I don't remember how old I was when I went to my first baseball game. I just know that the sport has always been part of my life in some way, whether in cheering Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett at the old Metrodome, or snarfing garlic fries at AT&T Park.
MLB The Show does more to bring me back to those nostalgic days than any other sports game. It's consistently one of the best-looking, most realistic sims around, going toe-to-toe with NBA 2K on an annual basis. More importantly, it's the game the comes closest to capturing the sport it's meant to depict.
As usual, it lets you take on a variety of different roles within the world of baseball: you can run a franchise, collect cards to build the ultimate team, or try to become a superstar hitter or pitcher in Road to the Show. It's a self-contained platform designed to cater to all different tastes; and in that respect, it has very few weaknesses. Every single mode is strong in some way, making MLB The Show a very well-rounded sports sim overall.
One of my biggest takeaways is that it feels better than ever. The hitting has been rebalanced, the catcher animations no longer allow quite as many passed balls, and even the already-excellent load times have been improved (though, it helps that I'm playing on the PS4 Pro). Even the occasional odd glitch like a wrong animation loading up is fairly easy to overlook in light of the lifelike action on the field.
For new players, it will be dazzling. MLB The Show is one of the PlayStation's showcase games, taking advantage of all the features of the PS4 Pro, including 4K, HDR, and framerate enhancements. Crowds are dynamic and will fill the stadium based on real-life data (sorry, Rays fans), animations are incredibly smooth, and walkoff homeruns feel like massive events. It does something that many sports games still have a surprisingly hard time with: capturing the look and feel of gameday.
For returning players, of course, the upgrades will be a matter of degrees. The main visual improvements are in Road to the Show, where the locker rooms now look like they're populated by real people rather strange puppets. Beyond that, MLB The Show 18 doesn't make any noticeable leaps, but it was already a very good looking game.
Once you get beyond the visuals, MLB The Show 18's commitment to realism is both a boon and a drawback. It looks and feels amazing, but it also has a very steep learning curve. Developer Sony San Diego has been trying for years to make The Show more accessible, adding in elements like Dynamic Difficulty and Quick Counts while periodically rebalancing the hitting, but it's hard to change the fundamental nature of the game. Success in MLB The Show means having a keen eye for different types of pitches, and that's not an easy skill to master.
Even now, after years of playing MLB The Show, I'd say I'm still a fairly mediocre hitter at best. I'm a much better pitcher, which is easier for a new player to pick up and master (though this version is a little less forgiving with pitching accuracy). It's much easier to aim a fastball than it is to instantly judge whether or not you're facing an offspeed pitch outside of the zone. Consequently, one of the best ways for new players to enjoy MLB The Show off the bat is by playing exclusively as a pitcher in franchise mode or Road to the Show.
Not surprisingly, Road to the Show is MLB The Show's most popular mode, and the one that gets the most love for the second year in a row. In Road to the Show, you build your own player, then take them from the minors to the majors on the road to superstardom. It works because it moves at a much faster clip than other modes because its loop is inherently addictive. In essence, every game is four or five tries to hit the ball (or get a strikeout), and if you screw up, then the next game is an instant opportunity for a fresh start. This flow makes it terrifyingly easy to lose several hours at a time.
Having introduced a superficial narrative structure and conversation choices in MLB The Show 17, this year's version completely revamps the way progression works. Now you choose from different achetypes, with real-life players being used for comparison. So if you're a starting pitcher, you can choose to be a control artist like James Shields, or a flamethrowing fastball pitcher like Noah Syndergaard. If you import a player from MLB The Show 17, you will be prompted immediately to choose your archetype, after which you can continue on your way.
Stats progress automatically based on your archetype and your in-game performance. What this does is eliminate a lot of the busywork of playing MLB The Show. Some players may balk at losing control over the way they assign points; but to be honest, it was tedious trying to decide every few games whether to bulk up contact, power, or plate discipline. I like finishing a handful of games and watching my stats jump based on how well I've done. It makes The Show feel a bit less like a mountain to climb.
Road to the Show remains The Show's most accessible mode, and ultimately the one I enjoy the most. Whenever I find myself tiring of the slow pace at which regular games progress, I wander over to Road to the Show and bang out a series or two. Sadly, it doesn't have the narrative heft of Madden's The Journey, but it makes up for that by allowing you to choose your own position.
Franchise mode, unfortunately, doesn't get quite as much love as Road to the Show. You can't relocate a team or build an expansion like you can in NHL and NBA 2K, nor will players stir up trouble in the media like they do in FIFA. It's a very straightforward, if dense, simulation in which you manage as much or as little as you want of the roster and the budget.
This year's main improvement streamlines the various management phases so their flow is easier to understand. It also lets you play through last year's middling retro mode, which does a weak impression of Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. As it is, The Show's franchise mode is a fully-featured management mode that does a good job representing the day-to-day of running a team. But if you're looking for a splash of narrative, you won't find it in The Show's franchise mode.
A Network Error Has Occurred
"A network error has occurred." This message has been wreaking havoc on The Show community once again, much as it did last year. Results are not being recorded and hard-won progress is being lost in Diamond Dynasty.
It's always tough deciding how much weight to give to server errors out of the gate. Issues happen, servers eventually stabilize, and usually a game's true character comes out relatively quickly. But then again, the first couple weeks is prime time for any sports sim, and it's just brutal to be flatout losing results in a grind heavy mode like Diamond Dynasty. Worse, many of the more casual players will be long gone by the time things are finally figured out.
It hurts all the more because online franchise was sacrificed on the altar of server stability. Let's be honest, online franchise was probably the least-played mode in MLB The Show, mostly because games take a long time and a 162 game season is borderline impossible to finish with multiple people. But for those trying to keep the torch of online franchise alive, it's a rough blow. The same can be said for the loss of season mode—the simpler, schedule-only variant of franchise mode—which was appealing for those who just wanted to play a season with their team with no strings attached. Losing options is never great.
So where does that leave MLB The Show 18? Well, it appears to be a baseball sim about collecting hats now. I kid, but collecting random items (that you can't even wear!) is a big part of earning players in Diamond Dynasty now. It's made some hardcore players grumpy, but I expect the market for them to stabilize as people open more packs, which will make it easier to acquire them.
As always Diamond Dynasty is MLB The Show's version of "Ultimate Team," a mode where you collect baseball cards to fill out your best lineup. It's a hardcore-oriented, grind-heavy mode that requires dozens—if not hundreds—of hours to properly enjoy, but it distinguishes itself from its competition by relying less on monetization. Compared to Madden and FIFA, where elite players are simply out of reach for normal people who don't want to spend money, it's actually possible to unlock legends like Babe Ruth with effort and skill. Indeed, there are players who aren't available via packs and can only be acquired by completing the requisite requirements.
The trade-off is that Diamond Dynasty is borderline impenetrable at times. Programs, the main impetus by which you acquire elite talent, are poorly explained, and it's hard to know where to start. To the untrained eye it simply looks like an admittedly pretty series of non-interactive art. Some sort of tutorial that walks you through completing your first Program would definitely be welcome.
I'm also still not completely onboard with Conquest Mode, which plays a bigger role in Diamond Dynasty than ever, owing to the outsized quality of its rewards. Once again, Conquest is a wargame-like mode where you play games to steal fans and eventually conquer territories. Like the rest of Diamond Dynasty, it's a bit confusing, and it takes a long time to get all the way through. Diamond Dynasty badly needs something like FIFA's Squad Battles, where you play against a rotating set of CPU-controlled squads and try to rise up the leaderboards, which is more straightforward and frankly more fun.
Diamond Dynasty remains the mode for MLB The Show superfans—the baseball geeks who have exhausted franchise mode and Road to the Show and want to go to the next level. In that, I think it's pretty successful. It's certainly not nearly as exploitive as some other Ultimate Team modes, and its Topps licensing captures the old-school pleasure of collecting baseball cards. The people who stick with MLB The Show into October and beyond will be playing Diamond Dynasty.
MLB The Show: The Best (And Only) Hardcore Baseball Simulator on the Market
If you're a baseball fan, MLB The Show 18 is basically your only option in terms of a hardcore simulation. Out of the Park Baseball also warrants mention as a Football Manager-like spreadsheet simulator, and RBI Baseball also exists, but MLB The Show 18 is heads and shoulders above its competition. It's consistently one of the best sports sims year after year.
It's simply dazzling from a graphical standpoint, one of the best-animated sports sims around. You can nitpick things like how players come out of their animations, but only NBA 2K comes close to matching how real MLB The Show feels. It's one of the PS4's two or three graphical showcases on an annual basis.
Returning players, of course, will feel rightfully underwhelmed by this year's update. Road to the Show's progression overhaul, as well as balance updates to the hitting and other mechanics, are the most notable additions. Franchise is still one of the most accurate management simulators around, but it actually took a rather sizable hit with the loss of online franchise and season mode. MLB The Show has always been a fairly conservative franchise, choosing to focus on technical changes over sweeping back-of-the-box features, and MLB The Show 18 is more of the same.
What's there, though, is just a pleasure to play if you're a hardcore baseball fan. It lets you take games at any pace you want, from pretty much any angle you want, and it's full of intelligent touches like Dynamic Difficulty, which rises and falls depending on how well you're playing. You can even stick Babe Ruth on the Minnesota Twins if you want.
It's a shame that network errors have once again overshadowed what MLB The Show does right, because it's really a tremendous sports sim in so many different respects. If you're a newcomer or you're looking to get back into the series after a long hiatus, I think you're in for a real treat. And I think even returning veterans will be able to put aside their misgivings about some of the updates and fall headlong into the zen of pitching in Road to the Show, or the joy of grinding in Diamond Dynasty.
MLB The Show 18 might not have a lot of competition, but online struggles aside, it's been able to keep the bar pretty high over the years. In many ways, it's like the St. Louis Cardinals, another franchise that has had consistent success over the years. Like the Cardinals, The Show might not be competing for the sports game championship at the end of the year, but it will once again be in the mix as one of the better sports sims of 2018.
MLB The Show 18 remains one of the most beautiful and polished sports sims around. If you're a new player, it'll be simply dazzling. If you're a veteran though, you'll be more apt to notice missing modes, network errors, and an increasingly bloated Diamond Dynasty. It's a great all-around baseball sim, but this year's update is as conservative as ever.