It's been a strong generation so far for MLB The Show, which currently holds the distinction of being the only true baseball sim for any console.
Despite being a comparatively small studio, Sony San Diego has managed to put out a quality product year in and year out. Last year, MLB 15 The Show was one of my highest rated sports sims, outperforming better-known games like FIFA (though Rocket League was ultimately my favorite sports game of last year). And in hindsight, I stand by that score. I had a lot of fun with last year's version.
With baseball once again just around the corner, it's worth looking back on last year's version and seeing what it did right, what it did wrong, and what the outlook for 2016 will be.
What MLB 15 The Show Did Right
I'll start with the graphics: the MLB series is consistently one of the best-looking sports sims around. One of my favorite exercises is to get a CPU game going and see how long it takes my non-gamer friends to realize that they're looking at a videogame. It usually takes a while.
I'm consistently impressed by both the animation and the physics in MLB The Show - the way the ball comes of the bat, the smooth transition of catching and throwing a flyball, the way players slide into a base. It feels "right" in a way that no other sports game can quite replicate, absent maybe NBA 2K. MLB The Show has been positioned as a graphical showcase for the series for a long time now, and that tradition has continued onto the PlayStation 4.
More important for MLB 15 The Show, though, was that the online play actually worked. For the first time, it was actually fun to play with friends, dramatically increasing the amount of time I devoted to the series. A few of my friends even got a full online league going, ultimately playing well into the fall.
This was a big moment for the series. Up until 2015, online had been a total nightmare of lag, dramatically impacting the viability of modes like Diamond Dynasty. Now that online is at least viable, it can compete on a more even footing with other sports sims. True, it will never match the broad appeal of a game like FIFA or NBA, but the gulf no longer feels quite as broad.
Beyond that, MLB The Show does lots of little things right. When playing in franchise mode, you can lock to a single player, which dramatically improves the pace of the games and makes a "True 162" much more achievable. Quick Counts, though maligned in some quarters, further helps the pace. It's also possible to import old franchise and Road to the Show saves, allowing you to pick up where you left off with the previous year's version.
It's a slick, well-produced sim aimed squarely at the hardcore baseball fan, and one of the only sports sims to be consistently great on an annual basis.
What MLB 15 The Show Did Wrong
I suppose I should start with the flagship modes. The particulars of Road to the Show and Franchise have been in place for a long time now, and they haven't changed much outside of updates to the systems. Franchise has actually been stripped down in recent years as Sony San Diego has sought to eliminate what they perceive to be superfluous elements like selling hot dogs (and they're right to do so).
They do a decent enough job of standing up to career modes in other games, but they suffer a bit from feeling like "Spreadsheet: The Game" in their total lack of narrative. All sports games grapple with this to some degree; but where other sims have layered in complex morale-based negotiations, mini-story arcs, and varying degrees of social media, MLB The Show has... well... not much personality. They are generally well-made and do a good job of capturing the realities of managing a team in the league, but they don't really encourage replayability.
Commentary has been another sticking point for the series over the years. Matt Vasgersian and company are serviceable, but the current commentary struggles to illuminate ongoing trends or narratives outside of cursory notes about how one player or another is struggling or doing really well. The rest of the presentation is generally pretty good in the way it packages in highlights and hits big moments - hitting a walk-off home run is an amazing feeling - but it also feels like it's missing that emotional punch at times. Who knows, maybe that's just baseball.
Beyond that, it's tough to complain too much about MLB 15 The Show. Even Diamond Dynasty - the game's somewhat underwhelming Ultimate Team mode - blossomed in last year's version with its refurbished interface, though it could still use a greater variety of cards to prevent the game from falling into a rut. My friends who are baseball purists have gone almost over-the-top in their praise for the series over the past couple years; and while I've fallen out of baseball a bit myself, I have to say that I admire its consistent quality.
This Year's Outlook
Sony San Diego has established a pretty solid baseline of quality, so it's less about fixing issues with the gameplay and more about adding value. The back of the box items are pretty significant: A new "Showtime" mode that will make it easier to get big hits in big moments with bullet time-like mechanics, an online draft mode similar to that of Madden's Draft Champions, and player morale, to name just a few.
Showtime seems like it'll make or break this year's version. If it just ends up being turned off, it'lll be a shame. My feeling, though, is that it'll make it easier to feel like a superstar in the single-player game without impacting the overall balance, which is a worthy goal for a game where failure is baked into the mechanics.
I wouldn't expect Sony San Diego to take many risks with the overall formula. Road to the Show in particular is still fairly well-regarded despite being a tad stale, and a small team like Sony San Diego isn't going to risk blowing up a popular mode in the name of innovation. In that, baseball purists will likely continue to find MLB 16 a delight, while average gamers will start to find it a bit of a grind. It's still a great game, though.
All in all, expect this year to be business as usual for the most consistent sports sim around.