"MLB: The Show '17" opens with the dulcet tones of Vin Scully over a live-action video of classic baseball moments like Lou Gehrig's famous "luckiest man on earth" speech and last year's Cubs World Series win drawn by an artist in time-lapse on a chalk scoreboard, creating a mosaic of baseball history. It's subtle and poignant, a reflection on the sport and the video game franchise as the latter enters its second decade. Watching it, it's clear that the people who work on this game love baseball and care about it, and that care is evident in every bit of "The Show '17" as it pays tribute to the past and future of the world's greatest non-scripted sport. This is the most complete, well-crafted "Show" yet.
The kid stays in the picture
Considering its choice of the legendary Ken Griffey Jr. as cover athlete, it's no surprise the most-ballyhooed addition to "The Show '17" is a Retro Mode that evokes the slugger's own 16-bit baseball franchise. This mode tosses the complex simulation of "The Show" aside in favor of a high-angle camera and simplified control setup -- fielding, batting and pitching are all accomplished with combinations of the analog stick and the X button.
With era-appropriate music and sound effects, pixelated chyrons, and even Griffey himself commenting on the plays, this mode is undoubtedly charming and fun. After a few innings, though, I found myself sorely missing the depth of the main game and thinking they might have scaled it back too much. While it's kind of shallow to be the key addition this year, as a side attraction it adds a lot to the overall package and reinforces the game's implicit nostalgic themes, which makes the lack of online for the mode all the stranger -- you'll have to have your old friends come visit you in-person to reminisce.
Road to the Show remains the best part of the game, and every year Sony San Diego inches closer to making the mode a full-fledged baseball RPG. New this year is the Pave Your Path feature, which adds to the mode's narrative by portraying key moments in your player's career -- being called up to the majors, deciding whether to enter the draft, being traded -- and giving dialogue options and choices that theoretically impact said career. While not all the choices have a meaningful impact on your player's career, some occasionally added surprising emotional heft. In particular, an unexpected post-season trade to the Blue Jays farm team hurt both my pitcher Bubba Bottomley and myself more than I expected. It's a great addition to the mode.
That said, these cutscenes are played out with awkward animations and a lack of voice acting, save for the intonations of a documentary narrator that sounds more like he's narrating a middle school biology filmstrip than discussing a young baseball player's experience. While budget may have been a factor, it's hard not to feel like this mode could use higher production values, particularly in light of the "NBA2K" series' theatrical-quality presentations. Road to the Show remains the best campaign mode in sports games so it's a minor gripe at most. I spent most of my time in this mode this year and I'll likely continue doing so going forward. I have to see how Bubba's career turns out, after all.
Across the board, every major mode got some love this year, though the team seems to have wisely decided what isn't broken doesn't need to be fixed. Diamond Dynasty has returned and is as good as ever, bringing back last year's excellent Battle Royale draft and also for some reason dragging concentrated anti-fun mode Conquest along for the ride again. Collecting virtual baseball cards and building a team across multiple modes in an attempt to stack your lineup with stars from all eras is still deeply satisfying, and the lack of contracts and consumable items makes the mode feel like less of a financial sinkhole than anything EA or 2K is putting forth in their respective fantasy modes. I had a blast playing Moneyball on the in-game marketplace late into the evening one night, recouping a meager $10 investment several times over and turning it into a substantially stronger squad and visual rewards for my profile.
Franchise mode has struggled to keep my attention in the past due to the astronomical time burden, but I appreciated the new modes designed to speed things up. Franchise managers can now either choose Player Lock, which only asks the player to play out at-bats and defensive opportunities for a particular player, or Quick Manage, which turns "The Show" into a simple text-based management sim with a menu of options for each at-bat that lets you crank a game out in five minutes or less. These modes are not without quirks: Quick Manage is a little dull, and the Player Lock mode can feel disorienting because of the locked camera angle and alternate control scheme -- I lost more than a few routine plays as a result. Neither mode is quite as clean a solution to speeding up gameplay as the Quick Counts introduced earlier in the series, but as someone with a busy schedule I'm happy "The Show" is still trying to meet me halfway.
The beautiful game
This is the first year in a while Sony San Diego hasn't had to split development duties between the PS3 and PS4 and they made the most of it. "The Show" looks and plays better than it has since the current-gen leap, with better lighting and improved player animation that was noticeable even when I was playing in lower-resolution Remote Play mode on my laptop. Those animations contribute to smoother, less finicky gameplay than years past by improving the overall speed of in-game actions -- outside of the aforementioned Player Lock issues I felt like I had fewer unforced errors than before.
While the game does offer some significant resolution and framerate upgrades for PS4 Pro users it also still looks outstanding on the standard model, with surprising amounts of detail like wear on the ball and texture on the uniforms you'll only notice if you zoom in on replays. That detail can extend to unexpected places -- I got a chuckle when I saw a fan try to scoop up a routine foul ball only to fall head-over-heels over the guardrail. The player models and textures also look substantially better this year, though quality does seem to vary in terms of their fidelity to the real-world athletes and they generally lag behind the likes of "NBA2K" overall. The game's broadcast presentation also got a noticeable upgrade, with cleaner menus, MLB Network-inspired trimming, and a new announce team that's both insightful and pleasant to listen to. I'd much rather hear these guys call the World Series than Fox's team.
Baseball is a numbers game, and I really liked that this game's improved stat-tracking system, which measures your batting average, ERA, and any other stat an amateur sabremetrician could ask for across all the game modes. In a particularly cool addition, the achievements compare your in-game stats to real-world players -- it'll take a while to reach 14,053 at-bats like Pete Rose but the game will let you know when you do. I also appreciated the new and improved Missions, which not only provide unique player cards, Stubs, and experience but reward the player for learning how to navigate the game's systems. Everything you do feels like it matters in some way, whether it's unlocking profile icons or new reward tiers, so it's hard not to want to spend some time with the game.
The most welcome changes in my time with "The Show '17" were those aimed at the user interface. Everything from load times to menu clutter feels overhauled and improved, and it's nice to see the trend toward greater ease of use continue year-to-year when other major sports franchises seem bound and determined to do the opposite. That said, it is important to note that the online experience is woven deeply into the game, and several modes require server checks to operate -- that means if the servers are struggling (as they did throughout launch week), the menus can take a while to load if they load at all. Online play was relatively smooth in the games I played, though the same slight stutter between player action and pitch outcome present in last year's game is still in this one. It's never enough to ruin the experience, but it's enough to throw you off until you get used to it.
Sending in the closer
It's always easy to recommend "The Show," and even easier on its best years. While there are still a few rough spots, it's hard to look at this year's edition and not come away impressed by the sheer amount of content and modes, as well as the polished gameplay and player experience improvements. This is a gigantic care package of baseball, with countless ways to play the game for both hardcore and fair weather fans alike. I'll be spending lots of time with this game all year, even when my Tigers inevitably hit a brick wall in August (prove me wrong, boys, prove me wrong). "MLB: The Show '17" is a love letter to baseball and its fans, and one of the secret best reasons to own a PS4.
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