With the playoff race in full swing, there could not be a more exciting time to talk about baseball. The crowded American League Wild Card race and the resurgence of my New York Yankees has inspired me to dig deeper and finally dedicate some time to this year’s version of MLB The Show. Sony San Diego’s baseball sim is now the only one of its kind on the market, but that hasn’t affected the game’s quality up to this point. This franchise has consistently been a great virtual representation of the sport I love, and this year’s version is no exception.
MLB The Show is always one of the best looking games on console, and the franchise saw upgrades in that regard this year. The new physics based rendering affects the way light reflects off of objects. This subtle difference makes woods and metals pop a little more, and it makes your favorite MLB stadiums look better than they ever have in the past. The anti-aliasing is also improved, as there as less jaggies on the players than there have been in year’s past. But the biggest improvement comes in the form of animations. A player’s motions now flow into each other much more smoothly than they have in past years, leading to fewer jarring transitions. However, the franchise is also reaching the uncanny valley. Dead eyes on the players, low texture crowds and walls, and the occasional janky animation continue to stick out more and more with each entry.
What also sticks out this year is how poor the commentary is. Matt Vasgersian, Eric Karros, and Steve Lyons return, but they are not the problem. They have good chemistry, and they are all pleasant to listen to. The problem is the repetitive and non-specific lines of dialogue that are regurgitated while you play. Often times you will here them refer to the player at bat as “he” or “this guy” as opposed to their actual names. It’s understandable that they can’t have dialogue recorded for every player in every situation, but this sticks out the most when they try to tell statistical anecdotes the same way a real announcer would. Talking about a guy having an ERA above 4 or hitting better from the left side of the plate is the type of analysis you expect to hear, but it loses its impact once you hear it said about ten separate players. The team at Sony San Diego could really take a cue from the NBA 2K franchise. Sure, you hear the same stories every game in that franchise, but the fact that they have about a dozen specific anecdotes for each team makes the commentary feel more natural and helps fill dead air.
But while the audio presentation leaves something to be desired, the user interface got a nice overhaul this year. When a ball is in play, there will always be a diamond in the upper right corner of the screen displaying the runners. This is nothing new, but the ever-present L1 and R1 buttons telling you how to send everybody forward or backwards is helpful for new players. Also helpful is the fact that the players are now represented by a circle that constantly displays how fast they are, useful information when deciding whether or not to test the outfielders arm on a play at the plate. Also added this year is the constant reminder of how to steal and pick-off. Adding all of this information could have proven intrusive for veterans of the series, but it manages to stay out of the way while still be useful. For a franchise that is often accused of being off-putting to newcomers, it is good to see them taking steps towards accessibility.
Moving away from the general gameplay and into the modes on offer in MLB The Show 16, this year’s game retains the same three pillars of Franchise, Diamond Dynasty, and Road to the Show. This is a good mixture of modes offering something for three different types of players. Road to the show appeals to those who want to put themselves in the action, and work on building a player from the ground up. Diamond Dynasty offers something similar, but instead focuses on building a team. It appeals to people who like other card based modes such as Madden or FIFA’s Ultimate Team modes. Franchise is for the statistics nerds like myself who want to min-max a lineup, make organizational moves, and play games as their favorite team. These aren’t all that are on offer in MLB The Show 16, but they are the big three that you see at the main menu.
Of the three, franchise mode got the least substantial updates. The only real change is the morale system, which determines a players satisfaction with their current situation based on location, playing time, team record, and a few other factors. They will get a statistical boost or drop depending on how happy the are. This is a good addition, and I love the way that the pages clearly display what makes them happy or unhappy. It’s a way to add consequences to some of your roster decisions. However, it is not easy to find. You have to dig into a player’s player card to find it, and there is no screen where you can see your entire team’s morale. You also can’t easily tell how happy a player you sign or trade for will be when they join your team. For something toted as the big new feature and something that I found useful, I was disappointed with its lack of prominence within the mode.
Road to the Show on the other hand has gotten a lot of attention this year. The back of the box feature is “Show Time”, which is basically a glorified quick time event that allows you to make a tough throw or catch. It’s also used to slow down time in order to get a good jump off the bag or follow a pitch on its way to the plate. It can lead to some cool moments, but I found it to be ultimately unnecessary and somewhat intrusive if you are playing a position like third base where almost every throw requires you to use it. The rest of the changes are great though. You now start the mode with the Bowman Scout Day, which gives you an opportunity to participate in a number of drills and two games that can raise or drop your draft stock. This is a nice way to introduce the mode and potentially raise your profile entering the league. You also unlock perks as you increase your stats now. Some of these are passive perks such as “the opposing team commits more errors” that will automatically be in effect for the entire game. The rest are active perks including “any ball hit will be a flyball” or “the runner on first will steal”. These only last for one pitch or at-bat and cannot be reused until the next game. They add a great deal of strategy to the game, allowing you to do things such as hit a sacrifice fly in order to bring a runner home or try to start a hit and run. But the most important improvement in road to the show is that it is much faster now. You no longer have to go to the play by play in between moments that involve you. Once one play with your player is over, the game automatically goes to the next one seamlessly. There are also a lot fewer times where the game gives you a play that you actually have no involvement with. This, combined with the ability to play an entire series without a loading screen makes road to the show a much more enjoyable experience than it has been in years past.
Diamond Dynasty also got substantial upgrades with the addition of two new modes. Conquest is a singleplayer mode that mixes baseball with turn based strategy. You compete with the 30 MLB teams for territory on map of the United States (and part of Canada), using fans as a way to measure your strength in certain regions. It can be a little confusing at first, but I actually found the mode to be a lot of fun. It is not the deepest turn based strategy game out there, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable to wipe to Colorado Rockies off the face of the Earth. Plus, it’s a way for me to enjoy Diamond Dynasty without dealing with the franchise’s traditionally terrible online services. Network issues that have hampered this series for years are still present in MLB The Show 16. I wasn’t getting disconnected from games or anything like that, but both the consistent lag and the game occasionally not picking up on my inputs or picking up incorrect inputs were game breaking for me. Baseball is a game determined by seconds whether at the plate or in the field. The fact that they can’t deliver a seamless experience online is a major problem that makes me not want to interact with the online modes. It’s a shame too because the newly added Battle Royale mode is a great concept, admittedly stolen from last year’s Madden. Instead of playing as your usual Diamond Dynasty team, you are able to draft a team from scratch. Each round of the draft you are given four cards to choose from in a specific tier. You then take this team online and play against people until you get defeated twice. It’s a nice way to give you experience playing with higher level cards, and the double elimination makes the games super tense. It’s just a shame that the mode is practically unplayable.
MLB The Show is still the best baseball game you can buy, both by default and because it’s a high quality game. Road to the Show saw huge improvements this year, conquest mode is a fun distraction, and some small technical and UI enhancements can go along way. This just makes it a shame that both the commentary and the network infrastructure are stuck in the previous generation. MLB The Show 16 is the best entry in the franchise to date, but it is still held back by some of the franchise’s persistent problems.
Final Score: 4 Stars