I'm not really sure how many ways there are to say, "MLB The Show is still good." MLB The Show has always been really deliberate with its updates, and it feels like I've been saying "MLB The Show makes steady gains" for years now. Well here it is again: MLB The Show is yet another smart, if slightly restrained, update for the series.
This isn't as damning as it sounds. Looking back on the past five years or so, it's really stunning how far MLB The Show has actually come. Outside of the superficial similarities in terms of the presentation, the difference made by Quick Counts, Player Lock, Diamond Dynasty is huge. The thing is, though, MLB The Show has always been good; it's just a matter of degrees.
With that in mind, here's a review of MLB The Show from both the perspective of a brand new player (or lapsed fan) and a returning veteran. As usual, both will find plenty to like in this year's version.
For those who are new to the series
MLB The Show has basically been the only traditional baseball sim in town since the end of MLB 2K a few years back. Yes, there's also RBI Baseball, but it's not really a credible competitor. If you are a serious baseball fan looking for a traditional console experience, MLB The Show is really the only way to go.
The first thing that will jump out at you is how pretty it is. MLB The Show has been a graphical showcase for Sony going back to the PS3 days, and the The Show 17 is more of the same. Playing on the PlayStation 4 Pro, I found myself reflecting more than once on just how smoothly everything moves this time around, as well as on the sophisticated lighting and the dynamic audience. It can be a little uneven at times—the engine clearly isn't meant for some of what it attempts with Road to the Show—but on the field it's excellent.
It's also really hard. It's taken me years of practice to get comfortable to the point where I can hit consistently, and every now and then I still have a brain fart and accidentally wave at a curveball outside the zone. There are tons of control options and camera angles, and it can all feel really overwhelming at the start. If you're having trouble, here's my advice: zone hitting, hitting camera to offset zoom, and meter pitching. It's all a matter of personal preference, but those are the options that I personally find the most comfortable.
Once you get going, it becomes apparent how faithful MLB The Show is to the sport it portrays. Everything from the pacing to the atmosphere to the broadcast package—The Show has an MLB Network overlay now—just feels "right." The same can be said for the action on the field, from the way the ball comes off the bat to the smooth fielding animations. As with the real sport, it can be incredibly frustrating, since even a perfectly hit ball can become a liner right into a fielder's glove. But the flipside of that is how satisfying it is to smash a no-doubt home run and do a quick batflip before jogging the bases.
This action is contextualized in a handful of the customary career modes as well as online play. Franchise Mode will let you run a team as a coach or GM; Road to the Show puts you in the shoes of a player, and Diamond Dynasty is a fantasy mode in which you collect cards to build an all-star lineup. All three are strong modes in their own right, but Road to the Show is probably the most accessible of the bunch, featuring admittedly clunky but serviceable cutscenes and discrete chunks of play. Once you get going, Road to the Show can get really addicting, but beware: A string of bad performances can become a death spiral as you begin pressing and struggle to accrue enough XP to build up your stats.
In an interesting touch, all of these modes tie together through Stubs, which can be earned through playing games and completing various objectives. Stubs can in turn be redeemed for equipment that will improve your players; sponsorships that will bring you more money in Franchise Mode, and new additions to your Diamond Dynasty lineup. All of this requires an online connection to enjoy; but happily, the game is still quite enjoyable even offline.
With all of this, what initially feels dense and alienating quickly becomes a giant rabbit hole to disappear down for weeks and months at a time. I'm not going to say it's the easiest game to pick up and play—not by a long shot—but over the years Sony San Diego has added a ton of different ways to play baseball, whether you want to just enjoy some discrete moments of baseball or a True 162, and that has made it much easier for newcomers to grapple with. In that, MLB The Show is easier than ever to recommend to new players.
For returning fans
When Sony San Diego put Ken Griffey Jr. on the cover of MLB The Show, I was excited because I felt like we might finally get something like the legendary NBA 2K11's treatment of Michael Jordan. Griffey is really the perfect legend for The Show—a charismatic figure who stayed off steroids and is still very popular today. He never won a World Series, but Mariners fans will talk your ear off about the 1995 ALDS and what it meant to the city.
Alas, none of that is in The Show 17, and I honestly feel a bit dumb for getting my hopes up. To the extent that Griffey is featured at all, he's pretty much buried in Diamond Dynasty and other modes. The best we get is a new Retro Mode—a cute but ultimately superfluous 16-bit mode that is meant to recall the glory days of Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. It's startlingly faithful to its source material, the weird juxtaposition of The Show's graphics with 16-bit text notwithstanding, but is otherwise mostly a novelty—something you play with your friends over drinks and quickly forget about.
Anyway, that disappointment aside, I mostly really like this year's version. The improvements to Road to the Show's frontend have received the bulk of the attention, but I've really been liking the new Critical Moments in Franchise, which let you sim through the schedule and jump into game-changing moments like a save or a rally. It also focuses on individual moments like no-hitters, shutouts, and three-homer games; and while there are no real rewards for completing an objective, it still feels satisfying.
Critical Moments might seem like a small update in the grand scheme of things, but it's made me want to seriously engage with Franchise mode for probably the first time ever. As a Minnesota Twins fan stuck in a perpetual rebuild, the slow pace of the mode in previous years has always made me bail at some point, even with the various time-saving features turned on. Critical Moments bridges that gap by allowing me to focus on the managment aspects of the mode while also allowing me to retain some modicum of engagement with the games themselves. As such, this might be the first time I've ever felt motivated to actually finish a full 162 game season without bailing partway through.
Aside from that, most of this year's updates are either cosmetic or under the hood. As I noted before, Road to the Show now couches its decisions in in-game cutscenes voiced by a narrator. It's a documentary style that suits the series, but ultimately comes off as a bit stiff owing to the droning narration and the mannequin-like character models. Outside of the new frontend, it's still mostly the same Road to the Show, so don't expect anything on the level of FIFA's The Journey or NBA 2K's super-involved stories. As an aside, I'm actually good with that, mostly because Road to the Show was fine as it was. It just needed to perk up the presentation a bit, and Sony San Diego has done that. And every once in a while, it does stumble on a genuine roleplaying moment, like when it tries to force you into another position, or you ditch your unseen high school coach for a high-powered agent. It makes it all feel a bit more real.
The rest of the additions are tweaks in the grand scheme of things, but are still worth highlighting. Bunt cheese is effectively dead thanks to a rebalanced bunt system, killing one of the biggest scourges of online play in MLB 16. The ball also hooks and slices more realistically, resulting in more plays where it drops into a gap between three fielders. And on the PlayStation 4 Pro, at least, it feels remarkably smooth, especially if you're playing with High-Performance mode turned on over HDR and 4K.
Diamond Dynasty has likewise received its share of updates, including new online events that challenge you to use certain lineups. The Show's variant on Ultimate Team really came into its own last year, and it figures to continue its momentum through another season, even if it's still kind of annoying that I can't wear in-game uniforms. I really like how neatly its rewards tie into the rest of the game thanks to Missions—in-game objectives peppered throughout Franchise and Road to the Show that make it easy to earn XP and coins. And it benefits from its use of a commodities-style approach to its player market, which keeps values from swinging one way or another. Some may miss the metagame aspect of buying up certain players and sniping high-value cards late at night, but I like that MLB The Show keeps the focus on the games themselves.
It all comes together into what feels like a smart, cohesive package with very few real flaws. You can pick at its ongoing server troubles, or the fact that Road to the Show has some serious uncanny valley going on, but these nits are pretty small in the grand scheme of things. Probably my biggest problem with it is that it still feels kind of sterile at times, and that it lacks the kind of emergent storytelling you'll find in other games. Like the sport itself, MLB The Show is often quite conservative.
But when taken as a whole, it's difficult to complain. MLB The Show is a great, well-supported baseball sim with a faithful fanbase, and it's easy to recommend to both casual and hardcore fans alike. In that, some things never change.
MLB The Show does a much better job of organizing its information than it has in the past. Complex modes like Franchise and Diamond Dynasty are easy to parse despite being dense and complicated.
The atmosphere in the stadiums is great, the commentary less so. MLB The Show also now does that thing where it outputs sound through the DualShock's speaker. I turned that off in a hurry.
MLB The Show is gorgeous on the field, but a bit less impressive on it. The harsh indoor lighting and stiff animation of Road to the Show's new cutscenes really don't do the character models any favors, making them look like waxen mannequins; but when you're actually playing, they're a little better. A new MLB Network broadcast package also spices up the presentation a smidge.
At first blush, MLB The Show 17 is more of the same; but when taken together, it's actually a great update. It brings with it a lot of small but much-needed tweaks to the play on the field, and the graphics have never looked so good. Even better, Franchise mode actually feels approachable now. It leaves some opportunities on the table, but MLB The Show is still a great baseball sim that feels that much better with this year's update.