MLB The Show 16 review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform PS3, PS4
Publisher Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer SCE San Diego Studio
Release Date Mar 29, 2016

MLB The Show 16 chooses to defy the adage that "clutch" does not exist.

The keepers of baseball's sacred statistical texts insist that a timely hit or a game-winning home run — the "clutch play" — cannot be predicted, or manipulated into existence. They say it's all a collision of mystical factors beyond any one performer's control.

MLB 16, the latest game in a series built on adherence to baseball's tiniest orthodoxies, flies in the face of accepted belief with its newest gameplay feature, "ShowTime." It slows down time for critical moments when a user is controlling an individual player. But ShowTime's tentative and uneven application means that most of MLB 16's appeal — and there still is plenty — resides mainly in the striking visuals and tried-and-true features delivered by an iterative sports franchise.

ShowTime slows down time in critical moments
	MLB The Show 16 - Machado screenshot 1920

ShowTime plays a major role in Road to the Show, the series' staple career mode. Paired with a new perk system, ShowTime brings players closer to Road to the Show's ideal — to be the can't-miss stud storming the big leagues out of nowhere. The boosts deliver more oomph in some parts of your game, especially early in your career, and a palpable confidence when you know you can call upon those privileges.

On the baseball field, however, ShowTime kicks in unexpectedly for some events and not for others, and MLB 16 poorly explains the feature in many cases. The result is a flashy toolkit as likely to disappoint or confuse as it is to be useful.

Hitting with ShowTime is particularly difficult, since slow motion necessarily disrupts one's timing, and there is no additional information for when a player should start swinging. A single swing drains 90 percent of the ShowTime meter, an extraordinarily high cost for something that's likely to end in failure. The mechanic delivers nowhere near the benefit we expected. Fielding and baserunning enjoy modest advantages with ShowTime, like helping base-stealers get a great jump. But a rapid and often opaque introduction to the feature made our first experiences with it confusing and frustrating.

At the very least, ShowTime can be disabled or limited to specific parts of MLB 16, like fielding or hitting, and there are places where you might be better served leaving it on. Pitching is where ShowTime truly comes in handy, and where the perk system supporting it is most understandable and usable. A full meter gives a hurler 10 opportunities per game to precisely deliver the ball anywhere in, or even out of, the strike zone. A hitter may still foul off the pitch or even get a base hit. But it's a great boost of confidence for lower-rated pitchers, to know that a gotta-have-it pitch will go exactly where it's intended.

How much you can use ShowTime is directly impacted by perks, MLB 16's other major new addition. Equipping perks diminishes your player's ShowTime meter before the game starts, forcing a trade-off, but they add a welcome dose of flavor to a mode of play that hasn't gotten much attention of late. Perks are tied to the rest of player progression in that they're unlocked after certain attributes reach a particular level, encouraging you to work on parts of your game that could be neglected in the past. Some perks are more useful than others, but the system encourages and guides investment in one's player in ways previous iterations of the series did not.

MLB The Show 16 - Harper crop a 480

hitting with ShowTime is particularly difficult

There are other basic but important quality-of-life improvements elsewhere in Road to the Show. Most appreciated is the option to play all the games of a multigame set without having to return to the main menu. Training is still accessible between games, so there's no waiting to use XP you acquire. Further speeding things up, the background simulation of plays you aren't involved in no longer comes up automatically. This is a theme echoed across the rest of MLB 16: It's a game that wants to briskly take you to the action and keep you there, rather than have you stare at text.

The attention paid to Road to the Show appears to have limited the time Sony San Diego was able to spend on Franchise, the series' other bedrock mode of play. Franchise has received only modest upgrades, the most notable of which is the introduction of a player happiness/chemistry system that also complicates free agency strategy in the offseason. And a nearly stupefying level of stat tracking supports complex Moneyball-like personnel decisions. Free agency negotiations now take place in real time, with a player's interest changing as you alter your offer — a welcome improvement.

MLB 16 takes a stab at simulating morale, though you may not even realize it. On-the-field occurrences, such as how often a player sees action or whether a team is a loser or a contender, affect morale. And morale can influence a player's attributes positively or negatively. The system is a good concept, but MLB 16 doesn't surface it at all — not even in the sea of notifications in the Franchise messaging system. Even, say, a morale indicator in the roster or lineup screens would have been appreciated.

retractable-roof stadiums now offer a closed-roof option
MLB The Show 16 - Astros stadium screenshot 1920

That's not to say Franchise suffers — upgrades implemented elsewhere play a part in improving it over last year. The new "fish eye" hitting camera's zoomed-out, wide-angle view helps a hitter tell balls from strikes more easily, for example. Because the perspective sits farther back, it felt like there was more time to judge the movement on pitches. It doesn't guarantee a boost to one's batting average, but we were at least making contact much more regularly from that camera angle.

And if you're playing all or most of a 162-game schedule, it helps to have a lot of pretty visuals each time you hop in a game. Surfaces of all types have gotten a noticeable graphical upgrade thanks to engine improvements. Padded surfaces like outfield walls bear a smoother plastic sheen than the lustrous infield tarp; bare metal features a duller reflectivity than the shine of painted or polished metal. Everything — including natural materials such as wood, stone, brick and concrete — looks more like it's supposed to look. Another feature supporting the enhanced visual realism is that retractable-roof stadiums now offer a closed-roof option (though the weather outside will always be clear).

MLB The Show 16 - Rizzo crop b 480

That said, cutscenes remain a major problem. As a sport, baseball offers a lot of scenes between pitches or after the result of a play, and MLB 16's still lurch between a smooth frame rate and conspicuous stuttering. The most common letdown comes in the home run trot that every user wants to savor. Slow-motion replays of the ball clearing the fence look fine, but then the screen gets very choppy as the hitter rounds the bases. For such a visually appealing game, this is a mystifying and disappointing shortcoming.

Despite the innate beauty in MLB The Show's live gameplay, its replay and broadcast presentation continues to underwhelm. Analysts Steve Lyons and Eric Karros occasionally send useful information the player's way, such as noting that after two straight curveballs, the guy on the mound is unlikely to dial up a third. But on the whole, the dialogue remains a repetitive soundboard of sportscaster-speak, and interstitial scenes are rote and choppy. The presentation is at its best, relatively speaking, when a player is deep into a season and the announcers have a lot of context surrounding their comments.

That kind of context isn't going to happen in MLB 16's online suite, which offers two new modes of play that still consist largely of one-off games strung together. The good news is that the online gameplay itself was still crisp and accommodating, even during prime time on launch day, continuing last year's welcome breakthrough in stability. Stuttering, if any, usually happens after contact with the bat. Abusive bunting tactics don't appear to be as successful as they were last year, but players will still have to be alert enough to set their defenses accordingly.

The two new modes, both in the Diamond Dynasty package of fantasy-baseball options, are both slow to manage and intimidatingly large in scope. There still is no assistance to a user who wants to dress their team in something distinctive without spending an hour in the unstructured, if deep, uniform creation toolkit. We wish Diamond Dynasty offered some stock uniforms (with generic logos already applied), or even real major league jerseys to outfit your team, as its Ultimate Team cousins at EA Sports do.

	MLB The Show 16 - Blue Jays / Yankees screenshot 1920

This is even more of an issue considering Diamond Dynasty's need to check in with the server for every little change to one's lineup. Where the remainder of MLB 16 is lightning-fast in getting players to a game — the load times are astoundingly short this year — Diamond Dynasty plods, especially in Battle Royale, which requires a 25-round draft just to start. On day one, our draft easily took more than 40 minutes. Battle Royale, taking a page from daily fantasy sports games and Madden NFL's Draft Champions, lets players assemble a temporary, higher-rated roster on the fly and then run through a gauntlet of other users in a double-elimination tournament. The rewards for winning are substantial, but the time it takes to get started is a tremendous drawback.

Neither Battle Royale nor the other new mode, Conquest, have really caught on with us. Conquest is a single-player mode with a large and at times confusing objective. A player is set on a map with all 30 MLB teams laid out on a hexagonal grid, with the goal of spreading one's influence through "conquering" other teams' territories by taking their fans and "strongholds." Sony San Diego gets points for trying something thoroughly original for a sports game, but the concept is very broad, and conquering the entire map seems like it will take a full season.

Wrap Up:

MLB 16's appeal lies mainly in tried-and-true features

MLB The Show 16's additions and changes may not be breakthroughs, but they refine weaker areas of the game that had been routine or even chorelike. Subtle pacing changes make its predecessors seem laborious, and despite ShowTime's inconsistent debut, this version of Road to the Show is still more intriguing and playable than last year's. MLB 16 has the luxury of taking a few risks in the parts of its game that already are strong. The result may not be the equivalent of a dramatic home run, but it's still a solid hit.

MLB The Show 16 was reviewed using a retail PS4 copy and a final "retail" PS4 download code provided by Sony. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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