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Take me out to the ballgame

I’ve loved sports all my life, and while football and hockey have earned copious amounts of my attention over the years, my first love remains baseball. Many of my earliest sports memories revolve around playing, watching, and studying the game (my 1995 MLB Almanac that began my obsession with statistics still holds a special place in my personal library). So, it’s no wonder that I get an extra spring in my step when Opening Day begins to roll around once more. I start studying rosters, rotations, scouting reports, schedules, and more with the tenacity of an FBI manhunt for a most wanted criminal.

In recent years, my annual routine has slightly shifted to include playing MLB The Show. I’ve picked up every copy of the game since 2010, and have found it is a great way to prepare for the season—even if it’s never exactly been perfect. But each year I still return to the only true baseball simulation on the market to help take the edge off when I need a fix of America’s pastime.

This year’s entry into the annual franchise, MLB The Show 16, looked to enhance the game in every aspect and mode while also adding a bevy of new features, especially in their online suite. Some of these changes add a lot to the experience, and I can say Sony San Diego knocked them out of the park. Others, however, are clear swing and misses.

Visually, the game is stunning. More realistic lighting, and a whole slew of new hitting, running, and fielding animations makes this easily the prettiest entry in the series thus far. Even after putting nearly two-dozen hours into the offline modes, there wasn’t a glitch to be found.

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The core modes of MLB The Show—Franchise and Road to the Show—have also seen upgrades. Franchise mode, which gives you total control over your favorite MLB team, has more stats than ever before, and finally gives a player’s full career history when you look at their numbers. Baseball is a stats driven game, and it’s about time this was included.

Also, taking a page out of EA Sports’ NHL franchise, players now have morale indicators based on a variety of factors. These influence their performance, as well as the likelihood of them signing or re-signing a contract with your team. Whether your team is located close to their home, how much money you’re offering, the coach, your team’s position in the standings, and much more will affect the player’s happiness level, making contract negotiations a more involved process than just throwing more money at players.

Road to the Show, which gives you a chance to create a player and live out your own major league aspirations, has added even more new features than Franchise. One new aspect in particular hugely changes gameplay here, and it’s called “Showtime”. This special meter allows players to slow down time and focus on really big moments. Need to make a diving catch to save a run? Stepping to the plate, down by three with the bases loaded and wanting to walk-off in style? Slow down time, hone in on the moment, and come through in the clutch. It takes a fair amount of time to get used to—especially when you slow down your at-bats at the plate—but when you get the timing down, it’s a fun new wrinkle to help accelerate your player’s growth from AA-prospect to MLB-superstar.

Another way that RTTS accelerates your development is that you can play entire series after one load screen. Sitting down and fast-forwarding to each of your at-bats and moments in the field in three or four game clips really zips you through the minors if you’re good enough. I polished off my first month of the season in just a couple hours, a process that used to take much longer in previous years.

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Besides this, new training tools allow you to add perks to your players as they improve, like better contact when hitting to cut down on strikeouts in high-pressure situations, or increasing the likelihood of opponents making errors in the field so you always get on base. The mode even kicks off with a chance to play in the Bowman Scout Day, helping define your player the second you start down the path to a major league career.

The biggest changes that came to MLB The Show 16, though, easily fall under Diamond Dynasty, MLB’s online fantasy mode that lets you put together a dream team by collecting different player cards. More cards are available than ever before, and that’s because of a new category called “Flashbacks.” These cards feature superstar players who might be in the twilight of their career, but with statistics from different chapters of their MLB playing time. Texas Rangers MVP Alex Rodriguez, and Oakland Athletics rookie Kurt Suzuki are just a couple of the new cards featured, and Legend cards also return featuring the likes of Nolan Ryan, making it so you can turn your online team into a juggernaut in no time.

To help flesh out your rosters, there are also more ways than ever to get cards, using either the franchise’s traditional in-game currency earned by playing the game known as “stubs,” or the brand new ticket currency added to MLB The Show 16. When you start the game, you’ll be allowed to pick from one of six special captains from around baseball: cover boy and reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson from the Blue Jays; Mets pitcher Jacob DeGrom; retiring Red Sox slugger David Ortiz; defending world champion Royals first-baseman Eric Hosmer; Astros speedster second baseman Jose Altuve; and Cubs superstar first-baseman Anthony Rizzo. By playing different modes in MLB The Show 16, you’ll earn experience towards each captain. In a way, the six captains work as a form of prestige for the game itself, because by leveling up each captain to their max, you’ll have a chance to buy special cards associated with each one at higher levels. Each captain also offers unique challenges towards earning those award tickets, which can then also be redeemed for special reward cards.

I like the idea behind the captain system, but I think, as it is, it’s a bit too convoluted. Trying to keep track of what challenge you’re going for and introducing a second currency feels like a ham-fisted attempt at trying to jam more overarching content into the game. Plus, limiting the system to only these captains—instead of offering less levels to max each one out, but representing each team around baseball—feels like a missed opportunity. Not to mention, you can always find a lot of the cards being offered in random packs or the game’s online auction house. The inside track this mode offers doesn’t really expedite anything, considering the grind to max each captain out to get to the best cards available.

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There are also two new modes in MLB The Show 16’s online suite of games.

Diamond Dynasty is no longer limited to just playing people in head-to-head matchups, as there’s now also a weird RTS Risk-style game where you take your team online in an attempt to conquer all the other MLB teams across North America. By playing and winning repeated games, you’ll earn more fans and your influence will grow. When you completely absorb the fan base of another team, you’ll conquer their region.

I love the concept, but as is, even with each game being limited to 3-inning exhibitions, this mode is a grind to play. It might take you days to beat Conquest even once, and considering the game forces you to play on higher difficulties when you have fewer fans (or your fans are too spread out between multiple fronts), the reward for playing feels minimal compared to the time investment.

The other new mode is Battle Royale, which takes a page out of EA Sports’ Madden playbook in that it comes off a lot like their Draft Champions. You begin the mode by drafting a 25-man team from current and hall of fame baseball players. After setting your line-up, you have to hop online and play 3-inning games against human players. If you win, you’ll earn more player cards. The more you win, the better cards you get, and the stiffer the competition you’ll face as online rankings start being taken into account. If you lose twice, the mode is over and you have to re-draft and start over, trying to win crappy cards again before moving on up. The mode is also a gamble as it requires 1500 stubs to play. That isn’t a monumental amount, but it’s enough for most folks to take pause before jumping right in—and the rewards don’t feel like they justify the time sink.

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Unfortunately, I ran into one major issue with these new modes during my time with MLB The Show 16, and that’s the fact that they require you to be online in order to play them (unlike RTTS and Franchise). Lo and behold, just like almost every other year, the game’s servers have been completely unstable at launch. In fact, in the first 48 hours of playing post-release, I’ve had more full disconnects from MLB The Show’s online servers than I’ve been able to connect and finish a 3-inning game with people. And even when I do connect, the lag is atrocious.

Talking with friends and even the strangers I’ve played online, I’ve found they are experiencing the same issues. I’ve played other online games without a hitch, again pointing to the fact that just like every year, Sony San Diego could not get their online act together in time for launch. It’s a huge disappointment, especially considering these new modes are all tied directly to online play.

There also seems to be a tendency on Sony San Diego’s part to fix things that aren’t broken instead of fixing things that are. I’m sure the servers will get to a better point sooner rather than later, but minor things like UI changes to the menus and stat cards for players—including player stamina meters now being a circle bar instead of a more clearly readable long bar like in last year’s game—just seem wholly unnecessary when you have these sorts of netcode problems.

A part of me wonders if it all stems from the fact that MLB The Show 16 maybe tried to offer too much new stuff this go around. Had they focused on making a couple of the new features they included as polished and user-friendly as possible, and for once had a smooth online launch, this could’ve been a very special baseball sim. As it is, it is very good, with some solid ideas being added, yet you can’t help but knock them for botching online play again—especially when the majority of new features are connected to it. You can’t win the World Series in the first month of the season, but you can lose it with a slow start, and there’s no doubt that MLB The Show 16 at least stumbled out of the gate on that one. That said, if you need a baseball fix and find you spend most of your time playing RTTS and Franchise modes anyway, MLB The Show 16 delivers in spades on those fronts.

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Developer: SCEA San Diego • Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 03.29.16
8.0
MLB The Show 16 continues to find innovative ways to push the series forward by adding new features and improving on old ones. Some new problems have arisen, however, and old ones—most notably the horrendous stability of online play—continue to persist and hold the series back.
The Good Deeper Road to the Show mode, better visuals, and the concept of new online modes.
The Bad The online play itself is as atrocious as ever.
The Ugly Even with thousands of new lines of commentary recorded, Steve Lyons, Eric Karros, and Tom Vasgersian still started to repeat themselves after only a half-dozen games or so.
MLB The Show 16 is available on PS4 and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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