April 2019: My first ever Major League Baseball game. And in the City of Angels, no less. My sudden call-up to the Toronto Blue Jays starting lineup is a surprise, but even more so when I find out I’m stepping up to the plate against one of the league’s best. Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw — a man with one of the most fearsome 12-6 curveballs in the business — stands 60 feet away from me, and between me and my first successful at-bat in the big leagues.
My first attempt wasn’t one to remember, popping a high curveball to first base, but I knew what to expect the next time round. One on, two men out, top of the fourth inning. He’d test me with another curve, just outside the zone, but I wisely left it alone. I saw my opportunity, however, in the next pitch. A surprisingly tame fastball, straight down the middle. Worth a shot.
Going, going, gone.
Cracking it to deep right field, the ball just creeps over the wall, much to the dismay of the Dodger Stadium faithful. This rookie notches his first home run in Major League Baseball in scintillating fashion. I get to the dugout to find the team unresponsive — as is now baseball tradition — before I get mobbed with hugs and high fives.
See, if you didn’t know much about baseball, you’ll soon find yourself learning an absurd amount from Sony Interactive’s MLB The Show 17. Full of baseball knowledge and history surrounding America’s pastime, the PS4-exclusive title is one of the more immersive sports games in recent memory. While it’s a bit much to expect drastic changes from a series that has already offered a lot in terms of innovation and surprising realism, the subtle tweaks and improvements ensure the game takes massive steps forward.
Jumping straight into a quick game, improvements are noticeable. Lighting and graphical enhancements make playing games in the day look gorgeous, as light shines off batters’ helmets and shadows over certain parts of the outfield are cast. This only intensifies as the day-to-night progression kicks in, something which more sports titles should look to copy. The broadcast style is also upgraded, with official MLB Channel graphics enhancing the realism of gameplay. Likewise, cuts to certain players in the dugout and fans in the stands during downtime really gives off that authentic experience. The three-man commentary team, led by Matt Vasgersian, offers a smart yet enjoyable approach to games, occasionally making quips to one another. Sometimes, the commentary gets a little repetitive, as the same lines come into play after a while playing the game, but that’s to be expected of most sports titles nowadays.
With the play itself, the AI seems to have been given small but worthwhile tweaks as well. Batters will now try harder to survive a less-than-favourable pitch count, hitting foul balls to scope out a good pitch and survive their stay at the plate. Pitchers, on the other hand, go for the throat. They recognise the pitches you most swing for and subsequently will try to get you swinging at bad balls, masked with curve and slides. This experience makes every game a unique tussle, and ensures you can’t step up to the plate or take the mound with the same strategy every time.
Player animations, for the most part, also look smoother and more realistic, especially when pitchers adjust their jerseys and batsmen react to tough strike calls. Occasionally they do bug out, however. In certain moments, my pitcher looked frozen waiting to receive the ball after a toss, while bugged-out reactions from the catcher on multiple occasions saw opposition runners easily steal bases. Thankfully, however, these are rare occurrences.
In terms of game modes, The Show has continued to tweak all areas of gameplay, allowing for a unique experience. “Road to the Show” — the seriess equivalent of NBA 2K’s “MyPlayer” or FIFA’s “Be a Pro” modes — sees a drastic overhaul, complete with new cutscenes and somewhat cheesy documentary-style voiceovers. It fleshes the mode out, given that you would spend most of last year’s mode stuck in menus, so it’s fun to see your player bonding with the team you’ve been drafted to. The mode also slows the rate of progression, giving your character’s progression from Double-A to MLB a much more worthwhile struggle.
While last year would see your character shoot up to a high overall rather quickly, it’s a lot more stretched out and ensures you’ve got to get involved if you want to make the big leagues. This progression goes hand-in-hand with the various forms of equipment you can own, which raise the attributes of your players in multiple modes. Playing games earns you points, so it’s crucial you play more than you sim.
Elsewhere, “Diamond Dynasty” returns and is just as fun as last year. The card collecting phenomenon that has swept across many recent sports games has hit MLB, but this envisioning feels more intuitive and welcoming to play. Earning new cards or equipment when playing games and even just logging into the game every day makes the mode a rewarding experience. The servers did struggle in the opening few days, hindering my access to the mode, but I’m sure I’ll be diving in much more in the months to come.
Franchise Mode returns as well, allowing the player to pick the level of involvement they wish to have with their team, which I find a pleasant addition. If I want to simply jump into playing games and managing the lineups, I can choose to do so, leaving the confusing stuff like salaries and free agency to my coaches. It’s a nice way to ensure players can feel as much of a connection as they want, giving them the chance to jump in as they please. Simming games in Franchise Mode also stopped at big moments, giving the player a chance to intervene and change the course of the game. A potential walk-off home run, a perfect game or a crucial double-play late on are all moments I’ve encountered so far, and it’s fun to see how these play out when you decide to jump in.
The big new addition is Retro Mode, a quick and fun way to play the game, re-imagined like old arcade baseball games. Simple button presses for batting and pitching make the game an absolute breeze, while the 8-bit menus and special graphical modes are such a humorous take on classic sports titles. While there isn’t much progression in the mode to speak of, which leaves it feeling like it was just crowbarred into the game, it’s still a nice breath of fresh air and a nod to simpler times.
While MLB The Show 17 remains the only big baseball title on the market — something most sports titles do not have the luxury of is being console exclusive — it has taken solid steps to becoming a must buy in any sporting fan’s game library. The solid tweaks and new innovations bring plenty of depth and excitement to a series already brimming with quality. Rare glitches and bugs don’t hinder the experience too much, as it shines in plenty of other areas, making sure this game deserves your full attention.