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MLB The Show 17 review

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

In MLB The Show 17, I am Minnesota’s top pitching prospect, with a blowtorch fastball and a bodysnatcher changeup.

After a decade of playing MLB The Show — a summer of that on a PSP on a commuter train, and the past five seasons with pulse pitching on Legend difficulty — pardon me if I consider myself an elite pitcher. You can ask Mike Trout for a reference. So when the skipper told me I was going to the bullpen — after an eight-inning, 12-strikeout victory, standing at five wins and no defeats, with an earned run average below 1.50 — you’ll also pardon me if I got in his face about it.

This encounter is either the great shortcoming or the great genius of "Pave Your Path." It’s the new narrative overlay to MLB The Show 17’s enormously popular "Road to the Show" career mode, where people create players and plot their journeys to the big leagues. Major events in one’s career are now, usually, accompanied by some kind of a cinematic, with a narrator explaining the scene.

In sports role-playing settings, I usually choose the most humble and happy-to-be-here-sir-or-ma’am replies. When MLB The Show 17 summoned me to the manager’s office, my fuse was already sizzling. When he said they were taking me out of the rotation, I blew up. I lost my starting job. And I am still smoldering about it.

As happy as I am that something could jerk me out of my sportsmanlike narcolepsy and make me behave like someone whose talent demanded respect, the scene was unmistakably contrived. I had never been pulled from a starting job — even to try me out in a closer’s role — so soon into my career, and certainly not after a string of strong performances. As this funneled into scene about hiring on an agent, I knew I had been set up.

The setpieces in "Pave Your Path" are mainly the big career milestones that all ballplayers share regardless of position or talent: being scouted, getting drafted, being promoted within the organization. There is no interpersonal drama, no outside conflict pressing against the action on the field. Do remarkable things, and "Pave Your Path" delivers a chance to burnish them with a postgame interview that fills out the edges of a player’s personality. There is no spoken dialogue, however, other than the narrator’s.

It’s nowhere near as captivating as the story modes offered in NBA 2K or, most recently, "The Journey" in FIFA 17, but given baseball’s long season and the grind to reach the top, "Pave Your Path" is no less vital in how it breathes some fresh air into MLB The Show’s most played mode. Every time I finished a game, I hoped I’d done something to trigger a cinematic. Unfortunately, most of the time it was the same encounter with a pitching coach complimenting me on striking out so many batters.

Repetition in its presentation has long been MLB The Show’s biggest weakness, and while MLB The Show 17 has made some strides, it doesn’t take long to see the game slip back into habit. MLB The Show 17 has added the broadcast graphics and music of the MLB Network to spice up marquee games in a career mode (users don’t get to choose which ones), with another two generic broadcast packages that approximate regional sports networks.

The variety is welcome, as I realized I was still looking at the same kinds of pregame and postgame cinematics from last year (and the year before). Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac of the MLB Network are new to the booth, and do a better job than their predecessors in sounding more authentic and delivering information for a reason other than it having been put on a sheet in front of them. Reynolds in particular did a good job of wrapping a point in a conversation. Yet neither really tailor their analysis to a specific player, and in one-off games either online or in Diamond Dynasty, or in the minor leagues of Road to the Show, the commentary again leans on the familiar way too much.

It’s in the gameplay, wonderfully varied, handled with endlessly customizable options and playing out with visually believable results, where MLB The Show 17 again makes the series’ strongest case. Ball physics is a kind of boast I often tune out because it’s hard to tell what really has changed, but the hard liners hooking away from infielders, and roped drives just out of reach of a leaping shortstop, gave me some confidence this has been delivered. For sure, the pitcher is hit a lot less by balls struck right back up the middle.

MLB The Show 17 - Noah Syndergaard SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Pitching just feels stronger. Choices made to disrupt a hitter’s timing have an effect greater than trailing off into repeated foul balls. In a previous save, I had a pitch-to-contact junkballer who routinely suffered through seven- and eight-pitch at-bats. In MLB The Show 17, he was mowing down hitters and making them chase and miss. The young fastballer I created this year has a much studlier presence in the minors than past teenagers I’ve played, too.

Fielding, which has been treated as a chore by most baseball games, gets a nice boost thanks to new throwing animations that acknowledge some guys get down to first base a lot faster. In the past, fielders effectively had one reaction, whether that was with the Reds’ speedster Billy Hamilton hauling ass or the glacial Pablo Sandoval going to first. It made for a lot of unnecessary close calls at first.

For the user, this means ordering a throw to the proper base before the ball arrives to the fielder, which is a nice touch; it’s a Little League fundamental to know where the play is going before the ball is struck. While I didn’t successfully complete it, the fact I saw a 3-6-3 (first baseman to shortstop, back to first) double play even attempted felt like a breakthrough. Frankly, I usually automate fielding after getting my fill of it. Now, feels like something worth my attention.

Another intriguing addition are "quirks," which appealed to me because baseball is a game of information and knowing an opponent’s habits or strengths is vital. I’ve always wondered how a game could contextualize "the book" — the familiarity with one another’s habits that players develop over such a long season — without making the user omniscient. Quirks point out that a player may be good on the road, or good with two strikes against him, or better at night. It’s especially useful to a pitcher. A breaking ball to a hitter who excels at catching a piece of breaking balls, especially with runners on base, may not be a wise choice.

I was put off to find that MLB The Show 17 never explains these quirks, however. I found no glossary in the game, other than looking over players in the main roster, to explain what they meant. Also, some of the quirks don’t seem like quirks at all. Cincinnati’s Joey Votto is a "hit machine," which means he’s "good at getting base hits."

Well, no kidding.

Created players in Road to the Show may acquire quirks, but this seems to come after a lot of time and advancement. The feature is more involved in something like Franchise, the bread-and-butter suite of club management. Franchise’s biggest change is the inclusion of something called Critical Situations, which is another stab at slimming the immense girth of baseball’s 162-game season without leaving a player feeling like they cheated by simulating too much of it.

Critical Situations sounds like Madden NFL 17’s Play the Moments, but I found it to be more like "Play the Ninth Inning" than anything else. This isn’t a drop-in option from a full game. It’s a filter available when the user batch-simulates a lot of games (more than one, and the simulation has to be done from the calendar schedule). Critical Situations will background-simulate the games as normal, but if one trips a flag — either a milestone event (like three home runs in a game) or a late-game showdown — the user is invited to hop on in. This is only done one time per game. While MLB The Show games have always given users tools to background-simulate a game, stop the action and jump in to play it at a key point, they’ve required users to pay close attention. Critical Situations takes care of that decision-making.

Critical Situations still felt a little too forced to the last inning for my taste, though at one point, I was called to try to hit for the cycle (a single, double, triple and home run in the same game) with Nick Hundley in the 7th inning. (News flash: We did not get the triple.) It also can leave some gaps in the flow of a game. For example, early in the season with San Francisco, Critical Situations called me into a bottom-of-the-ninth situation where we trailed by one. I scored the tying run but not the winning run. I was now tasked with going back out to the field having no pitcher warmed up in my bullpen.

I had no desire to play extra innings anyway, so I shifted over into another new mode, Quick Manage, which lets a user make decisions for how an at-bat will be approached and then immediately see the result. With Buster Posey at second base and one out, I called for a hit-and-run that didn’t work; he was thrown out stealing third, but the Giants still put together a two-out rally. I brought in Mark Melancon to close it out, pitching the last inning myself.

Though Critical Situations is only a little better than a full background simulation in covering the drudgery of May or July, used in conjunction with other approaches, it still optimized my time and attention, and is very consistent with MLB The Show’s long tradition of letting users play the game exactly the way they wish. I would love to see Critical Situations handle a game more sophisticatedly, as there is usually more than one critical situation in a real game, but it’s an OK concept and first attempt at it.

Diamond Dynasty, MLB The Show’s card collection/fantasy sports mode answer to the Ultimate Teams of EA Sports and MyTeam of NBA 2K, will see new in-season programming geared around long-term playing goals, called "programs." However, MLB The Show 17’s servers were inaccessible (including to two Polygon writers) for a lot of users even 24 hours after the title’s launch. Diamond Dynasty requires an online connection, so I didn’t see much of it except for checking in to a pre-release test environment.

Sony San Diego did promise some new creation tools to streamline giving a team its first uniform. Uniform creation is tremendously detailed but still takes torturously long for a novice. The shortcuts promised barely make it any better, giving a user a generic multicolored uniform as opposed to the all-whites or all-greys one sees in players anxious to start playing. My team looked like a bunch of Vegas pit bosses. I don’t understand why Diamond Dynasty can’t just give players a uniform set from within the game, as Ultimate Team does. It’s a stubborn limitation to force everyone to have a custom uniform with so little help in creating it.

Another novelty, Retro Mode, is a nice tribute to MLB The Show 17 cover star Ken Griffey Jr., one of the first big names with crossover appeal in both sports and video games. But it’s not much more than that. Retro Mode is a one-button arcade mode that roughly approximates R.B.I. Baseball. It’s amusing as a couch game with a friend; otherwise, the pace and variety of play is somnambulant.

MLB The Show 17 continues one of the longest-running successes in sports video gaming, and it’s not a regression. But its advances sound a lot bigger on paper than they are in practice. The gestures made to Franchise and Road to the Show are nice, but the enjoyability in those modes still mainly rests on good design choices going back years. Time will tell if the changes to MLB The Show 17 establish a new foundation for what is enjoyed five years from now. In the present, though, it is still a richly illustrated, seductively appealing depiction of the National Pastime.

MLB The Show 17 was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment on a base model PS4. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.