Also On: PS3
Developer: SCE San Diego
MLB The Show 16 gets off to an inauspicious beginning. Right after you fire the game up, you quickly learn that even though it's finished downloading, it still needs to install — an arduous process that, in my experience, takes several hours. During that time, your only option is to play the same game over and over and over again. While this is fine as an introduction to The Show 16's gameplay, and great news for anyone who loves seeing the Royals beat up on the Mets, it also feels like an unfortunate metaphor for The Show as a franchise. After all, over the last couple of seasons, The Show has started to feel a little stale, as if Sony realizes that it basically has the field of console baseball to itself. By introducing the 2016 edition of the game in this way, it's hard not to feel as though the developers are preemptively telling you to expect the worst.
It doesn't take long for such fears to prove themselves to be unfounded. MLB The Show 16 has all kinds of new bells and whistles, and it's more than willing to highlight every single one of them. Every time you open a screen for the first time, it immediately begins explaining everything on the page to you, taking particular care to point out all the new improvements.
Some of these changes are on a level so granular you probably won't care, even if you're a hardcore baseball fan. Case in point: I doubt many people will be too excited to learn that the game now rates players on the 20-80 scale used by scouts, rather than the 1-100 scale to which most people will have grown accustomed. Personally, I've watched baseball for about 25 years now, and I can't say that I've ever wondered for a moment what 75 speed or 35 power looks like.
Other changes, however, feel like a breath of fresh air. Diamond Dynasty, for example, is greatly enhanced by the addition of a "battle royale" feature. While the game mode still includes the usual "here are the dregs of baseball, try to win using them, or spend real money to get better players" nonsense that marred previous editions of Diamond Dynasty, this time out you have the option of temporarily building teams through a mock draft, which also includes legends like George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Tony Gwynn alongside your usual roster-filling middle relievers and utility infielders. It adds a bit more dynamism to the mode; whereas the original Diamond Dynasty still feels like a crapshoot that's geared towards parting you from your money, Battle Royale makes it feel like the mode is a little more skill-based.
(I'll here note that Diamond Dynasty also has one other new mode, "Conquest", a combination of Risk and baseball. It sounds fun in theory, but the reality is that it's a lot more confusing than Battle Royale, and you're still stuck with your garbage team. In other words, it's basically a fancier version of Diamond Dynasty that's actively trying to monetize you as a players. It's a decent enough idea, and with time I could see it becoming fun, but right now, it's more a confusing mess.)
One of the other big new innovations: you can now go directly from one game to the next in Road To The Show. This may not sound like much, but as someone who sank literally hundreds and hundreds of hours into a RTTS career in MLB 10, it feels kind of revolutionary.
Of course, the big question when it comes to The Show in general is: how bad is online? And the answer is: shockingly good. I realize I'm burying the lede here, since The Show has featured abysmal online play since its inception, but…yep, it's no longer the issue it was. There's still the odd glitch — things like the announcers saying one thing is happening on the field when the reality is the complete opposite, or fly balls taking weird paths to outfielders — but for the most part, you can now play baseball against random people and the experience won't leave you feeling bitter and hate-filled towards the entire sport. In a year where Sony San Diego were trumpeting all their shiny new innovations, perhaps the most important thing in the game is that they finally got something old right.
The fact they were able to combine working online with their usual high standards of on-field gameplay means that MLB The Show 16 is the first baseball game on PS4 that feels essential for casual fans to pick up. Previous versions were too buggy to be worth checking out unless you couldn't live without baseball on your home console; this time, they got it right, with an entry in The Show series that reminds you of just how impressive it can be.