This year's MLB The Show pushes the franchise's visuals, mechanics, and authenticity to new heights. Marginal updates to the Franchise mode and some of the same quirks in Road to the Show persist, but overall this is a shining baseball game that's worthy of attention.
America's pastime is all about the details, and MLB The Show 18 proves to be an authentic sim thanks to small but impactful touches throughout. There are new crowd animations like the "Judge's Chambers" cheer at Yankee Stadium. Spectator logic is also updated so that fewer people show up for a Tuesday game or when one or both of the teams is out of the postseason hunt. One of the better and more notable aesthetic additions this year are situation-specific home run animations. If you hit a dinger in an important spot, the player will celebrate accordingly instead of just jogging around the bases like it was an inconsequential home run during a blowout.
Batting stances are also customizable now, giving you options to tweak things like the positioning of your hands and elbows. Want a little more bat-wiggle? You got it. It's fun to tweak a stance and find something that is aesthetically pleasing and uniquely yours, even if it doesn't have an impact on your overall attributes. What's more, the crowds for the most part are no longer just bland, boring background elements, and the stadiums are replicated with an incredible attention to detail. From top to bottom, MLB The Show is a gorgeous-looking baseball game.
All the core mechanics and fundamentals of baseball--hitting, fielding, catching, throwing, and pitching--give you the kind of control that you would expect from an advanced sports sim. Mechanically, Sony San Diego's commitment to refining and improving mechanics continues this year. In particular, hitting remains a challenging thrill. The hitting mechanics never feel unfair, as you only have yourself to blame if you're going for a power swing when you should be protecting the plate. It takes some work to get the hang of hitting--and you'll want to try the three available control options to find the one that works best for you. Connecting with a pitch and sending it ripping through the gap or over the fence--or even picking up a single in the clutch--remains one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.
In the field, particularly the outfield, players move like actual humans with inertia, so if you don't get a jump on a fly ball or take the wrong path when playing a ball off the wall, you might find yourself giving the baserunner extra time or even make a costly error. Like the hitting mechanics, this never feels unfair or overly difficult, thanks in part to controls that reward practice and responsiveness.
The commentary team this year adds MLB Network analyst and former player Mark DeRosa--and he is a very welcome addition. DeRosa takes the place of Harold Reynolds, who is out after just one year, and the broadcasts feel more informative and entertaining as a result. DeRosa does color alongside Dan Plesac, and they're joined by play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian. The three recorded lines in the same studio space this year, and this pays dividends; the back-and-forth conversations feel more natural and organic. Baseball commentary is never going to be exciting in a way that it is for other, faster sports, but these three do a good job. That being said, after only a few games, you'll begin to hear the same lines again and again.
The returning RPG-like Road to the Show mode builds on the narrative, documentary-style "Pave Your Path" from last year's game. You can import a character from MLB The Show 17 or start anew on a fresh journey from AA to the big leagues. Notably, you aren't a top prospect this time around, but rather a dark horse. You're not on scouts' radar to begin with, so it's imperative you perform well from the start if you want to get called up to the bigs--and it can be a struggle. You start by creating a character (you can customise loads of things, down to the number of pimples on your face or creases on your forehead). But new for MLB The Show 18 is that choosing an archetype for your character that has pros and cons. I went with "Good Hands," which meant my path was more focused on fielding and making contact at the plate with speed as my weakness. Once you get started, RTTS plays out in the familiar fashion: with scenes narrated by a Sam Elliott sound-a-like and narrative sequences that are quite cheesy and overly dramatic.
In previous years, you assigned training points to level up your character that you could purchase with real money through Stubs. But training points and Stubs are completely gone from RTTS (and so are microtransactions), and instead attribute points are automatically added--or subtracted--based on your performance during AA and AAA seasons. Make an error in the field or fail to make solid contact at the plate and your related skills will fall. You'll even have points subtracted if you swing at a pitch way outside of the zone. You do still have some amount of manual control of your character's progress, as "Focus Training" opportunities will pop up throughout the season to improve your skills of choice. MLB The Show 18's overall drive to be an authentic baseball sim extends to RTTS. It shouldn't be easy to go pro--and it isn't. It took me four seasons of AA and three of AAA before I eventually got the call.
At various stages you'll have sit-downs with your manager to talk about your progress. You can make light dialogue choices, and these serve to flesh out your character's personality. Generally speaking, you can choose to be brash or reserved. In one case, I was asked to switch from shortstop to left field. I was told it would be good for my professional development and to show I was a team player, but I refused--and was benched as a result. Actions have consequences (you might even get traded if you push back hard enough). If you want to make it to the big leagues, you have to believe in yourself and your abilities, but also to listen to advice and make reasoned choices about your future.
One change I appreciated is the inability to max out your character to level 99 in all areas. In the past, you could essentially create a super-player if you worked hard enough (or spent enough on microtransactions). But now you can't, and it feels more realistic as a result. Some players will never be big-hitters or the best fielders. Ultimately, it was rewarding to see my character grow and evolve, and by the end of my journey I felt satisfied to have brought my guy to the league. RTTS lacks the kind of overall polish and refinement of similar modes in other sports games such as The Journey (FIFA) and Longshot (Madden), but it is still an engaging, challenging, and ultimately rewarding experience when you get through it. Given how many different archetypes there are to choose from and positions to play, it's exciting to think about starting over again and again to see the story play out in different ways.
MLB The Show 18's Franchise mode, which lets you run as team as its GM and control all organisational decisions over a 162-game season, doesn't add much to the well-established formula from previous years, and in fact it removes something--online play. One of the only notable new additions is the ability to play through a Franchise season in Retro mode, which is the 8-bit mini-game mode that was added last year. Beyond streamlined and more aesthetically pleasing menus, one of the only other other new feature is "phases," which is a system that allows you to track specific points in a season like Draft Day, Spring Training, All-Star Race, and the Postseason. It's a nice addition that gives you yet another way to manage your team and follow their progress on a more granular level. Overall, MLB The Show 18's franchise mode remains a deep experience that gives aspiring managers a lot to work with and enjoy, even if they can't take things online.
The card-collecting Diamond Dynasty mode adds new reasons to keep you coming back. There are more legendary players this year such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Nolan Ryan, and Chipper Jones, among others. Elsewhere, Diamond Dynasty has more missions you can complete to earn extra items, while the head-to-head online mode is a fun way to test your squad. Diamond Dynasty doesn't add much new or particularly interesting, but it remains a unique thrill to put together a fantasy team with players from past and present on the same roster. Babe Ruth and Ken Griffey Jr. were never even alive at the same time, but in MLB The Show 18 they can be teammates, and the sheer number of dream combinations provides a reason to keep playing and keep collecting.
Sony's flagship baseball franchise has never been better. With its best-in-class controls and visuals, and impeccable attention to detail for the small stuff, MLB The Show 18 is worth catching for any baseball fan.