Title: MLB The Show 19 Released On: March 26, 2019 Genre: Sports / Simulation Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Developer: Sony Interactive Entertainment San Diego Studio Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment MSRP: $59.99 USD / $79.99 CAD
MLB The Show has long been regarded as the best in the business when it comes to baseball video games. Couple this with the fact that Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) San Diego Studio (or as I’ll call them, Sony San Diego) seems to lack any real competition, I’m always curious to see how far they’re willing to push the envelope and innovate on the game they’ve built, which is successful year after year. Will they stagnate? Will the next iteration be – what many regard as one of the worst insults for a sports game – simply a “roster update”? Thankfully, I can say that MLB The Show 19 certainly goes much farther than this.
Sony San Diego has a tremendous amount of experience making The Show, with The Show 19 being the fourteenth edition in the series. I wrote quite a while ago about how I’ve often been impressed with the developer’s transparent approach to the series’ iterative nature, and how they communicate with their community and incorporate player feedback. While I skipped The Show 18, our review of last year’s game showed that it was still going strong, despite a lack of any major innovations. So does The Show 19 provide a bigger step forward? In my opinion, there are some big steps forward, but also a few missteps along the way.
First off, the presentation and visuals are top-notch. I’ve always marveled at the detail in The Show, and this time around is no different. Everything is quality, whether it’s the TV-esque broadcast presentations, the incredible detail of the stadiums (even the AA ones, though the MLB parks are truly remarkable), or the individual players modeled after their real-life counterparts. Playing it on a launch PS4, I could only imagine that the game would look absolutely life-like on a Pro. That being said, there are some things that detract from the feeling of watching – er, playing – a live baseball game. The animations can be a bit finicky at times – for instance, when doing things like lining up to get a running start on a throw when fielding a fly ball in the outfield, I felt as though I was constantly battling with overrunning the position marker, or conversely not getting close enough. As well, the animations of some players running the bases, particularly those with high-speed attributes, look incredibly stiff and unnatural. However, aside from these gripes, the game looks and plays beautifully.
As has been the case in previous games, the dynamic difficulty for hitting and pitching provides a great way for new players (or players like me who need to shake off the rust after not playing for a while) to ease into the game and reach a point where they’re playing at a comfortable level of difficulty. It constantly adjusts to how well you’re doing, keeping the game at a fun – yet challenging – level of difficulty. The myriad of options allowing for multiple ways of hitting, fielding, base running, and pitching return as well, allowing you to customize exactly how you want to control the game. And regardless of the mode you’re playing in, controlling it feels good.
The Show 19 offers a number of returning modes as well as a couple of new ones in an attempt to round out the experience. The variety in modes provides a great deal of choice to players, whether they’re looking for a quick fix or a deep dive. Mainstay modes such as Diamond Dynasty, Franchise, and Road to the Show (RTTS) offer significant longevity and depth, while the new Moments and March to October modes provide a shorter, more diverse experience for those in search of something a bit quicker. I very much appreciate the degree of choice and variation in the game modes, and think that they bring a little something for everyone to the table.
Despite having played many past versions of MLB The Show, I admit that I’ve never given Diamond Dynasty a fair shake. This time around, I vowed revisit it with a clean slate and spend a bit more time trying to build up my fantasy team. Ultimately, I came to the realization that trading card-style collecting, and the activities that come along with it in The Show 19, are just not for me. I do like that things you do outside of Diamond Dynasty gain you experience and Stubbs (the in-game currency) which help you progress and earn card packs to continue building your team; a variety of challenges and missions to help you gain additional experience points and card packs help add to the feeling of progression as well.
However, ultimately I found that Diamond Dynasty was marred by too many menus and sub-menus, and the overall complexity of it does not make it very friendly for players who haven’t spent much time with the mode in the past. Helpful pop-up tips guide the player through the initial stages of setup and point to several key areas, and while the concept of grinding to progress and construct an unbeatable fantasy certainly appealed to me, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer multitude of options and activities the mode presented.
This speaks somewhat to the game’s overall menu design – I’m not a big fan of how it’s set up, as it seems a bit scatter brained and not terribly intuitive. The various modes and options are a hodge-podge of different panels, and the visuals (if any) provided on the panels generally don’t give a good indication of what the panel leads to. It’s not a huge deal, but I definitely found it annoying to have to get used to.
Franchise mode is a long-time staple of the series, and it continues to offer an excellent baseball management simulation experience in The Show 19. You can select which tasks that you would like to maintain control of, and which you want the AI to handle, allowing you to tailor the mode to your liking. Want to focus solely on the tasks that the manager would deal with? Or would you rather take on the duties of a General Manager and leave the rest to your staff? You can do either of these, or even create your own blend of responsibilities that lies somewhere in the middle. Or you can do absolutely everything yourself.
Franchise mode offers exceptional depth, coupled with helpful tutorials whenever you enter a new section of the menus or area that needs explanation. These tutorials are generally limited to the actual functions though, and there isn’t much direction given in terms of what you should be focusing on. Players will need a sound understanding of baseball to get a grasp of things like roster management and when to making contract offers.
Overall though, I feel that the Franchise mode continues to strike a good balance between being enjoyable for new or unfamiliar players while still ensuring a deep experience that hardcore baseball fans will love. The ability to play as many (or few) of the actual games, and have as much (or as little) control over the front office dealings as you want, makes it incredibly customizable and gives it a great deal of replayability for those who want to try different things and different teams.
If you’d like to employ a more hands-off approach to taking a team through a season, the new March to October mode provides a fresh alternative to the depth of Franchise mode. March to October is focused on playing key moments throughout the season to give you an opportunity to gain (or lose) momentum for your chosen team. As someone who doesn’t always have the time to spend hours managing rosters, contracts, and scouting, this was a welcome addition to the game. Teams are sorted into various tiers to help you decide what type of playthrough you’d like to have – keeping a perennial powerhouse on top of the league, or taking an under-performing team from worst to first.
Some parts of the mode are executed quite well. I liked the speed at which I could progress through a season, and the small explanations of why playing a particular game or moment was important at that time helped connect the dots and keep me engaged in my team’s success. In some instances you’re asked to play an entire game as a specific player on the team in player lock (“RTTS-style”), which presents an opportunity to earn a bonus specific to that player (e.g., an attribute boost). This provides the same type of investment in individual success as RTTS, but on a less-frequent basis so that you still feel as though you’re managing the team as a whole and just occasionally putting an increased focus on the development or performance of one player.
My only gripe with March to October was that the menu systems and overall design of the mode was a bit too minimal and didn’t seem very conducive to managing the team. While I realize that the mode was built for relatively speedy playthroughs, I felt that the menus and information provided could have been fleshed out better. Overall though, it provided a good selection of playable situations and a nice balance between in-depth team management and speed.
Another new mode to The Show 19 is Moments, where you’re tasked with recreating a certain player’s achievement or a momentous occasion from the past. Each “Moment” presents you with a specific objective based on something from baseball history, ranging from the distant past (e.g., Babe Ruth’s called shot) to the relatively recent (Jose Bautista’s bat flip). There is a great variety in the types of actions that the mode asks for, such as pitching a few shutout innings, or getting a key base hit, home run, or strikeout. The mode was also updated a couple of times with new playable moments over the course of my review playtime.
That’s about the extent of anything positive I have to say about Moments mode though – in my opinion, it needs a great deal of polish and fleshing out if it’s to return in future iterations of the game. For starters, moments are generally explained only in text – the commentators have very little special dialogue recorded for the moments, and they do absolutely nothing to set the stage for what’s supposedly an epic, historic achievement or massive game-changing at-bat. Occasionally one of the moments will have an accompanying video, however the majority of this mode is in desperate need of some additional context, preferably through the use of actual video from the events that are being recreated.
When I was asked to hit a home run with Jose Bautista in Game 5 of the ALCS to recreate his controversial bat flip, I expected to see, well, his controversial bat flip. Instead, I hit what felt like any other home run in any other game, then was quickly prompted to exit back to the main “Moments” menu. I couldn’t help but think back to a YouTube video that I’ve watched countless times of that very same 7th inning, a video that gives me chills every single time I’ve watched it and that would have served as the perfect lead-in for the moment. Yet when I was tasked with actually performing the very feat I’ve watched repeatedly, when I patiently waited out several bad pitches and finally connected on a good one to send it over the wall, I felt as though I had wasted my time.
Past versions of The Show have played audio clips intermittently between songs in the game’s menus, with TV and radio commentary describing historic hits, strikeouts, walk-offs, and more providing the feeling of an epic atmosphere. Sadly, Moments mode did not provide even that same degree of excitement for me. The black and white visuals for Babe Ruth’s moments, while clever and historically accurate, were annoying to look at after a while and detracted from the overall enjoyment of playing the moments (pitching an entire game in black and white was not great). Had Sony San Diego used other tools to enhance the immersion and feel of the moments, they wouldn’t have had to resort to using a blanket black and white visual approach. The lack of real names for other players in these moments also detracts from the overall historic feel. Ultimately, I feel like this mode needs some serious additional fleshing out to make it feel like more than just a glorified history lesson.
Last, and certainly not least, is my perennial favourite mode – Road to the Show. Sony San Diego made several notable modifications to the mode this time around, as well as some smaller tweaks. As has been the case for years, you start out as a young player showing off his skills for the scouts in the draft showcase, and then working your way through AA, AAA, and finally to The Show. The character creator is as deep as ever, with immense customization to let you make your player look however you want.
There is a new addition to the creator this year though – now upon completing the physical creation of your player, you’ll have to choose three personality traits for them as well. Depending on whether you pick Maverick, Lightning Rod, Captain, or Heart and Soul, you’ll unlock different perks as you level up your chosen personality trait by choosing dialogue options that align with it. Though they tend to get a bit generic after a while and don’t always reflect what someone would likely say in real life, I do think it’s a step in the right direction, as the discussions give a more robust feeling to the off-field interactions and help round out the experience. I’d just like to see it be a bit more developed in the future.
The one thing that I found strange about the personality traits that my player had a skill tree for three of four traits, which felt like it took away from the weight of the choice I made at the beginning when selecting those traits. I can see that Sony San Diego wanted to provide players the ability to redirect their choices mid-career if they wanted (Had a hot season last year? Maybe you want to talk more like a Maverick now), but I would have liked to see more robust development of one or two traits. On the other hand, it wouldn’t feel good to be locked into a certain archetype either, so I can understand the design choice to some degree, but I think there either needs to be more options of traits to choose (e.g., select 2 of 6) or no direct selection at all, and simply a leveling of each trait based on which dialogue options are selected.
Another new addition to RTTS is the presence of training minigames – now you’re able to choose what type of training you undergo (which impacts the attributes that will be affected), and depending on what you choose, you may be presented with a minigame that will determine just how much you increase your attributes by. I actually found some of the minigames helpful in working on my reflexes, aiming, and timing, so they aren’t just silly little games to fill time – Sony San Diego actually seems to have put some serious thought into them.
Also updated is the way in which stats are upgraded overall – gone is the classic method of earning attribute points to spend on upgrading individual skills. In place of that system is a new system that sees you earn points towards upgrading specific attributes based directly on your on-field performance. Getting hits earns you points towards your contact; attempting to steal a base gets you points towards your speed. This felt very tangible to me, and really seemed to reward me for doing things right at the plate and in the field. It can feel somewhat punishing as well, as swinging strikes will take points away from your contact (and other mistakes will cost you points in their corresponding attribute areas), but it never feels unfair. Situation-specific challenges are new as well, allowing you to choose from three different options – all of which require some sort of action, but with varying degrees of difficulty. Depending on which you select, you’ll get a corresponding boost to the attribute points associated with that action. This added a bit of risk/reward to key at-bats, and also helped me define my approach at the plate.
However, I also found that the attribute system could use some further refinement. When I did most things right – such as work a long at bat and hit the ball hard, only to have it be a line drive out or a fly ball that died on the warning track – it felt like I should get some credit towards my contact or plate vision, but these types of situations provide zero credit (or penalty, I might add) to your player’s attributes.
The gameplay in RTTS is excellent as always, and some minor tweaks have made it even better. I was quite fond of the new fielding indicators, as they show you the general direction you need to run to field the ball without giving you the direct line you should take. There was still the occasional janky moment where I couldn’t quite finesse my player properly to get underneath a fly ball (he’d either move too far, or not far enough), and I’m still hoping that Sony San Diego will provide an option to turn off any and all assists (e.g., baserunning and fielding “first steps”) in the future, but the controls are solid nonetheless.
In summary, MLB The Show 19 retains the series’ level of excellence in gameplay and depth while making some great tweaks to the existing formula. While the new Moments mode fell flat for me, the March to October mode provides a fresh, quick way to play through a season, and some great tweaks were made to Road to the Show as well. Despite the occasional strange animation, the presentation and gameplay are their usual excellent selves as well, and ultimately I had a great time with the game. The Show 19 is still an incredible baseball sim that offers a range of modes to suit all tastes, and while I’m typically addicted to the RPG-lite contained within RTTS, the new modes gave me a great excuse to break of my “self-centred” play and try something new.
Final Score: 8.0/10
Despite a few missteps in this year’s version, with so much variety, fantastic gameplay, and top-notch presentation, The Show 19 has still got it.
The review copy of this game was a digital code provided by the publisher.