Buy MLB The Show 17
I'm not what you'd call a baseball fan. I respect the game and all of the workmanship and craft that goes into it, but you can also add my complaints about baseball to the game's critical echo chamber: It's a little boring. It's too "old" and stodgy. I don't know who anyone is. The games can be timed with a sundial.
That's what makes my slight addiction to MLB The Show 17 a little shocking. It shouldn't be happening, but here I am, writing this. I've just come off a series with my created pitcher, and I'm still angry about my failed splitter in the 6th inning being sent into the stands. It's a game that seems to be made for people like me, giving me fun baseball without having to give up its soul. There are no flaming balls or cartoonish gimmicks. MLB The Show 17 got me with a little history, a little story and a lot of flexibility.
Like most sports games, a biblical list of game modes can be found, but the one I spent the most time in — or more accurately, got completely lost in — is Road to the Show, the series staple that chronicles the journey of a player you make (using a player-creation engine superior to some RPGs) from his time in the minors throughout his career in the major leagues.
I learned how to actually play the game through this mode, which gives you an idea of how accessible it is. I'll get to the gameplay mechanics later, but what I appreciated most about this mode were its story elements that reminded me of every RPG game I've played.
There's a narrator who chimes in from time to time to outline the situation for your player during key moments in his career, like when he decides to sign with an agent or when he gets picked in the draft. You can select how your player responds to certain things, which brought to mind Mass Effect — which is not something I thought I'd be thinking about when playing a baseball game.
When my minor-league manager asked if I'd be willing to pitch in relief for a few games instead of being a starter, my responses ranged from being the quintessential team player to a cocky diva. I went somewhere in the middle and got a short lecture from my manager warning me about my budding hubris (not his exact words because most baseball managers don't talk like that).
Interspersed in this mode is actual gameplay and the ability to build up your player. You earn training points to improve your skills, so to RPG players, it'll feel a little like grinding through enemies repeatedly to make your player stronger in the ways you want. The catch was that I had to remember to feed my guy training points every now and then; if you go too long without training, your player's skills will start to slip. During the off-season, your pitching coach will offer to work with you on some of your pitches, which leads to a pitching practice minigame that can also lead to some extra points. It's your choice.
I liked the speed at which I progressed throughout the early parts of my player's young career. Since you're only worried about what your player is doing, games can fly right by. It's a little slower for pitchers than for position players (pitching innings in a whole game vs. at-bats and the occasional defensive play).
Over the course of an entire career (or even a full season in Road to the Show), the narration can get repetitive, and there are only so many training minigames I actually want to do.
Also, unless I missed some way to automate the process, I didn't like having to constantly point-up my player, since it made it nearly impossible to simulate chunks of a long season without worrying if my created pitcher would suddenly forget how to throw a fastball after a month. For the record, he didn't.
No matter what position I played or even what mode I was playing in, Sony Interactive Entertainment made sure I stayed there because of the way they built the gameplay. It's one of the more airtight packages of controls, visual elements and fun ideas that I've seen in a sports game.
I enjoyed the diversity of hitting and pitching approaches, which help determine how hardcore you want to be about the experience. Some people just want to pitch and swing and just have one or two buttons to worry about, while others probably like to use a combination of the buttons and thumbsticks to break things down to the exact spot, control pitch speeds, eyeball the breaks on pitches or dissect hitting zones.
I'm somewhere in the middle, where I want to feel like I accomplished something, but I don't want to obsess about missing the front-door sinker three at-bats ago, whether a changeup is coming down and away with slightly different velocity than before, or which quadrant of the strike zone I should aim with my bat. If you're new to The Show like I was, these are the moments in-game tutorials live for, and that The Show provides.
I settled on the "pulse" method for pitching, where I used the thumbsticks to spot the location of my pitches and then had to time the pressing of one of the face buttons (each denoting a pitch) to determine how accurate my pitch would be. For hitting, I settled on having buttons for three different kinds of swings, and then I used the left stick to control my swinging "zone" for ideal contact.
The game can turn every facet of baseball into a minigame. Sometimes, you'll need to press R1 in a semi-QTE sequence to make a diving catch at third base before the ball rockets past you, or you'll have to aim the crosshairs at a teammate and hit R2 if you're trying to turn and throw to nail a runner. The sheer number of controls can seem overwhelming at first, but they also become intuitive with each passing at-bat, outfield assist or base steal.
Pulling R2 enacts "Showtime," which turns an at-bat into a Max Payne/Matrix bullet-time sequence that slows down the ball and lets you watch it settle into your strike zone, so you can have the chance to smash it out of the stadium — or foul it off. Few things annoyed me more than using Showtime and then hitting into a double play because my timing sucked. Such is the nature of the game.
One of my favorite aspects of the game experience is how fast it can be. I'm certain there are some digital baseball samurai out there who can churn through all nine innings of a 162-game season while managing trades, drafts, free agency, lineup changes and contracts in a full season or franchise mode. For the rest of us, during a game, you have the option of playing the whole game using everyone or playing as just one guy, with the game skipping ahead to the times he's up to bat or in position to do some fielding. Doing this, games can take 10 minutes or less. Combined with the ability to instantly simulate weeks of the season at a time, you can have a full-time job and peel through a fun season while winning a Triple Crown or Cy Young with your favorite player in less than a week. That's what fantasy baseball means to me.
There isn't much to say about the game visually because there are only so many ways to say it accurately reflects what you see on TV, down to the quirks and nuance of each ballpark and the little animated ticks of each ballplayer. The camerawork is mostly brilliant, though occasionally disorienting with the constant switching of perspectives while you're trying to play the field. It's immensely satisfying to hit a no-doubt home run and listen to the broadcast team handle the call with fluidity, if not repetitive fluidity over a long season.
The last thing I really enjoyed is how the game warmly embraces history while not taking itself too seriously. There's a host of playable greats you can use, ranging from Ted Williams to Ken Griffey, Jr., proud owner of the most aesthetically perfect swing ever witnessed as well as the dude on the cover. For some silly fun, you can try out Retro mode, which pays homage to old-school baseball games of yore with old 8- or 16-bit presentation and dimensions, yet with the fully rendered players you see in regular mode. I'd have liked it if SIE went all-in and made the players pixelated and blocky.
As I'm veering into my third All-Star Game with my created slugger, I think about how I'm putting the games typically in my wheelhouse — like another Sony creation, Horizon Zero Dawn — on the back burner to digitally partake in a game that I didn't think I enjoyed. Real-life baseball still has a long way to go to get my eyes on it more, but MLB The Show 17 is a pretty good place to start.
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