The best sports franchises aspire for stability. Perennial winners like the San Antonio Spurs, New England Patriots, and St. Louis Cardinals lean on established foundations for consistent success, which they augment with undervalued talent and innovative ideas. The same could be said for MLB The Show, which continues to be the most consistent sports sim this side of NBA 2K.
The core of MLB The Show hasn't changed much over the years - it still feels much like its PlayStation 3 counterparts - but the series has nevertheless made strides without sacrificing the quality for which it is known. Last year, The Show developer Sony San Diego finally managed to nail down an online experience that was actually enjoyable to play - a huge hurdle for the series up until that point. This year brings the fruits of that labor.
Before I go any further, you should know that I'm trying a different approach to reviewing this year's crop of sports games. If you're new to the series and you want to know some of the more general information, read onward. If you're more interested in what's new in The Show 16, check the second page for a more in-depth analysis of Battle Royale, Conquest, and the rest of the new content.
For those who are new to the series
In what has become a depressing trend for sports games, MLB 16 The Show is the only traditional baseball sim left on the market (yes, RBI Baseball exists, but it's aimed at a much more casual demographic). Thankfully, it does a wonderful job of replicating the real-world action on the field, in particular benefiting from some of the best animation and physics in sports gaming.
The flipside is that The Show's learning curve is perhaps higher than any other sports sim. Baseball is an extremely difficult sport to balance as a videogame - make it too hard to hit and it becomes frustrating, make it too easy and it becomes extremely boring. The Show does its best to split the difference with a gauge that will dynamically tune the hitting difficulty as you play, theoretically putting you in the goldilocks zone for hitting. It does its job well enough, but it takes practice, a keen eye, and a lot of discipline to get to the point where you aren't swinging wildly at incoming pitches.
MLB The Show 16 also introduces Showtime - a new feature in which you can slow time at the expense of a meter that drains with each usage. This feature is available when locked on to a single player or playing Road to the Show, and it's meant to make you feel like a superstar. In practice, it's very useful for pitchers, as it offers multiple opportunities to aim a perfectly located pitch - very useful in a tight situation. It's less useful for hitters, who can only use Showtime once per game. It can be great if you're in a 3-2 count with two outs and a couple baserunners, as it'll let you slow down time and see if you should swing or not. But in trying to keep it from being too powerful, Sony San Diego has kind of neutered the feature, limiting its usefulness to very particular situations.
Once the ball is in play, The Show sparkles. Players look fluid and lifelike as they track down flyballs and field ground balls, then smoothly relay it back in to the infield. A play at the plate is as thrilling in The Show as in real life, inevitably resulting in both sides unconsciously holding their breath as the runner slides in and the umpire calls them safe or out. I've run into a few annoying glitches, such as my runners randomly freezing on the basepaths, but they're comparatively few and far between. Moreso than any other sport, The Show 16 feels like professional baseball, and that's its greatest strength.
Unfortunately, that strength can make for a bit of a rough experience playing online. It's better than it used to be - hence my earlier praise - but there's still some noticeable input lag when both hitting and pitching. What's more, The Show 16 really doesn't play well with routers. If you're on a wireless connection, be prepared for a long stream of "Challenge Failed" prompts. I don't wish to harp on The Show's online difficulties when it has made so much progress in the past couple years; but in this day and age, it's worth commenting on.
It's also worth noting in light of the growing importance of Diamond Dynasty - The Show's card-collecting mode. This year's version brings with it a single-player mode in Conquest - a mini-strategy game in which you "defend" your strongholds by playing games with your Diamond Dyansty team - but the real point of collecting these cards is playing against other people. Your mileage will vary depending on your connection, but the middling online puts a real damper on Diamond Dynasty and its attendant Battle Royale mode - a new feature where you draft 25 players and try to win as many games as possible with them.
If you can get past the lingering lag issues, though, Diamond Dynasty can be really addictive. Just playing The Show 16 - whether online or offline - will earn you XP and stubs, which can in turn be redeemed for some pretty decent players and items. There are a huge number of cards to acquire, and just building up your team's collection can be a long-term project. And compared to modes like it in Madden and FIFA, it's not too hard to enjoy without spending money (though the temptation is certainly there to splurge on packs). The pay-to-win element may sour some people off the mode, but Diamond Dynasty nevertheless remains compelling long after the career modes grow stale.
Speaking of the career modes, they're generally very good, if not necessarily the best ever. Both do a very good job of capturing the intricacies of managing a team or being a professional baseball player, but little of the romance. As a Twins fan, my favorite part of franchise mode has been sending Ricky Nolasco to the bullpen - ultimately a very minor act of wish fulfillment. There's continuity from game to game, but the narrative is lacking. It doesn't have so much as a trophy case or a fake Twitter feed to highlight my accomplishments.
With that said, though, The Show's career modes do plenty of things right. The depth is there, if not necessarily the flash, and tools like the trade block are robust and easy to use. The ability to lock on to a single player and start in the middle of an at-bat is also a blessing, cutting an average game from 45 minutes or more to less than half of that. I've lately taken to playing one full game as my whole team, then locking onto a pitcher and a batter for the next two games; which, if nothing else, adds some variety to the 162 game grind. Road to the Show distills the essence of the franchise mode still further into a single character that you guide from Double-A to the majors and into Cooperstown. Like its counterpart, it lacks the romance of being a big league ball player, but the satisfaction of getting called up to the big club and becoming an everyday player can be its own reward.
As you can probably tell, The Show does what it can to be accessible to newcomers; but like the sport it depicts, it skews more toward hardcore enthusiasts than casual fans. Unlike FIFA or NBA 2K, it doesn't try to be an ambassador for its sport - it aims straight for the heart of established baseball fans. And given the nature of baseball's fandom these days, that's probably the right choice.