MLB The Show is a murderer. Over the course of a decade, Sony’s baseball franchise has killed off its competition in a cold-blooded fashion reminiscent of the nastiest scenes from The Sopranos, eliminating every hardball title that stood in its way. Its power even stretches to the Xbox platform; despite the fact that it’s a PlayStation-only game, no one will dare step to the plate to make a Major League Baseball-licensed simulation offering for any console. The bar has been set too high.
And for good reason. MLB 15 The Show is the best-looking sports game ever made. It’s not just the crispness of the players, the gorgeous big league stadiums, or the impressive day-to-night cycle as shadows creep across the field during a game. It’s how these all combine to deliver a beautiful experience. Subtlety and nuance abound; a pitcher will visibly wince when he gives up an untimely run, fielders smartly adjust their positioning as a baserunner bores in on them, and a bevy of fully-licensed brand apparel adds ever-more legitimacy to the player uniforms. The Show looks spectacular no matter how you see it – during live gameplay, slow-motion replays, or screen shot stills.
What’s more, the ballparks are simply alive. Not in a crazed, intense way with fans going nuts all the time (like we see in virtually all other sports games these days) but in a manner that beautifully represents what a real-world baseball stadium experience is like. Sure, playoff games feature towel-waving fans at a fever pitch; that’s to be expected. The vast majority of ballgames are decidedly lower-stakes affairs, though, and The Show wonderfully recreates the lazy, summery atmosphere that makes going to a game so much fun in the first place. The upper decks are devoid of fans for a typical mid-season match, and the ones that are there cheer half-heartedly for a 5th-inning base hit up the middle. Just like real patrons do. The individual people – men, women, and children - that make up the crowd are also astounding in their detail and variety. I’ve never seen a sports game better portray the vibe of a baseball crowd, and the effect is lovely.
The Show doesn’t just look great, though. It plays more realistically than any other game in the sports genre. There are no “money plays” or exploits. You have to be smart, focused, and just plain good at baseball in order to succeed. Simple mistakes like failing to take a pitcher out when he’s getting tired or leaving a left-handed hitter to face a lefty reliever in a tight spot will get you killed. The game makes you pay dearly for mistakes, whether it’s a lazy curveball you hang to a power hitter or an unfocused swing on a ball out of the strike zone. Baseball is a game of strategic decisions, and The Show represents those wonderfully.
While The Show has long been lauded for its on-field excellence, its online features have been historically dreadful. The move to the PlayStation 4 last year offered slight improvements, but not nearly enough to make online multiplayer a viable option. So far this season, my experience playing online games has been decent – but with games that average over an hour and a still-unproven server infrastructure, The Show trails all other big-time sports games in the online arena. Buyer beware!
It’s a good thing that The Show excels so much on the field, because it’s gotten long in the tooth in other ways. Longtime players will find very little new to experiment with. Other than the overhauled Diamond Dynasty mode – a microtransaction-driven virtual card-collecting game that apes FIFA’s wildly successful Ultimate Team - there are just cosmetic additions to the other game options. Snappier menus and Owner Expectations that will get you fired if you don’t meet them are basically all that has been improved in the stalwart Franchise mode. Road To The Show, the mode that allows you to create a player and take them from the minors to the big leagues, returns virtually untouched. It’s extremely hard to drum up enthusiasm to hop back into the same grind again.
That’s the biggest issue with The Show; its on-field play is superior to the competition but its modes are trumped by them. NBA 2K15’s innovative MyPlayer features an interactive story that brings players and coaches to life over the course of a career, whereas The Show’s single player campaign is the same dry menu-driven affair it’s been for a decade. FIFA’s Ultimate Team inspires millions of people around the world to build custom teams with collectable player cards, while The Show’s Diamond Dynasty copycat sports sluggish menus and relies on a creaky online infrastructure. Madden’s Connected Franchise online leagues seamlessly bring players together in cooperative communities, but The Show’s online leagues are barely functional due to mysterious bugs and hour-plus long game times.
MLB 15 The Show doubled down this season on the field, and the results are smashing. It simply looks and plays better than any baseball game ever has. That doesn’t hide the fact that the game also fails to innovate off the field in any material way. While that’s not a fatal flaw, there will come a time in the near future when its fans will demand new and interesting ways to enjoy its beauty.
This game was reviewed on PS4.