MLB 16: The Show Review
Hey, remember when we thought those old Madden games in the ‘90s were just mind-bogglingly realistic? Sure, they still didn’t look like the real games on TV but we figured, “well, how much better can they look?” Oh, we learned the answer to that ridiculous question soon enough, didn’t we? Perhaps more importantly, though, the strides taken in the gameplay and physics departments have been even more impressive (to my mind, anyway) and these days, sports simulators are pretty damn hardcore. One of the biggest reasons they don’t appeal to just about all gamers – as most sports titles did back in the day – is simply because they really are simulators now, and as such, they cater to the hardcore sports aficionados.
And at this point, I just gotta ask: What more can you possibly want? I mean, I know technology gets better and better so I shouldn’t fall into the trap I outlined above, asking silly questions about “how much better” our interactive entertainment can get. Even so, I think we’ve reached a zenith of sorts, and maybe only VR can push us over the top. I mean, just looking at the gorgeous player detail and animations in MLB 16: The Show puts a smile on your face. Being a long-time baseball fan, I love to see our national pastime portrayed in such an authentic fashion, from the stunning design and liveliness of the stadiums to even the smallest, seemingly trivial, player movements. This series has always excelled in the realm of graphical achievement but this really takes the cake.
Beyond the pleasant, sun-dappled green of the outfield grass is the sound. Anybody who has gone to a baseball game and truly appreciates the experience knows what I’m talking about: It’s the roar of the crowd as the ball sails deep, that exciting crack of the bat, the cries of the umpire, the announcer, the music played through the stadium speakers. It’s all here and it all sounds spectacular. The commentary is excellent as well (even if it isn’t always 100 percent spot on) and the soundtrack, while really unnecessary, is just fine. This is all about capturing the look and feel of baseball and although we don’t have any competition for The Show, I doubt any other franchise could top this level of technical and atmospheric prowess.
Me, I go straight to the gameplay with any simulator. It’s by far the most important element of any game, of course, but nothing can save a sim with unrealistic physics or shoddy control. The fans want authenticity. They demand a stiff challenge and a steep learning curve because that appropriately reflects the sport in question, and just how good the athletes have to be. With MLB, I always start with the pitching, partly because I want to see how the game handles defense. The latter aspect is the kicker in so many baseball games in the past; it must be very difficult for the developers to handle defense, simply due to the lack of reaction time a player has. A ball comes off the bat, the camera has to change, and you need to take control of the nearest player and perform accordingly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s go back to the pitching: You see a glove symbol over the plate, and this is where your catcher recommends throwing the ball. You will also see the batter’s hot and cold zones, depicted by red and blue squares within the strike zone. Once you’ve decided on a strategy, you select a pitch by using a face or shoulder button and then start your pitching motion. I really like the mechanic here because it reminds me of Hot Shots Golf. A meter HSG fans will quickly understand shows up, and this dictates power and accuracy. This three-tap meter always worked splendidly in HSG and frankly, I still say it’s by far the best option in all golf games (provided it’s available). It works exceedingly well here, too, and it doesn’t take long to master. …well, I shouldn’t say that. Maybe “master” is the wrong word to use in this scenario.
Perhaps it’s better to say it’s easy to understand and getting your timing down isn’t an exercise in frustration. But you also have to remember that, much like in the HSG games that actually were more simulated than people gave them credit for, there are other factors at play. If your pitcher is tired, you’ll have issues, and you also have to consider the pitcher’s confidence level. With players on base, the meter moves faster to reflect the pressure-packed situation, which can definitely throw off your timing. And of course, some sluggers are just too good for you; they’ll connect on the occasional blast because hey, it’s what they do. It’s fantastic because this is indeed an accurate representation of the sport in question and while I think some pitchers might not feel pressure just ‘cuz there are two guys on base and his team is up 9-4, it’s still impressive.
As for the fielding, I think it works fine; it isn’t much different compared to last year’s entry. There are still moments of irritation when I start moving the wrong character, or when I have very little time to react to a sharply hit ball. Then again, I can’t very well fault the defensive mechanics for this; again, it’s pretty realistic. There’s a reason third base is dubbed the “hot corner,” and why it can be very difficult to snatch a ball a millisecond before it hits the grass. Diving, jumping, throwing; it all works very well, but it does require practice and even after a sufficient amount of time, you will still screw things up out there. But if you make an error, you made the error. Well, most times. The more you play, the better you’ll get, which is a basic tenet of any video game that ascribes to the “simulator” label.
I suppose one could argue that there isn’t a lot different between last year’s installment and this year’s. But I see a lot of small improvements and refinements in the gameplay and they absolutely have an impact on the overall experience. Besides, this year’s most significant improvements can be found in the overall package: For instance, when you start a Franchise, you now have the option to add all classic players to the free agent pool, which is just plain bad-ass. Your very own legends team! Plus, the presentation is brilliant through and through, and SCE San Diego brought back the fan-favorite feature, Sounds Of The Show, where you can assign chants or batter-specific music. Then Diamond Dynasty and the awesome Road to the Show boast several additions and upgrades that true baseball lovers will appreciate.
And you can still lose your life to that crazy Franchise mode, because with realistic trading AI and a super in-depth minor league systems, it’s easy to get hooked. At first, it seems a little daunting but if you’ve got a micromanagement streak, you’ll soon be immersed in a sea of details and factors: You can actually track each player’s total time spent on the field, how they’ve performed inning by inning, and even how close they are to their home state. And you might think this morale business is almost too fleshed-out, that it simply doesn’t have that much of an impact on a player’s performance. Yeah, well, talk to any manager and see what they say about that little theory. Is it any surprise that a happy team plays better? Is it a surprise when a winning team’s confidence rises and as a result, they win more?
Another new feature is the “20-80 system,” which you find when you get involved in the drafting process. You can actually re-rate future prospects with this fresh mechanic, and it gives you a good idea of what to expect from one of your draft choices. As there are ratings applied to specific categories, you can fill gaps in your roster; if you need a power-hitter, you look for someone with a rating of 75 or something like that. You may not be as interested in the all-around prospect who doesn’t seem to shine in any particular category; maybe you really need to address a serious hole in your lineup. This is just one example of the intricacies on vivid display in any of the modes that require your constant attention. Die-hard baseball fans will adore it all, simply because they really do love every aspect of the sport. It’s not just about on-the-field stuff for them.
There are only a few minor flaws, none of which should dissuade you if you’re a big sports fanatic. The learning curve really is very steep, perhaps a little too steep. Not every mechanic is perfect, either, so you will find a few eccentricities as you continue to play; for instance, there are times when you’re convinced a hitter’s hot-and-cold zones are just wrong. There are also times when you’re convinced you did everything right at the plate; you guessed correctly and your timing was perfect and yet…swing and a miss. This starts to get borderline off-putting because you start to question if it’s the intrinsic difficulty of the game and you just suck, or if there are a few snafus in the programming that keep tripping you up. It’s almost impossible to determine, however.
MLB 16: The Show is one of the best sports games you’ll ever play. I haven’t seen fit to hand out a 9+ score for one of these titles since 2011, and I really thought last year’s entry wasn’t anything special. They’re all great games, don’t get me wrong, but this is the first installment of The Show that absolutely feels like a full, complete, and rewarding package that hits just about every sweet spot. A few of the minor flaws franchise followers will recognize still linger, but the overall experience is nigh-on unparalleled. Like I said at the start: It’s all about feeling like you’re there, that you’re actually trying to master this very complex sport. And when everything seems to gel, seems to fit, seems to reflect reality…well, should we nitpick and complain? No, just rejoice!
The Good: Outstanding, wonderfully realistic visual presentation. Excellent sound. Additions to major modes don’t go unnoticed. Great control thanks to familiar yet fine-tuned mechanics. Upgrades and refinements are noticeable, and allow the production to gel. The entire package just screams “baseball!”
The Bad: Notable eccentricities that make us question our ability. The devs may have over-thought the pitching.
The Ugly: “Are you kidding me?! Totally N/A.”
3/31/2016 Ben Dutka