Foley while other wrestlers rib him for his cheapness.  Foley himself comes across as a charming sort and it’s fun to hear him talk about all of the things he’s done.  He’s a natural story-teller that can draw in non-wrestling fans with little effort.

The set is light on matches, but does include a few bright spots including this barbed wire match with the Sandman.

The set is light on matches, but does include a few bright spots including this barbed wire match with the Sandman.

The other large portion of the release is dedicated to actual matches from throughout Foley’s career.  The set, like most WWE sets, seeks to avoid repeating matches that appeared on other sets which is good for the wrestling diehard that buys everything, but it prevents the WWE from ever putting out a definitive collection of matches for any one wrestler.  Foley is no exception as his best matches are on the previously mentioned Mick Foley’s Greatest Hits and Misses.  There are two repeat matches from the set; Foley’s debut match as Jack Foley and his infamous Hell in a Cell bout with the Undertaker from King of the Ring ’98.  The good thing about the HIAC match being repeated is that the WWE has now finally ceased censoring out the old WWF logo from its matches which helps enhance the viewing experience.  The previous release also was only available on DVD, but seeing these matches on Blu Ray does very little to enhance the experience as so many of them are taken from old masters.  A lot of the new matches added are from Foley’s early run with WCW including one against Sting.  There’s also a few choice ECW fights with the Sandman in a barbed wire match and a humorous bout with Shane Douglas during Foley’s final days with the promotion.  Unfortunately, a lot of the other matches are pretty forgetable but one match I was happy to see included was Foley’s original farewell match at No Way Out against Triple H.  It’s not the best match they ever had with each other, but I like having it for the sake of completion.

This set works best when viewed as a complement to Foley’s previous releases, including both print and DVD.  If you’re a Foley fan who hasn’t read his books for several years this should be a fun trip down memory lane for you.  Others looking for Foley’s craziest matches will be let down by what they find here.  It’s all about expectations.  I got a lot out of this release and if it’s something you’re interested in checking out definitely opt for the Blu Ray if possible as the extra content is worth the extra five bucks.  Foley’s documentary is good!

Catching up with ESPN NFL 2K5

images-72It used to be that the world of sports video games was a free-for-all.  While various movie, television, and comic book licenses were sold off to developers, seemingly anyone could produce a football, baseball, basketball, or hockey title and pony up the dough to get a professional league’s endorsement of their product.  Before that happened though, publishers had to first find out there was value in that.  It used to be that most sports games were just about the sport.  Most of the games on the NES and before were just called Baseball or Football while other publishers would get a little more creative and gives gamers a title like Blades of Steel.  Eventually publishers saw the value of marketing with star power, but before they went the route of acquiring full league licenses they tried the marque player route that put Larry Bird on our 2600.  I don’t know what the first game to get a full league license was, but I do know that the first one I played was World Series Baseball on the Sega Genesis.  All of the teams I was familiar with were now present as were the different players.  Licensing agreements between leagues and their respective player’s unions made this possible (even though some mega stars liked to opt-out of these agreements and annoy gamers throughout the country; I’m looking at you, Michael Jordon) and sports games became more authentic as a result.  This was the status quo for a long time and for some leagues it still is.  For football though, that’s no longer the case and hasn’t been for a long time.

This was basically the cover of every sports game pre 1994, just swap out the athlete with another.

This was basically the cover of every sports game pre 1994, just swap out the athlete with another.

EA Sports has been the king of the virtual football world for a long time now.  Originally Tecmo held that honor with its popular line of Tecmo Bowl games but when those failed to evolve EA, partnered with John Madden, stepped in.  EA’s games thrived during the 16 bit era, especially on the Genesis which performed exceptionally well in the United States.  There were other competitors, most notably Acclaim and eventually Sony’s 989 Studios, but Madden was generally regarded as the best.  When EA announced that it would not support Sega’s new Dreamcast console it was a mighty blow to the doomed machine.  Sega had more or less won the 16 bit wars with sports titles but now found itself without its star general.  Sega did what only Sega could do:  develop its own NFL game.

Visual Concepts and Take-Two Interactive led the way with the inaugural NFL 2K in the late summer of 1999.  Sega showed off an impressive demo at E3 earlier that year that had caught the eye of many gridiron gamers but few really expected Sega to deliver a game in its inaugural year that was worthy of challenging Madden.  Sega had put out a few football titles on the Genesis but making a football game in the 3D era was totally different. The naysayers were proven wrong as NFL 2K was a critical and commercial success for the fledgling Dreamcast, and even though it wouldn’t be enough to save the console, it proved worthy of hanging around.  It’s timing was perfect too as Acclaim’s Quarterback Club was growing stale, and 989’s NFL Gameday had completely fallen off.  Madden was left to run unopposed for the most part, and needed a worthy adversary to prevent it from sharing the same fate as its vanquished foes.

Though it may be hard to imagine today, Madden was mostly geared towards casual players back then.  The game was at its best, and most fun, when dropping back to launch a deep ball down the sideline to Moss.  No longer confined to the world of two-dimensional sprites, Madden was fully realized in 3D but the oddly proportioned and stiff animating player models left something to be desired.  NFL 2K was the shiny new muscle car parked next to the Madden station wagon.  It was faster, leaner, and more explosive.  Running the deep post with Moss was now even more fun than it was before, and things like running the ball and rushing the passer no longer felt like chores between pass plays.  Madden wanted you to have fun, NFL 2K wanted you to experience NFL football.

Go ahead, try and stop him.

Go ahead, try and stop him.

The debut game was not perfect, and a lot of the front end needed some polish, but the presentation shined in other areas.  Commentary from the fictitious duo of Dan Stevens (Terry McGovern) and Peter O’Keefe (Jay Styne) felt vibrant and alive even without the name recognition.  A sports ticker scrolled by to update the player on other games and replays were used judiciously.  When dropping back to pass, the player no longer had to call up the button assignments for receivers, they were already present.

Visually, the game was a tour de force when compared with Madden.  Madden did a good job with player faces, but 2K topped them everywhere else.  They were better proportioned, but mostly they just plain moved better.  Madden was always stiff and steering a running back thru the defense felt like steering a boat.  In 2K, players were quick and cutting left and right.  When the gap between blockers was minimal they turned their bodies to squeeze thru the tiny hole.  When the ball was in the air receivers would leap over defenders if they had to in order to pull it down while a tiny scat-back would get blown up if trying to truck a stout middle linebacker.

Playing the game was also fast and just generally more entertaining.  Passing the ball was a true blast as so many weapons were made available to the player.  Quarterbacks were not restricted to the play called as far as how the ball would travel thru the air.  If the player wanted to lob it, he could.  If he wanted to put a little extra mustard on the throw to zip it into tight coverage, he could.  Maximum Passing meant players could intentionally under or over throw targets with a flick of the analog stick.  Have an agile receiver running outside with a corner over him?  Under throw him so only he has a play on the ball.  Have a tall receiver streaking towards the back corner of the end zone?  Take advantage of his height and toss it up.  He may not come down with it, but neither will the defender.  Knowing how to pass the ball to each receiver is a must for continued success.  If your stone-handed blocking fullback is open in the flat it’s best to lob him a softy than toss him a bullet that will probably bounce of his face-mask.  Knowing your personnel is equally important in the running game as scat-backs like Warrick Dunn are not likely to find much success between the tackles.  Get those guys in space where they can spin and juke their way to pay-dirt and leave the stiff arms and truck maneuvers for the likes of Mike Alstott.  NFL 2K also proved that defense could be fun.  Playing the line and rushing the passer was a game of cat and mouse.  You may find initial success with a certain technique but offensive lines will adapt and double you if necessary.  Playing in the secondary and trying to stick to a receiver was extremely difficult and only for the true pros, but hanging back and making plays on the ball with a safety was both rewarding and fun.

NFL 2K was here to stay, and though Madden routinely topped it in sales, EA wasn’t pleased to have legitimate competition.  EA was especially perturbed when 2K5 (now dubbed ESPN NFL football) was released for only 20 bucks.  This was the last straw and soon EA locked up the NFL license (along with the NCAA, Arena League, and others) and basically put an end to Sega’s annual football game.  This was especially unfortunate as 2K5 was a godsend for football fans.

The addition of the ESPN license meant full animated game intros hosted by a virtual Chris Berman.

The addition of the ESPN license meant full animated game intros hosted by a virtual Chris Berman.

Earlier games in the series had their own issues.  Not all would be solved but by the time 2K5 came around a lot of them would be.  Earlier games featured an over-powered run game.  Perhaps VC and Sega really wanted to make running the ball as fun as passing, but by making it so effective they messed up the balance.  Changing the blocking patterns and playing up to the difference in backs (power vs finesse) helped to solve this.  The dreaded suction-blocking was also less of a problem come 2K5.  Suction-blocking is a fan-coined term that described the game’s programmed blocking animation that forces a defender to engage.  Even when controlling a defender manually, it was something the game forced upon those who played.  Madden was plagued by it too and would be for some time longer but 2K found a way to nearly eliminate it come 2K5 (though it was still hard to disengage from a blocker).  Earlier games were light on options and Madden seemed to always trump 2K in this department, but 2K5’s franchise mode was quite robust and a series of challenges in the ESPN 25th Anniversary section kept gamers busy.  Other additions, like the virtual Crib and first-person football, were there for those who wanted it but were mostly duds.

ESPN NFL 2K5 is kind of like the NFL equivalent to WWF No Mercy.  A lot of football fans to this day still feel it’s the best of the best.  I was a 2K guy and before the series went multi-platform I rarely played a football game.  Madden never felt right to me, and the most fun I had with a football game was NFL Blitz.  NFL 2K2 was my first taste of the series and I was hooked.  To this day, I’ve only owned two versions of Madden with all coming after the exclusivity agreement.  Neither entertained me as much as 2K5 did, though the inaugural Madden on the Wii did entertain me for quite a while.

Visually, the game is no longer a tour de force but is far from ugly.

Visually, the game is no longer a tour de force but is far from ugly.

With the NFL season winding down, I’ve been going back to 2K5 recently to see how it holds up.  A lot of the flaws I remember still jump out at me.  Lead blockers can be annoyingly dumb.  Perhaps it’s because of the whole suction-blocking thing getting blown up, but a lot of the times a blocking fullback will run right by a blitzing linebacker or defensive end and head straight for the next level.  This does my running back no good since he doesn’t have a chance to get into the secondary when a guy is already all over him at the line scrimmage.  Receivers tend to be too stone-handed with 3 or 4 drops a game from my receiving corps being a common sight.  I know guys are going to, on occasion, drop an easy one but it seems to happen too often.  Defensive backs are also really good in man coverage.  While receivers are not omniscient, they don’t know the ball has been thrown in their direction if they haven’t actually turned to look, corners seem to know exactly when to break off their assignment whether they’re watching the QB or trailing a receiver.  It makes it hard to find the “gimme” completions and even check-downs can be an adventure (why do so many check-downs to backs in the flat or receivers running out patterns result in incompletions?!?).  There’s also the matter of the near game-breaking QB evasion moves initiated by flicking the right stick.  Even statues like Drew Bledsoe can shrug off what looked like a sure sack and as a result I rarely use it because it feels cheap.

Not everything VC brought to the table proved to be a good idea.

Not everything VC brought to the table proved to be a good idea.

A lot of this stuff would be rectified by now as most are AI problems.  And at least it goes both ways.  The CPU will miss out on some easy completions because of receivers that can’t make a clean catch.  And your team will also have some pretty sticky cover guys of its own to roll out.  Since the 2k series was shelved, Madden has adopted a lot of what made the series great including guided passes and placing more emphasis on animations.  2K is still fast though, even compared with the current games, and still a blast to play.  I love approaching the line, checking the coverage, and adjusting the play on the fly.  I wish there were more robust audible options, but the hot routes make the majority of plays incredibly customizable.  If a defender is playing way off the line I’m happy to check into a short pattern and if I notice a corner has no safety help on a speedy receiver I’ll audible to a fly or slant pattern.  The adaptive AI reduces the presence of money plays which dogged older football games.  Sure, most will still have a few go-to plays for certain situations but good gamers will experience the full playbook as opposed to a handful of the same plays.  Few things are as rewarding in gaming as executing a perfect stop-and-go with an expertly timed pump-fake followed by a deep lob over the top.

My head tells me that the recent versions of Madden have likely trumped ESPN NFL 2K5 at this point.  The game came out over 8 years ago so surely it’s been improved upon by now.  My heart though won’t allow me to admit it.  When I play Madden I enjoy it but it doesn’t pull me in.  When I turn on 2K5 for a game I can’t stop at just one.  Not even the dated rosters can dim my enjoyment of this one though it does sadden me that the series was cut down in its prime.  There is hope though as EA’s license agreement with the NFL will expire at the end of this year and it was announced that Take-Two will revive its long-dormant NFL franchise in 2014.  It seems hard to believe that the developers could come in and create an exceptional football game after 10 years without the NFL license, but that just puts Take-Two and Visual Concepts in the same position they were in back in 1999 and we all know how that turned out.

Getting Cloud Connected with MLB and the Vita

MLB 12 The Show (PS3, Vita)

One of my main motivations for acquiring a Playstation Vita was the potential for connectivity between it and the Playstation 3.  It’s been the main focus of Sony’s advertising campaign to get consumers interested in their new handheld and while the launch titles did little to exploit this feature, it didn’t take long for Sony to release a game that did.

Enter MLB 12 The Show.  The game is the latest in Sony’s first-party, and much heralded, baseball title.  Released for both the PS3 and the Vita last week, it makes use of the Vita’s cloud feature in the most logical manner by letting the user take their franchise on the road.  Now when you finish a game on the PS3, you can upload the save file to Sony’s cloud and then download it onto the Vita.  The process is as simple as it sounds and it only takes a moment.  Once it’s been loaded onto the Vita, it’s just like any save file and can be saved down to the Vita’s memory card.  Then you can play it on the Vita while you’re out and about, and once done re-upload it to the cloud to download onto the PS3.  The only limitation is the Vita obviously needs an internet connection to make use of the cloud. I’m not sure if it works over the 3G network for those who opted for that  version of the Vita.

There are some limitations.  For one, there’s only one save available on the cloud per user.  In other words, you can’t upload both a franchise save and a Road to the Show save at the same time.  You can upload either one, but not at the same time.  The other limitation is that in-game saves can’t be uploaded to the cloud, which seems to contradict the ad campaign running on television at the moment.  It’s a little annoying when you’re in your living room but have to finish a game on the Vita before transferring to the PS3, but it’s not the end of the world.

The power of the PS3 in the palms of your hands! Mostly.

It helps that the two versions of The Show are pretty similar.  Visually, the PS3 version is superior.  It’s most noticeable in the textures as everything just has a nice coating to it.  There’s also some minor frame-rate drops on the Vita version during some animations, mostly batter walk-up ones for some reason.  It’s more of a presentation issue than anything.  The Vita is also limited slightly in the control department, though San Diego Studios tried to compensate for this by adding touch controls.  I haven’t used many of them, but also haven’t felt my gameplay experience hindered much by absence of the R2 and L2 buttons.  I do like the touch controls for pitching as riding the train can make precise pitch locations a little challenging.  If you wish, you can simply touch the screen where you want the pitcher to throw the ball, then use the buttons to deliver the pitch.

The game itself is pretty similar to past versions.  There’s some new controller configurations for both hitting and fielding that I personally have no use for.  I stick with meter pitching and zone batting, and it’s plenty hard enough as is.  Hitting is particularly challenging and takes a lot of practice, especially if you’re like me and haven’t played a baseball game in a couple of years.  I’ve only used franchise mode, exhibition, and practice.  I assume Road to the Show is pretty much unchanged.  Franchise mode has actually been simplified to a certain extent when it comes to ballpark upkeep, but roster management has become more complex.  The added complexity makes the game more authentic, but just be careful when using the “Auto” function when it comes to roster moves.  Sometimes it’s tempting to let the CPU auto-fill your Double A or Triple A lineup but sometimes it takes way too many liberties and makes changes to the MLB roster, which can be unwelcome.  I made the mistake of simming Spring Training in one year of my franchise and found my roster turned into a disaster by the AI management.

Uploading to the cloud (or downloading from it) is about as simple as this image makes it look.

I hear online still sucks, but I haven’t tried it myself since I’d just get thrashed.  Online being laggy and unplayable is unfortunately nothing new for this series.  It’s borderline criminal that they haven’t been able to fix it over the years, but I guess it’s on us at this point.  I mentioned in my last post that Sony also chose to knock 20 bucks off the price of the Vita version if bought alongside the PS3 one.  This makes sense since Sony wants people to experience the cross-platform play.  It still means it will set you back 80 bucks for the full MLB experience.

Is the novelty of being able to bring the console experience to the road worth the price?  Depends on how much you like baseball, I suppose.  I really like baseball, though even I have to admit this is probably a one-time thing for me.  It’s a cool thing to have, and the game runs well enough on the Vita to not diminish the experience much, but it’s still 20 bucks just to play your franchise or other single player mode on the go.  Though now that I think about, 20 bucks for a full-fledged portable baseball game isn’t really that bad.  I guess everything depends on your outlook!

Baseballs and Dragons

Since finishing Mass Effect 2 I have been in video game limbo.  This isn’t anything new or entirely unwelcome, but when I don’t have my attention focused on a narrative I inevitably look towards the horizon and the next thing that will occupy my free time.  There are two games set for release on March 8th that I’ve got my eye on, MLB The Show 2011 and Dragon Age II.  Conveniently enough, both recently had demos released on the Playstation Network and a small portion of my time this weekend was spent checking each one out.

MLB The Show 2011

I took last year off when it came to the MLB franchise so I’m kind of eager to get a new one.  Traditionally, whatever MLB game I purchase on an annual basis ends up being a huge part of my spring and summer as I’ve been known to log over 100 hours managing rosters, developing players, and winning championships in a virtual world.  Last year was the first time in a long time that I did not buy a new MLB game.

Despite not playing last year’s game, this year’s version of The Show doesn’t look much different.  The demo is a rematch of last fall’s World Series pitting the Texas Rangers against the San Francisco Giants at the Giants’ home ballpark.  The demo lasts four innings and disables most of the game’s options (including the tutorials, more on that to follow) so that you’re basically just being exposed to the gameplay.  Upon first impression the familiar theme for the franchise is still here and the ballpark looks slightly improved over the 2009 version.  There’s still aliasing issues and once your eyes move past the walls everything looks pretty amateurish  That would be forgivable with most parks but San Fran’s is located right in the bay and some time should have been devoted to at least making the water look like water.

Graphics for a baseball game aren’t really a focal point, and for the most part, the game looks good enough.  The character models look like the actual players and the animations for each batter’s stance are nearly spot-on.  The demo intends to highlight the two biggest additions to this year’s game: analog control.  Traditionally, pitching and hitting are both done primarily with a button press, but this year the developers have moved both actions to the right analog stick.  The problem is, the in game “how to play” menus instruct you to view the tutorials in order to understand how the analog controls work, which as I mentioned before, are not available in the demo.  Why Sony chose to disable to the tutorials is a legitimate question indeed as it is probably a good idea to tell the player how the game is supposed to be played.

Anyways, I was unable to fully grasp how the pitching works, resulting in me throwing numerous wild pitches and even hitting a batter.  I hated my experience with the pitching so much that I gave up and just kept switching sides so I was always controlling the hitting team.  This really didn’t prove much more fun, as the new analog hitting is cumbersome.  You pull back on the stick to “load up” and then push forward to swing.  You direct the location of your swing with the left stick, and the motion feels unnatural.  Also, it takes just a fraction of a second longer to push a stick forward as opposed to pushing a button, which throws off the timing.  As a result, I was often cheating on fastballs and unless a breaking ball was hung I was dead on arrival.

The full version game features the classic controls option, but my experience with the demo was so unsatisfactory that it has all but squashed my excitement for it.  If a demo could be this half-assed and thoughtless it makes me wonder what the quality of the full version game is like.  I’m questioning whether or not I want to bother with it now, so if that was the aim of Sony when they released the demo, good job!

Dragon Age II

Normally I would brush off such disappointment but considering that Dragon Age II is getting released the same day it makes it tempting to just bypass The Show all together.  The first one, Dragon Age Origins, was a title long in the making that eventually was released in 2009.  Developed by Bioware, it was a spiritual sequel to their Baldur’s Gate franchise and placed the player in a medieval fantasy setting in control of a custom hero and his or her band of followers.  It was a solid first entry for the series though it wasn’t without its flaws.  Visually, it was just average and gameplay wise was pretty much the same as past games, like the previously mentioned Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.  To better acclimate it for consoles, the camera was positioned behind the player instead of overhead and commands were issued from a command wheel activated by pressing a trigger.  There were shortcuts for spells and abilities mapped to the face buttons as well as a quick heal option.  It was an admirable attempt but lacked the precision of the PC version.  To reflect this, Bioware made the game more action heavy and the result was an inconsistent difficulty level.  Some dungeons and enemies were a breeze and others frustratingly difficult because micro-managing your squad of four proved cumbersome.

Bioware has set out to remedy this by focusing even more on action for the sequel.  Right off the start, players will notice the main character is more restricted.  In the first game, the player had a choice of 4 classes and several different races to choose from.  In this game you have the choice of three classes; warrior, mage, and rogue.  You can select your gender but are limited to the human race.  That is because Bioware wants to tell a more specific story this time around where as with Origins your experience was different depending on where your character came from.

Regardless of what class you choose, attacks are now done with button inputs.  In the previous games you selected an enemy to attack and your character attacked that enemy until it was either defeated or you input another command.  Now, one press of the X button equates to one attack.  Characters seem to move quicker giving a better sense of control over what happens.  I got the sense that I could actually avoid attacks rather than having everything decided by a behind the scenes calibration.  I don’t know if that sense is illusion or not, but mission accomplished.

I didn't know they had access to breast implants in the Dragon Age world. Maybe they're magical enhancements?

The demo is suitably long enough to give you a sense of what you’re in for.  After playing an initial scenario, the game thrusts you forward in the game’s plot to let you dabble with more experienced characters.  The tech trees are more robust and leveling up looks like it will offer more options this time around.  The graphics are improved as well and some characters from the first game have received make overs.  The characters are still a bit over the top for my taste though.  Every female has a tiny waste and giant breasts while all of the guys are suitably ripped.  Isabela, returning from Dragon Age Origins as a recruitable character this time around, is especially ridiculous looking.  If I didn’t know better I would assume she was heading off to film a porno, not fight off the dark spawn.

That’s a minor quibble though and something that is prevalent in both video games and comic books.  The game plays better than the first one, which was already an enjoyable experience.  Combine that with Bioware’s gifted story-telling and I’m pretty much ready to embark on my own journey come March 8th.  After playing the first game as a rogue, I think I am going to try the mage this time around.  I enjoyed playing as one in the demo and see no reason to pick a different class.  I did leave it on my hard drive in case I wish to come back and try out one of the other classes.  As for The Show, that has already been deleted.

The State of MLB Video Games

The Show franchise stands as the best of the current crop of MLB games.

2010 was the first year since 2002 where I did not purchase a new video game baring the Major League Baseball license.  I’m not sure if there was one particular reason but I was surprised with myself that I just did not have the desire to get a new one.  Perhaps this ties in with my previous post about my feelings on video games in general and my lack of interest, but I always felt that my baseball obsession was enough to overcome that.  Maybe it was because the home town team, the Boston Red Sox, had just completed a rather drab off season and appeared to be stuck in neutral as the season approached.  Or maybe it was just the product itself hadn’t advanced enough in a year to warrant another purchase.

Whatever the reason, my apathy towards the idea of purchasing a new baseball title did not return completely this year.  In all likelihood, I will make a new purchase in 2011 and it will likely be for the latest title in the MLB The Show series put out each year by Sony.

The Show has been my franchise of choice over the past few years ever since Take Two Entertainment acquired the exclusive third party publishing rights to the MLB brand, thus putting a dagger into my preferred franchise of the time EA Sports’ MVP Baseball*.  This agreement did not apply to first party publishers so Sony was able to keep putting out a new game each year, which was a great thing because Take Two’s title has been consistently mediocre each and every year.

A great franchise that died too early.

*I always felt the consumer lost out big time with the exclusive rights deals brokered for sports games in the middle part of the last decade.  Take Two’s acquisition was largely a response to EA securing exclusive publishing rights to the NFL brand, thus killing off Take Two’s fantastic NFL 2k series and leaving gamers with Madden as their lone option.  In the span of a year, my two favorite sports titles were no more.

The Show has risen in quality over the years and has even surpassed the level of the final MVP game, though who knows where that franchise would have been now had it been allowed to exist.  The Show shamelessly ripped off MVP’s pitcher meter, a system where the player has to time his or her button presses with the release points of a pitcher’s delivery for optimal pitch execution.  This is a good thing as the pitch meter has been the single best addition to the baseball video game since the behind the plate hitting camera.  The Show has been able to add considerable depth to its franchise mode, clean up some annoying bugs, and give gamers the highly addicting Road to the Show game mode where players create a character and try to achieve Hall of Fame status over their career.

The first baseball game I ever bought and one of the best all-time.

The only problem with what I just stated is that most of those additions were either made or perfected for 2007’s game.  Since then, little has changed aside from incremental boosts to the game’s visuals and gameplay balance.  The last few years the game has felt like a $60 roster update.  If the same is true of this year’s title than Sony can safely assume that I won’t be purchasing the game in 2012, I’ll get my fix this year and let that title last me a couple of years.  So without further adieu, here is how I think this title can be restored to glory (bare in mind, I did not play last year’s game so if anything I propose was added for 2010 that’s why):

  • Better franchise mode – This is kind of a loaded suggestion but I’ll spell out exactly what I mean.  The current franchise mode is pretty solid, it lasts longer than most gamer’s attention spans and gives the player control over GM duties as well as Ownership duties.  There’s just one major issue that has bugged the Hell out of me over the years and that’s the ability to negotiate with players on your roster at any time.  Presently, the user signs a player to a given contract and the player plays out that contract to its end, barring early retirement.  I want to be able to approach said player in the final year of his deal about signing an extension, rather than waiting until the end of the season.  This better allows me, the gamer, to better manage how many expiring contracts I have to deal with at year’s end.  Since players cannot be predicted to re-sign no matter how much money is thrown at them, a year in which 3 or 4 core players are up for free agency can be devastating.  Also, let’s improve the feedback received when negotiating with players in free agency.  As I said before, their whims are impossible to predict since they won’t always just take the most money (no matter how crazy an offer you make them, it’s no guarantee of anything) which is fine, humans should be hard to predict.  I just want a sense of how interested the player is in my offer.  It’s a mechanism that has existed in virtually every game the last 8 years and even exists in The Show when working on trades.
  • Attrition and Improvement – For me, even though players come and go the franchise mode feels very static.  For the most part, the superstars of today will still be superstars 10 game years from now, which just isn’t realistic.  A 40 year old Tim Lincecum shouldn’t be firing 97 mph fastballs consistently nor should Albert Pujols find himself leading the league in home runs.  At the same time, those hot-shot rookies with A ratings for potential do not tend to get any better.  This pretty much destroys the minor league system and affects gameplay balance because while I, the user, know that minor leaguers do not improve no matter what the scouting report says, the AI still assumes they will and overvalues them in trades.  As a result, the game is interesting only so long as I can keep restocking my roster with real Major League players as opposed to the ones generated by the game for the annual draft.  This grossly affects gameplay balance in later years as most divisions seem to be won by 85 – 90 win ball clubs while mine win 110+.  And that’s with me simulating the outcomes of 99% of the games, so it’s not like I’m physically playing the game and just beating up on the computer controlled clubs on the field.
  • Waiver system – The Show has been good about adapting the various GM roles to the video game system but one has been omitted for too long and that’s the waiver wire beyond July 31st.  In the real world, players can be traded freely up until the non-waiver deadline of July 31st.  After that, any team wishing to move someone has to put that player on waivers at which point every team in baseball can put in a claim on him.  If a team claims the player the team that currently owns the player’s rights can either pull the player back off of waivers, allow the claiming team to take the player, or work out a trade with the team who claimed the player.  If multiple teams put in a claim then the team with the worst record is rewarded with the claim.  If no team claims the player then he has been cleared through waivers and the current team is now free to trade him to any club interested.  This system is not in the game, so after the July 31st trade deadline passes no trades can be made.  This should be an easy fix.
  • 40 – Man Rosters and Options – Right now, there is no way for me to view who is on my 40-man roster which determines who is eligible for the Major League team and who is protected from the Rule 5 Draft.  The only way to know who is on the 40 is to individually look at each player, which is tedious and time consuming.  There’s also no way to see how many options remain on a player.  Options allow the front office to freely shuttle the player back and forth between the big league club and the minor league affiliates.  And there’s no way to sign free agents to minor league contracts.  Again, easy fixes.
  • More Customization – When I create a player, particularly a pitcher, I want to be able to fully customize his pitches.  MVP did this so why can’t The Show?  Particularly, I want to determine pitch movement.  Using the normal clock format is easy.  I want my guy’s curveball to break 11 to 5, or 10-4.  Maybe my guy’s cutter breaks down more than horizontal, so let me do that too.
  • Manage Mode – Right now manage mode is way too detailed.  That’s better than being on the other end but how about some middle ground?  In MVP, manage mode was done on an at-bat basis, in The Show it’s on a pitch basis.  To me, manage mode should be an alternative to just simulating the game that allows me some input.  The Show seems to think of it as simply an alternative to swinging the bat and throwing the ball, that you just watch and put on plays on a per pitch basis.  The end result being games take just as long this way as they do playing, actually they’re probably even longer.
  • Playoffs – Another simply one would be to let me tell the CPU that I want to go with a 3 or 4 man pitching rotation in the Playoffs.  Also, have the AI do the same.  I shouldn’t be facing the opposing team’s 5th starter in the ALCS, that’s just stupid.  Of course, I can pick who starts each game so it’s not like right now I’m forced to throw a 4th or 5th starter, but it’s just annoying having to keep changing it.  The simple solution would be to allow the gamer to leave spots in the pitching rotation empty.  Right now, the game won’t let you play or sim a game without a valid 5-man rotation, which is stupid.  Even if it’s the regular season I should be allowed to have a 4 man rotation if I think it will work, the consequences be damned!  And let’s make game 7 of the World Series feel different from a game played in May.  If the CPU’s starter is a bit shaky early on the manager should have a quick hook.  I want to get a sense that the AI is going all-in to try and win the game as opposed to living to play another day.

I think that’s enough for one entry.  I’m almost certain I’ve forgotten about some other annoyance I have with the franchise but if most or all of the above were inserted for a new game I’d be pretty content.  At least give me the sense as a consumer that I’m not paying for the same game over and over.  Gimmicks don’t work and I don’t care if players sweat more realistically this time around.  I just want a great simulation of the game of baseball.  The developers have come close over the years to giving me just that, but so far no one has hit one out of the park and I’m beginning to think no one will.

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