MLB 17 The Show was released on the PlayStation 4 last week, garnering praise in some quarters and criticism in others. Plenty of people think it's still a strong baseball simulator, but others feel this year's version hasn't done enough to advance the series.
To get a different perspective, I decided to reach out to Bryan Wiedey, a Sporting News contributor and host of the sports gaming site Pastapadre. Wiedey is also enjoying this year's version, not the least because he's a Seattle fan and Ken Griffey Jr. is on the cover, but his praise has been a bit more muted. In that light, we talked over MLB 17's new features, its online troubles, and everything else pertinent to this year's version.
Kat Bailey, USgamer: So this is probably the most impressed that I've been with MLB The Show in a long time. It's been good in the past, but this year's version feels that much more polished, that much more balanced, and that much more playable. I've been playing it on my PlayStation 4 Pro, and funnily enough, I've mostly left the HDR and 4K off because the framerate boosts are so memorizing. Outside of the kind of awkward cutscenes in Road to the Show, which I'll cover in a bit, it is a really good looking game.
Interestingly enough, I think my favorite new feature in this year's version might be an aspect that hasn't received a ton of coverage: Critical Moments. I've tended to burn out on franchise mode in the past, even with Player Lock and Quick Counts turned on, so it's been kind of nice to be able to zip through the season while occasionally bobbing into games and collecting saves or getting game-winning hits. It's made my customary rebuilding effort for the Minnesota Twins that much less onerous, allowing me to enjoy the upcoming season while also kind of getting through it quickly so I can collect prospects. I might have preferred a Madden-style CliffsNotes approach where I get to take on key at-bats throughout the game, but Critical Moments works well enough. It's made franchise mode more playable than it has in years.
What are your thoughts, Bryan?
Bryan Wiedey, Pastapadre: I've long said The Show is the most predictable sports gaming franchise on the market, reflecting on everything from the year-to-year feature set to what it consistently does well and where it lags behind. I think they broke out of playing it safe a bit with MLB 17, which was needed, though there are some areas of neglect that continue to linger.
It's interesting how sports game developers in recent years have put so much effort into giving consumers ways to not play while still providing some level of influence on outcomes because the actual seasons and length of time required to play a single game are so considerable. I can understand the challenge they face amidst that feedback but still find most of the proposed solutions unsatisfying. It would have been nice to see more go into Franchise than those simulating options, not to mention the practical abandonment of Online Franchise.
Kat: It's kind of one of the intractable problems facing MLB The Show, as well as the sport at large, to be honest. MLB The Show games require a hell of a lot of skill and concentration to complete, and playing through a 162 game season is utterly exhausting. In that light, putting as many options on the table as possible is probably the best option. The hardcore faithful can have their True 162; the regulars can jump around with Player Lock, and those who want to focus on the management aspects while still having some modicum of control over how the games play out can use Critical Moments.
But yeah, you're not wrong about where Franchise lags behind. It's dry and dense, and it lacks the built-in narrative component of FIFA and NBA 2K. Its main virtues are that it's extremely faithful to the sport-almost overwhelmingly so-and that it does a fairly good job of condensing that info into something digestible. I'm just glad to have another avenue for engaging with the mode in a reasonable way.
Out of curiosity, what are the areas that really stand out to you?
Diamond Dynasty Rises
Bryan: Diamond Dynasty has really risen from the ashes of a dismal mode originally to become the best of all the team-building modes in the genre. Of course, that's dependent on the servers working consistently, and it took weeks before major server-related issues were fixed last year. It's been a discouraging start for MLB 17 also with many of the game's major features inaccessible for long stretches of time. As I'm writing this it took several minutes for just the main menu to load, and any feature dependent on an online connection is not functioning. Even when it's possible to get into Diamond Dynasty the navigation being slowed to a crawl in primetime hours makes the team and item management unbearable to deal with, and it's a crapshoot whether games played will be recorded or vanish into the dreaded "queue" never to be seen again.
At least there's the gameplay to fall back on which has long been the main selling point of the series. For those who only have passing interest in The Show its gameplay and even presentation doesn't on the surface look, or play, all that differently from one version to the next. But it's the subtle things that experienced users will notice such as the improved ball physics that help produce greater hit variety. I've seen bloopers now fall in between converging infielders and outfielders and that wouldn't have ever happened before now. The developers also seem to have cleaned up (to an extent at least cause I need to see what people strike with as exploits online this year) some of the bigger frustrations related to overly successful bunting and the lack of urgency from fielders to get the ball out of their hands.
Kat: Hmm, interesting. I wouldn't necessarily categorize Diamond Dynasty as "the best," but it is definitely different. All team-building modes lean heavily on the auction aspect of the game, so it's kind of nice that Sony San Diego's version is more like a commodities market. I also like that you can get in-game currency by just playing through the game's various modes and complete missions. It all feels tied together in a really nice way. At first glance, it seems kind of slight, but once you start digging into the missions and the like, you start realizing that there's quite a lot to do. I do wish that there were actual solo missions outside of Conquest, and it would be nice if it had a Weekend League of some sort like FIFA. Oh, and this is petty, but I really wish I had access to all of the in-game uniforms so I didn't have to make a dumb, ugly custom uniform everytime.
But, anyway, I can totally agree with you on the gameplay front. There are a lot of really subtle changes to this year's version, but they impact the game in a lot of different ways. I like the way that balls will slice and hook in the air, for instance, which makes it feel livelier and more realistic. I also love that they revamped the bunting game. People relying on fast players and cheesy bunts was a huge problem in the latter of MLB 16 The Show's life cycle, so it's nice to see that stuff get addressed.
Beyond that, I sort of feel like MLB The Show has always been really strong on the field, so it's mostly been a matter of keeping up with the times. My main problems with it have usually been to do with the shoddy online infrastructure and the somewhat dry modes. But on that front, MLB The Show has actually updated Road to the Show! Thoughts?
Road to the Show Gets an Upgrade at Last
Bryan: It was long overdue for the career mode to incorporate some story elements. The developers didn't go down the same road as NBA 2K and FIFA in making it an actual scripted story that you're playing through, instead they basically put some of the milestones of a career in the spotlight though the use of documentary-style scenes. It's nearly the same Road to the Show with some bonus career decisions to be made. I began as a relief pitcher and was asked to try being a starter which added something interesting to the day-to-day slog of what is a lengthy journey to reach a more interesting place. Even though I was resistant to the idea - we're all choosing our position because that's what we want to play - I went along with it and have been excelling as a starter ever since.
At this point I think what they've done is just okay, it hasn't been terribly compelling with anything that has happened necessarily, but it's at least something different than what we've been playing for a decade now. It was probably the extent of what they could do after backing themselves into a corner with the carryover saves from one year's game to the next. It wasn't not going to be dramatically different unless they created a new story mode from scratch and they wouldn't seem to have the resources for such a big project....that is unless Ken Griffey Jr. does for this series what Michael Jordan did for NBA 2K.
Kat: Ah yes, Griffey. I was kind of hoping that his presence on the cover signaled some kind of story mode or extra challenges, but he's pretty much buried in Diamond Dynasty and the like. The closest Griffey-related thing we have is Retro Mode, which is... charming... but also something that I wouldn't play unless I was drunk and just fiddling around with the game. The funny thing is that Griffey challenges are kind of in the game, but they're hidden away in the Missions section, where you have to use his rookie card to complete various challenges like matching his scoreline from his debut. In any case, it strikes me as a bit of a wasted opportunity.
As for Road to the Show, I tend to agree that it's really just a different way of framing the same content, but there is still some light roleplaying to be done. I was actually kind of goofing on it on Twitter because, holy crap, this engine is not suited for indoor cutscenes. My character had this waxen sheen and these dead eyes that were seriously uncanny valley. But once I got past the presentation aspect, I appreciated that it kind of varied things up. One of my main criticisms of The Show over the years has been that it feels very sterile, so it's been nice to be able to undertake these decisions in the framework of an RPG discussion rather than just clinical menu prompts.
So overall, I'm not really getting a sense of enthusiasm from you on this one, Bryan. I guess I'm so used to our colleagues adoring The Show that I'm not used to measured praise. How are you feeling about this update overall?
Bryan: It's difficult to be overly enthusiastic about a game that is largely unplayable in the hours when most people want to play it. Otherwise I'm really enjoying this year's edition as a whole. The Show is what it always has been; however, I'm not sure anything changed this year as far as stepping up and innovating.
As a Seattle guy who grew up watching Griffey, it's great to have his presence in the game especially because of effort that has gone into representing him properly. Whether it's signing his peak version to a team in Franchise; robbing a homerun with his rookie version in one of my first Diamond Dynasty games; seeing him wear his signature shoes, or taking him into the Home Run Derby and discovering he wears his hat backwards for it, there's definitely been some special moments for me with the game already.
Kat: I suppose it kind of depends on your perspective on the online front. Unlike like with NBA 2K, the online play doesn't tie into player progression, so Road to the Show isn't completely ruined by the spotty servers. On the flipside, I can understand the frustration for people who primarily care about Diamond Dynasty and online play. This has been something of an ongoing problem for Sony San Diego, and it's disappointing that they haven't quite managed to iron out their online launch problems. That said, things seem to have stabilized, so these issues are apt to be forgotten soon.
As for the rest of the game, I feel like I can only really judge them on what's actually in the box, rather than what I'd like to see in the box. When I look at MLB The Show, I see two modes that have received some much-needed improvements; a very good Ultimate Team mode, and impeccable gameplay. Yes, the commentary could be improved, and the online play is a little spotty, but it all ties together so nicely that it's hard for me to call them "stale." But I guess that's the price of sustained success in the sports gaming sphere: inevitably you have to shake things up.
Outside of the online problems, I suppose my only real disappointment with MLB The Show is that Sony San Diego didn't seize the moment with Ken Griffey Jr. and do something special with his presence in the game. Yeah, his depiction is extremely faithful, and it's awesome that you can use him in pretty much every mode, but he doesn't ever really take center stage. It feels like a missed opportunity.
But as for the rest of the game, I suppose it's one of those "don't fix what isn't broken" situations. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what the next step is for the series. Maybe we'll find out next year. But for now, MLB The Show is still one of the best sims on the market.