The safest bet in all of sports video gaming is that the annual "MLB The Show" title will be an excellent all-around product. That's due in large part to the series' propensity to play it safe with its feature set while focusing instead primarily on gameplay refinement.
On the surface it might appear that "MLB The Show 17" steps outside its comfort zone with additions such as Retro Mode and new story-like elements for its Career Mode.But once again it's the gameplay that's leaned on heavily to compensate for a lack of innovation and any areas of stagnation. To a large extent it's good enough to do just that.
There weren't many gripes with gameplay to begin with, but "MLB The Show 17" addressed the main ones. The success of bunting has been reduced and slow fielding and throwing animations that lacked urgency and would cost outs or bases have been resolved.
The biggest general improvement to gameplay, however, will be seen through increased hit variety because of the implementation of some new ball physics. Ropes down the line, bloopers between converging outfielders and infielders, and slow rollers through the infield are now possible and immediately stand out.
Road to the Show has long been the definition of the "standard" Career Mode in a sports game. It hadn't changed dramatically in a decade with everything in the mode based on progression on-field rather than incorporating elements of a player's life away from it. What was done for Road to the Show in "MLB 17" isn't a Story Mode in the mold of what "NBA 2K" or "FIFA" offer, but it does bring a new feel to it and a better sense ofcontrol over your player's fate.
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It's presented as occasional documentary segments that pop up during the course of your player's career (in which only a narrator speaks), so there isn't a whole lot that it does fundamentally to change the mode. Instead, itacts as a layer on top of what was already there and brings some decision-making to the forefront. One of the first big choices to be made will be a proposed position change withoptions given on how to react to such a request.
Franchise Mode is largely unchanged from last year, with the big new features providing more options of how to not play the games within. It's a trend seen in most sports games now as they lookto alleviate the extensive time investment needed to complete single games and full seasons. Online Franchise is as good as dead at this point, as another year has gone by without anything being done for it.
"MLB The Show" offers arguably the best team-building mode in the genre with Diamond Dynasty. It's the most friendly for newcomers and provides the most rewards for simply playing games. Unfortunately, one design decision has made the mode considerably worse.
The handedness of the opposing starting pitcher is now shrouded in mystery until the games have actually begun, and that means there's no adjusting lineups to face a lefty or a righty. Instead, the strategy has to be all about balance at the plate. The ramifications of this were clear even before the game was released but have been seen in the early days as well. The players with higher prices in the marketplace are those who can hit effectively against both hands. Putting together creative lineups with players platooning can no longer be done, and alarge number of cards have been rendered obsolete because of this.
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There's a simple solution to the problem: allow for two lineups to be created — one vs. lefties and one vs. righties. The proper lineup would then be automatically utilized based on the random pitcher selected for the opposition.
Another gripe remains in that the uniform and logo creation process isincredibly difficult and time consuming. It's why most teams you'll see online are wearing fairly generic threads. The developers really need to make the process simpler, as has been done already in several other sports games.
"MLB The Show 17" has some parallels with one of the best sports games ever in "NBA 2K11." While they both featured an all-time great on the cover and within the games, they also struggled mightily with the server loads that accompanied the increased popularity. "NBA 2K" quickly grew beyond the studio's capabilities and it took them five years to get the online play right. "MLB The Show" facesa similar challenge.
Last year with "MLB The Show 16," the servers didn't reach a reliable stabilization point until more than two weeks had elapsed. Not only did it affect those playing online, but also those who stayed offline, as constant server check-ins are completed frequently for the purposes of tallying results and rewards. The entire game —loading into the main menu, getting into and out of "offline" games, and navigating Diamond Dynasty — would grind toa halt in primetime hours.
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"MLB The Show 17" has experienced some of that same slowdown. The entire first day of release, the servers were unavailable. Since then, there have been slowdown issues but just intermittently rather than constantly. While that server slowdown hasn't proven as agonizing as last year, the possibility that game results vanish and never post has become the biggest concern, along with other concerns aboutonline games that freeze, stallor crash.
Many games, whether they be online head-to-head or against the CPU, are being sent to the "Queue" after completion, with the outcomes never actually posting.I've already lost well more than three hours worth of games that were played in Diamond Dynasty. That's time that was completely wasted, as the results are needed to progress in the various modes that hand out rewards based on completion or win streaks. There isn't much that could be more infuriating than winning a game only to find out that none of what you had done actually mattered.
Commentary is one area that the developers attacked this year by bringing in two new voices (Harold Reynolds andDan Plesac) to team with Matt Vasgersian. It's refreshing to have the new personalities, though it's also obvious the group didn't record audio together and they repeat certain lines far too often.
Another aspect of presentation that's seen improvement is the broadcast package, which introduces MLB Network. Featuring authentic music and on-screen graphics, it's been handled very well and helps mix things up,as it's saved for only select games during a season or can be chosen from the options, which include two other broadcast packages.
Authenticity has always been one of the selling-points of the "MLB The Show" franchise, but that also led to its omissions and errors standing out more than they would have otherwise. This year they've finally been able to get the vast majority of uniforms into the game, though Detroit Tigers fans will have to deal with a mistake that leavesplayer names off their road uniforms.
Player faces are notably improved and there are more fan rituals seen in the stands, butthere are still no replay reviews for anything but plays at first base, no rain delays or rainouts to deal with during the season modes, and you aren't shown whether the pitcher on the mound is right handed or left handed when on the pinch-hitting screen.
There isn't much to say about Retro Mode, which seems like it was just slapped together mostly for marketing purposes. It's a really off-putting mix of old school on-screen graphics and music with currentplayer and stadium visuals. It's only used for one-off exhibition games, reducing whatever interest there may be for it to local competition.
Having grown up as a Mariners fan, I especially enjoythe inclusion of Griffey. He can be found in Diamond Dynasty or signed as a free agent in Franchise. I won't forget his rookie version robbing a 3-run home run in one of my first Diamond Dynastygames, or hitting the ball out of the park and seeing his follow-through come to life. Take him into the Home Run Derby and you'll even find him wearing his hat backward —which is a very cooltouch.
It's difficult to reconcile how great the core gameplay is in "MLB The Show 17" with how it can literally waste your time by not recording the results. Should the servers stabilize and become reliable, there isn't a better pure gameplay experience in the genre, and there's also a lot of content and value to be found in the traditional modes as well as its live services. Like the real baseball season, it may be a long grind to get there but the payoff will almost certainly be worth it.
Bryan Wiedey posts sports gaming news and analysis daily at Pastapadre.com, is co-founder of the sports gaming site HitThePass.com, hosts the "Press Row Podcast" and be reached on Twitter @Pastapadre.