Even though Sony San Diego accomplishes the mind-blowing feat of producing a wonderfully polished, consistently improved baseball sim year after year, there’s an even bigger accomplishment that this first-party studio should hang its hat on. MLB The Show 16 is considerably more fun to play than actual Major League Baseball is to watch. Call me a baseball curmudgeon, but after my Red Sox managed to come back from an 0-3 deficit against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, baseball felt as though it would never live up to that level of bliss. Though I can’t say that I waited for my city’s team to win a World Series title for the full eighty-six years of The Curse of the Bambino, the sport found a way to become far less interesting to follow than the NBA, NFL and the NHL. However, if you take a sport that often feels as though it’s straight out of the past and add in insanely beautiful visuals, impressive RPG elements and a gameplay loop that has the potential to satisfy both casual and hardcore audiences, it’s hard not to be amazed. MLB The Show 16 isn’t perfect, as a number of server drops and extended load times during menu navigation bog down the experience, but the improvements made to this year’s title make it a blast to play, even for us lapsed baseball fans.
Because MLB The Show is an annual franchise, there are going to be a great deal of similarities between last year’s iteration and this year’s version. Make no mistake, Sony San Diego has certainly done enough to warrant plopping down the cash for the 2016 title, that much is certain, but baseball is certainly still the same sport it always has been. If you are absolutely opposed to swinging bats, shagging fly balls and throwing sliders, then you probably know that MLB The Show 16 is absolutely not the game for you. It’s for this reason that this review is going to focus on what is new in this year’s title. All of the staple modes that fans are accustomed to are present here, so it’s with great pleasure that we can report that this is certainly not another NHL 15 scenario (this seems to be the biggest fear with every annualized sports title at this point). Road to the Show is still going to allow you to live out your wildest multi-season scrub-to-star fantasy. Diamond Dynasty fills the obligatory card-based franchise-building void that sports gamers have come to expect from every title nowadays. There’s absolutely a Franchise mode that will allow you to run through season after season with your favorite squad. Oh, and you’re totally going to be able to play online with friends and strangers in order to stroke that ever present virtual ego that every gamer secretly has. It feels weird to praise a game for not detracting from what its audience has come to expect, but when there’s essentially nine months of development time between titles, it’s awesome to see that no concessions have been made in the newest annual release. However, what makes MLB The Show 16 stand out as a great entry in a heralded franchise is the fact that Sony San Diego managed to improve upon each of its modes, as well as its visuals, with tweaks ranging from quality of life improvements to full on new sub-modes.
Let’s start with the mode that a great deal of players are going to spend the majority of their time with: Road to the Show. If you were one of the many gamers out there who hated having to load in and out of menus after every single game, you’re going to love the fact that you’re able to play through an entire series without ever having to head back to the main Road to the Show menu. This mode is absolutely predicated on quick gameplay sessions, as you only control your created character during their at bats and fielding moments (if you’re looking for a quick experience, choose first or third base), so the idea of having to wait through loading screens after five minutes of gameplay is quite maddening. Luckily you can blast through three to four games at a time with this new improvement, and you’re even able to improve your character in between individual games. Training your character is also far more streamlined than ever before, though those who don’t like how simply the NBA 2K franchise has made its MyPlayer progression should be pleased to know that there is still a ton of depth to be found here. Gameplay perks, which have the ability to both passively and actively affect gameplay are unlocked as you hit certain statistical thresholds, and while there is something to be said about baseball’s so-called purity being hindered through these perks, they do a great job of dangling a carrot in front of players throughout the Road to the Show experience. From influencing the count when you’re at the plate to forcing fly balls to occur upon contact, these perks have the ability to completely change the course of an individual game, adding to the excitement. Don’t worry, though, the new ShowTime meter, which allows you to slow down time and create meaningful moments, is directly reduced by the use of these gameplay perks. These two additions create an added level of strategy into an experience that can quickly become repetitive, which makes Road to the Show feel fresher than ever before.
Diamond Dynasty represents the other addiction hole that MLB The Show 16 throws into the mix, and a combination of a revamped card system and a couple of new modes make for a far more varied experience. Aligning with a certain Captain, a new feature in this year’s iteration, is going to give you the chance to earn and purchase special cards from a unique store based upon that Captain’s unique skill set. Whether you’re trying to build a team based around power or insane pitching, there is a Captain that will greatly assist your progression. While this feature certainly adds depth to the already deep Diamond Dynasty experience, it’s easy to see newer players feeling overwhelmed by the addition of another level of progression here. Still, because of the variety in Diamond Dynasty’s gameplay modes, there’s likely going to be a gameplay mode that will rope you into this addictive mode. Conquest, the weaker of the two new offerings, brings turn-based elements into the traditional baseball experience, with players attempting to spread collections of fans across a hexagonal tile based map of the United States. The combination of a pretty clunky turn-based interface and the general sense that a card-based mode in a game about the most statistically-dense major American sport doesn’t really need to be any deeper. Navigating around the Conquest map feels far slower and less seamless than it should be, and considering that the far superior Battle Royale mode is present, it’s not tough to imagine a great deal of players avoiding this convoluted mode.
Battle Royale is far simpler to understand, something which benefits the addictive nature of perhaps the best major addition to MLB The Show 16. In Battle Royale, players engage in a twenty-five round fantasy draft, with each round based upon one of five tiers of player quality, in which they’ll build a roster of current and past players through the use of Diamond Dynasty player cards. Once the entire team is assembled, the next step is hopping into online lobbies in a quest to beat out opponents in short matches that feel more skill-based than all of the other online components. Add in the fact that two consecutive losses equate to tournament elimination, and the pressure for success is high enough to be a source of pure, unadulterated addiction. Of course, both Battle Royale and the aforementioned Conquest give you currency that allows you to build up your deck, thus allowing you to turn your customizable franchise into the team of your dreams. Oh, and those looking to design the team of their dreams will be happy to know that the franchise customization tools have also been improved significantly. From the ability to create logos in a manner similar to the Black Ops series to customizing the buttons and piping on your team’s jerseys, Diamond Dynasty is the very definition of gameplay depth in a sports title.
Though Franchise mode has certainly become far more robust than ever thanks to a number of statistical improvements, it’s hard not to wonder if Sony San Diego has made this mode a bit too deep for anyone who isn’t a diehard baseball fanatic. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely something to be said about the concept of improved financial modeling, but there comes a point where some of the heavy statistics become a bit too much to bear. After all, you can only add in so many numbers and figures into an already robust mode before it starts feeling more like QuickBooks or TurboTax than it does a video game. Yes, there are players out there who are going to love diving into the new scouting system, which takes far more player skills into account than ever, as well as the idea of maintaining your job security as a General Manager, but all of these additions feel like they were built more for those who were already in love with Franchise mode. Those looking to simply go through a fantasy draft and play out a few seasons are going to find the entire process far more confusing than its worth, and this is likely a result of this mode being designed to be fun after hour twenty rather than minute one.
A mere look at any trailer or screenshot demonstrates how breathtakingly gorgeous MLB The Show 16 is, though it isn’t without its technical follies. There’s nothing broken enough to outweigh seeing dynamic crowd NPCs and an insane new lighting system that manages to create accurate reflections off of different surfaces, but to say that MLB The Show 16 is an absolute technical masterpiece would feel somewhat like a fib. There is definitely some inconsistency in the framerate during certain cutscenes, with individual moments ranging from sub-thirty frames-per-second to roughly sixty. During my experience, there wasn’t a moment during the moment-to-moment gameplay that hindered my ability to do what I’d like to, but seeing stunning visuals stutter definitely detracts from the overall beauty here. Add this to the fact that all of the menus appear to be some of the most sluggish of the generation, and there is definitely still some work to be done in post-release patches to streamline the experience. While the Road to the Show menus seem to perform far quicker than everything else, each of the Diamond Dynasty modes suffer from dramatic loading that feels like borderline freezing during every choice. What’s more, during my very first Battle Royale draft, I experienced six or seven complete server drops, which forced me to head back to the main menu, select Diamond Dynasty and hope for the best. What should have been a five minute process ended up turning into a thirty minute affair, which is a shame considering Battle Royale is up there with Road to the Show in a race for the best part of MLB The Show 16.
Whereas NBA 2K16 found a way to take a step back last year with additions that didn’t feel wholly meaningful, MLB The Show 16 is a shining example of exactly how to make a great game even better. It’s not without its warts, but when you consider the talent and work ethic present at Sony San Diego, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the menu navigation and server dropping issues ironed out over the course of the next few weeks. Still, technical issues notwithstanding, MLB The Show brings meaningful additions to all of its major modes, with Battle Royale and the quality of life improvements in the addictive Road to the Show being the clear standouts here. A combination of depth and accessibility in all of its modes, with the exceptions of Franchise and Conquest, allows for even the most jaded former baseball fans to enjoy a trip to the virtual diamond, and this is no small feat. Oh, and it goes without saying that, as of this moment, MLB The Show 16 is the premiere way to see the Chicago Cubs emerge victorious in a World Series, so if you’re a resident of the South Side, you’re going to want to get your hands on this title as soon as possible. Okay, perhaps ending on a cheap Cubs dig wasn’t the best way to end this review, but let’s face it, your team is probably going to win it all this year, so it can’t really be that bad, can it?