Some of us root for teams that regularly lose 90 games (glares at the Twins), but plenty of other people are legitimately excited for baseball season. And, as usual, MLB The Show is the best possible way to experience the sport as a videogame.
On March 28, Sony San Diego will be kicking off the baseball season with the release of MLB The Show 17, bringing with it the usual array of new features. But where does the series sit going into the new year? That's an excellent question.
What MLB The Show Does Well
MLB The Show has been probably the most accurate sports simulator since the days of the PlayStation 3 (not counting spreadsheet sims like Out of the Park Baseball and Football Manager). Sony San Diego nailed The Show's physics simulator and animation sometime ago, and it's apparent in the way the ball leaves the bat and players field the ball. MLB The Show just feels "right" in a way that no other sports sim, absent maybe NBA 2K, quite manages.
MLB The Show's feeling of authenticity is aided by its spectacular graphics. The Show has long had some of the best-looking, most accurate stadiums around, and its character models are always excellent. Sony likes to treat The Show as a kind of graphical showcase, which is evident in the attention lavished on its visuals.
In all honesty, the overall look and feel of MLB The Show hasn't changed a huge amount over the years, but Sony has nevertheless managed to layer in a number of useful tweaks. The ability to lock on to a single hitter or pitcher, for instance, makes games go much more quickly. Likewise, the sometimes-maligned Quick Counts, which drop you into the middle of an established count, help the pacing considerably.
More recently, the bulk of Sony San Diego's attention has gone to building out Diamond Dynasty, the game's Ultimate Team mode, making it significantly more enjoyable. But for Sony San Diego, improvement has long come in degrees, with little tweaks here and graphical upgrades there. Still, the overall experience has been consistently strong, pleasing even the staunchest of baseball purists.
Where MLB The Show Struggles
The flipside of Sony San Diego's conservative updates is that Road to the Show and Franchise mode have gotten, well, kind of stale. Both are very straight-ahead modes with very few frills outside of the elaborate celebration animations. MLB The Show has nothing approaching NBA 2K's excellent presentation or FIFA's emergent storytelling, anything resembling a narrative being buried under loads and loads of stats, which is a problem with baseball in general (no, I don't hate fancy stats, leave me alone).
Some of MLB The Show 16's new features were likewise hit or miss. Last year's edition brought with it a "Showtime" mechanic that made it easy to paint the corner for a strike, but ultimately did little for hitting. It should be mentioned that pitching has always had a major advantage over hitting in The Show, in part because the latter requires considerably more skill. It's one of a handful of issues that Sony San Diego has wrestled with for years now, with only marginal improvement.
Speaking of which, MLB The Show's commentary is still really bad, adding almost nothing in terms of narrative or flourish to the overall experience. It's been the same for years, which leads me to think that Sony San Diego has made a calculated bet that most people don't actually care about commentary unless it's especially grating or inaccurate. Again, this is another area where Sony San Diego's conservative approach to MLB The Show's updates are apparent.
Mostly, Sony San Diego is aware that they have a small but extremely dedicated audience of baseball purists, and their updates are geared toward keeping those fans happy. For everyone else, MLB The Show is an amazing but dense and inaccessible graphical showcase. But at least the online play has improved over the years.
This Year's Outlook
After all the talk about conservative updates, there are signs that MLB The Show is going all out with this year's version. Sony San Diego signaled their intentions early on by putting Ken Griffey Jr. on the cover in a seeming bid to recall the time NBA 2K featured Michael Jordan. Among its additions is Retro Mode—a special feature that serves as a tip of the hat to the classic Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, and which should serve as a warm nostalgia trip for baseball fans.
Road to the Show also appears to have been livened up a bit with in-game cutscenes and conversations with important figures like your agent. Called "Pave Your Path," it will feature a lot more interactions that will influence your overall career, adding a bit more of a roleplaying element to the otherwise staid experience. Franchise Mode, meanwhile, takes a page from Madden's excellent Play the Moment with "Critical Situations," which drops you into key moments that will decide each game. This may the year that I finally have the patience to play through an entire season without breaking down and simming to the playoffs.
I'd be remiss if I didn't add that the PlayStation 4 Pro is out now, and with MLB The Show being a first-party Sony franchise (and a graphical showcase to boot), it's apt to take advantage of all of the platform's bells and whistles. If you're a baseball fan and you haven't invested in a fancy new 4K set, this may be the year.
Looking at The Show 17's feature set, it seems apparent that Road to the Show has received the biggest boost, with Pave Your Path finally, finally, finally bringing it up to the level of other modern superstar modes. Will it be enough? We'll see. But either way, this sure looks like one of the most ambitious updates MLB The Show has seen in years.