I want to state up front that MLB The Show 17 will probably be the game I spend the most time playing this year, and this is a year with a lot of big RPGs. I love the game of baseball, and every year Sony San Diego puts out a great videogame version of the sport with all of the trimmings you could ask for. I want to say this up front because parts of this review might sound very negative, and I want to make it clear how much I enjoy these games and how this year’s entry is no exception. I am just worried about some unsavory aspects that are starting to come to a head.
Ken Griffey Jr. dons the cover of MLB The Show 17, and to coincide with this throwback cover, the team at Sony San Diego decided to include a throwback mode (called “Retro Mode”), based primarily off of the old baseball games that carried Griffey’s name. In fact, they went so far in replicating Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball that they actually recorded a new version of the music from the NES game. It’s weirdly faithful to the source in a way that is hard not to appreciate, and it’s also a lot of fun. Retro Mode strips out a lot of the complexity of the modern games to create something that anybody can enjoy. It’s great to play with somebody who doesn’t care to learn the intricacies of the modern controls but still loves baseball, and it’s also fun for somebody who does like the modern modes but might just want to play a more relaxed game from time to time. It’s a great inclusion to the game, and I hope it isn’t just a one-year item.
But while the inclusion of Retro Mode is great, it does introduce some disappointment that I never expressed before. Each team in retro mode has a couple of legends from the team’s past on their roster, in addition to the modern team. While this is cool, it’s a shame that this is all the attention given to baseball’s past outside of legend cards in Diamond Dynasty. With a focus on “retro” baseball, this year’s game was a great opportunity to focus on baseball’s storied history. The incredible intro video is a great rendition of some of the sport’s best moments, but none of this manifests elsewhere in the game. It’s like the team is paying lip service to the past while not doing anything with it.
Forgetting about the past for a second, MLB The Show 17 is technologically a big step forward for the franchise. This is the first entry since 2007 that won’t appear on the PlayStation 3, and it shows. I have included a few comparison shots in this review, but basically everything from the lighting to the character models is drastically improved. The players still look dead-eyed, but they resemble their real-life counterparts a lot better than they have in year’s past. In fact, this is the first time where most players can be recognized from just the face alone. For a game that has no protagonist and has to have hundreds of equally good characters models, this is a pretty impressive feat.
The other presentational change this year is that Steve Lyons and Eric Karros are no longer announcers, and instead series mainstay Matt Vasgersian is joined by MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac. They’re fine. Plesac is better than Reynolds (as he is on TV), and they are both improvements over Karros and Lyons. However, the announcing is of the same basic quality that it always has been: good delivery, some decent analysis, great stat-keeping, inevitably repetitive dialogue, and occasional errors. It’s nice to get two new voices and a new set of lines that I will eventually learn to hate, but it is not the drastic overhaul that the series could benefit from.
Where there is a drastic overhaul is with the new ball physics. The way the developers describe the change is that now the ball is making contact with a bat whereas it was previously making contact with a wall. The result is a wider variety of the types of hits as well as being able to more accurately tell how you hit a ball. This sounds like something that wouldn’t matter, and at first I wondered if I was just tricking myself into believing it. But after going back to MLB The Show 16 for a little bit, I was able to confirm that there really is a difference. The batting feels more dynamic, and it is easier to tell what you are doing right or wrong at the plate. MLB The Show has never taken a step backward with its gameplay, but this is one of the largest steps forward that the franchise has seen in a while.
In terms of the feature set, MLB The Show 17 retains the three core pillars of Franchise, Road to the Show, and Diamond Dynasty. These three modes do a great job of catering to different audiences and all got some major updates this year. However, that doesn’t mean that everything surrounding them is perfect.
Road to the Show is the mode that probably received the largest update this year. This mode allows the player to create a character and follow their career from college prospect to middling MLB role player. Following the likes of the NBA 2K series, this year’s game makes the player created athlete more of a character. You are given dialogue choices for interactions with your agent, coaches, and the press. There isn’t much of a story in the game, and considering some previous efforts at sports game stories, this might for the better (looking at you, Spike Lee). However, what is there gives you enough of an opportunity to further personalize your player as well as make the mode more than just progressing from game to game. While they could probably add a little more in the form of voice acting or some minor story elements, I think that this is a good start and that they shouldn’t stray too far in that direction. Also, the new clubhouse presentation for the Road to the Show menus is rad.
Franchise also got some decent upgrades this year. Franchise is the mode for people like me who like to set lineups, look at stats, and run an organization. While I also like to play every game, I know a lot of people who simulate through their franchise games. This year’s game added some options that allow for a middle ground between these two extremes. Quick Manage lets you choose what your players do on any given pitch but simulates through the actual plays. This allows you to have some control over things but also complete games very quickly. Similarly, critical moments alert you when there is a game that matters for a playoff race, statistical milestone, or if there is potential for a walk-off hit. This allows you to play only the most important and exciting games while simulating the rest. Like I said, these options aren’t for me, but they work very well for what they are. Another small improvement to franchise mode is better menus. I expressed disappointment last year that the cool new morale system was hidden behind multiple layers of menus. Now it’s very clearly presented on the main menu along with everything else that you would want to be there.
Diamond Dynasty and its increasing prominence is where most of largest issues with the game manifest. Diamond Dynasty is a mode where you collect cards of both current and former players, create a lineup using these cards, and compete in a variety of modes. This is a great idea, as it brings back memories of collecting baseball cards and making teams with them as a kid. But it’s hard to get excited about sinking time into this mode when it’s very clear that the game wants you to sink money into it instead. You can buy in-game currency (stubs) that is used to buy card packs or individual cards on the community market. To give you a hint as to how the economy in the game works, a Mike Trout card currently costs 272,000 stubs on the community market. After playing the game for 80 hours, I have 20,000 stubs. 150,000 stubs (the highest total you can buy) costs $99.99 on the PlayStation store. Of course, Trout is an anomaly and the smart way to play is to spend stubs on the more reasonably priced card packs, but this still creates a pay-to-win atmosphere that hampers the whole mode. Thankfully the new Diamond Dynasty modes that were introduced last year and allow you to avoid this aspect are still there, and there is plenty of other great stuff in The Show 17, but the Diamond Dynasty economy is a problem that is getting worse, not better.
There is also the creeping nature of Diamond Dynasty, exemplified by the expansion of the missions that were in previous iterations. Missions are challenges that you can complete in a variety of different categories in order to earn stubs, XP, or cards. There are missions both for the Franchise and Diamond Dynasty modes. As of now, there are twenty-one sets of Diamond Dynasty missions and only one set of Franchise missions. Furthermore, a lot of the Diamond Dynasty missions require you to collect certain cards, forcing you to buy your way towards completing them. I like the idea of missions that encourage you to interact with the game in ways you might not otherwise. However, their implementation is just another example of the continual prominence given to a mode designed to milk money out of players. Another sign of this is that every time I start the game I’m greeted with a screen that shows about five news updates for Diamond Dynasty and applies to none of the rest of the game. Diamond Dynasty has a large community of people that enjoy it and is the only “live” component of MLB The Show 17, but the way that it is pushed so heavily is still very off-putting and a little concerning.
But maybe my fears are being a little misplaced. After all, modes like Challenge of the Week and Home Run Derby may be relegated to the doldrums of the mini modes menu, but they still exist and are as fully featured as always. Also, the most substantial upgrades this year came in the form of Retro Mode, new ball physics, and additions to Road to the Show and Franchise. Diamond Dynasty was actually the most neglected mode when it came to new features. That of course doesn’t discount the horrible economy and annoying pushing of the mode that is all focused around selling you stubs, but it does help alleviate the fears that the focus on Diamond Dynasty may eventually overtake the rest of the game. I’m still not convinced that this won’t be the case, but it isn’t yet. Until that fateful day comes, there is plenty of great virtual baseball to be played…
…Unless it’s online of course. The online servers are bad, always have been bad, and probably always will be bad. Games online aren’t unplayable as they’ve found a way to isolate lag to moments that don’t require precise timing, but it’s still noticeable and makes the act of playing online not fun.
Final Score: 4 Stars