Among the biggest challenges faced by longstanding fans of Sony's consistently brilliant baseball sim – and I'm aware this is proper ‘first world problems’ territory – is how to induct friends and family into the cult of The Show. Matches last an hour. A season lasts 162 matches. As such, 'fancy some virtual swinging?’ is a question loaded with similar commitment to ‘marriage, darling?’ or 'shall we adopt a hamster?’. Daunting. Irreversible. Liable to get your fingers nibbled. And, at long last, addressed by developer Sony San Diego.
I hate when the opening minutes of a review discuss the opening minutes of a video game, because the opening minutes of a video game can be deceiving – how you doin’, first entry in every open-world Ubisoft series ever? – but here it can’t be avoided. The first 600-or-so seconds are pivotal, delivering an accessibility and immediacy The Show has lacked in recent years.
As the game installs, a smart training walkthrough takes you through all the possible control options for each element of the sport – first batting, then pitching, and so on – as part of an actual match. I’ve been playing digitised baseball against friends since Triple Play on PS1, but all have abandoned the sport of late, citing modern games’ complexities. I’m certain this thorough-yet-simple system, coupled with the returning option to have difficulty adjust as you play (which works wonderfully), will finally draw them back in.
It’s not only during warm-ups that Sony San Diego delicately bridges expertise and inexperience. Take Road To The Show. Here you steer a created, customisable pro through the Rule 4 draft, formative minor league years and – hopefully – successful campaigns in the bigs. This year, it’s presented as an access-all-areas documentary, with a narrator parachuted in from 1948 cine film explaining cut scenes and consequences to your decisions. That enables returning players to luxuriate in what’s effectively a baseball version of Hard Knocks, while also delivering information about key facets of MLB to novices, in a manner that’s unique and non-patronising. Very clever.
There’s instant familiarity, too, for those making the switch to Diamond Dynasty from, say, FIFA’s Ultimate Team, which pioneered the model of building a fantasy squad using in-game cards. Stubs replace Coins, and some elements are nonsensically complex – you could complete an astrophysics degree from scratch in the time it takes to design a team uniform – but there areas in which it outsmarts its soccerball counterpart.
The transfer market is one such example, and especially user-friendly. Search for a particular player and it lists available cards in ascending price order, so you’re always able to immediately buy the cheapest. Got your tightwad shoes on? Then instead set the price you’re willing to pay for said card, and hope some benevolent soul sends it your way. Daily bonuses each time you log in also keep you coming back, then inevitably playing just one more final game.
None of this would be noteworthy if The Show failed to deliver on the park itself. Yet gameplay has always been a forte of Sony’s baseball series, and once again delicate tweaks to its accomplished match engine are the dish of the day. Er, year. Of its contemporaries, only NBA 2K17 rivals The Show for the sense of total control you have over professional sportsmen, with an exhaustive array of pitches and hit types available and a mere button press or two away. In that regard, everything I wrote when reviewing last year’s game still rings true.
Retooled ball physics and myriad new animations are the main differentiator from MLB 16, with outfielders taking more varied angles to cut off line drive doubles, and more realistic spin effects. The truth is you barely notice after 20-or-so games, but that’s a complement rather than a curse – change for the sake of change is one of the worst habits of sports game developers. (As a result, seven months after release FIFA 17’s penalties remain broken.) Happily, new broadcast features retain a sense of freshness even as the action grows pleasantly quotidian, with MLB Network overlays especially well done, and new commentators Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac unobtrusively complementing stalwart frontman Matt Vasgersian.
On the subject of franchise – for so long another way in which The Show struck out all rivals, but chased down by NBA 2K’s superb offering since the switch to PS4 – Sony has sought to speed up the process of playing full seasons. Remember what I said at the outset about the sheer wealth of games putting newcomers off? That’s offset by the ability to skip to critical moments in key matches, like your closer’s attempt to protect a narrow ninth-inning lead, or a late rally in order to tie a tight game. It’s not for me – I need to feel like every stat amassed throughout the season comes from my actions, rather than the AI’s simming brain – but again, I can see lapsed fans delighting in this means of walloping a campaign’s worth of homers without getting bogged down in strategies and schematics.
The Show is mostly fantastic, then, yet one holdover issue has to impact on its final score. Namely, online play. Matches themselves are mostly lag-free, but getting into them in the first place represents a real headache, with last year’s well-documented server patchiness again present throughout the game’s first week in the wild. It was such a problem with MLB 16 that Sony gave out free card packs and stubs to compensate, so you suspect a final fix will be its main priority now that servers are live. Should that materialise, and work effectively, I’ll consider bumping the score to 4.5. Until then, it’s a 4 – but still absolutely, comprehensively recommended if you’re content to play offline. Because play you will, relentlessly, from opening day to World Series finale.