Solid mechanics and incremental improvements result in a baseball game well worth the time.
Plenty of people have dreamt of standing there out on the green, looking up at a crowd of onlookers, roaring with anticipation. The bases are loaded, and it’s a tie game in the bottom of the 9th. This is it, our moment to shine. Realistically, most of us will never really get the chance to do that. We just aren’t all gifted ball players. But that’s exactly where sports simulations like this one, MLB The Show 20, come in; to give us a taste of that exhilaration. Thankfully, through some solid mechanics and engaging content, The Show 20 is mostly successful in that attempt.
"The core mechanics of actually playing the game of baseball, out on the field, are strong and fluid."
The core mechanics of actually playing the game of baseball, out on the field, are strong and fluid. The game allows you, right away, to specify your level of familiarity with sports simulations, adjusting the difficulty of things like hit timing, pitch accuracy, etc. to your specific skill level. The game then throws you into a training match, where you can experiment with all the different control schemes for batting, pitching, and fielding. They all have their merits; personally, I found Zone hitting, where you align a reticle to the incoming pitch and press a button to specify the power of your strike, to be the most intuitive. Maybe it appealed to the FPS gamer in me. Nevertheless, all of the control schemes have their merits, and I found myself frequently switching between control schemes to accommodate the situation, which you can thankfully do, even mid-match.
The on-field AI is usually solid, and the game does an excellent job of simulating the actual feel of baseball. Star players can have an off night and totally flub, and likewise bottom-barrel players can come in with a clutch moment. The crowd reactions are organic to the action on the screen, and the excellent commentary reacts perfectly to the events on the field. There is some repeated commentary on occasions, but that’s to be expected after hours of repeated gameplay, and even then, the repetition was minimal.
Of course, at this point it’s expected that the on-field simulation and gameplay will be excellent. What people really care about are the modes, the careers and franchises. Thankfully, these are all enjoyable in their own right. Personally, my favorite mode of any of them was Road to the Show, a kind of one-man career mode where you handcraft a player, and play his entire career, from his very first draft, up through the minor leagues and all the way up to star of the pros. It’s a lot of fun to play through, as you build your player up from a nobody to a star, and the game evolves very well around your progress. The more famous you become, the more you’ll build up relationships with your teammates and rivalries with opponents, and the commentators will begin to focus on and talk about you more and more. There’s something extremely satisfying about watching your player climb from nothing to become a star player in the pros.
"There’s something extremely satisfying about watching your player climb from nothing to become a star player in the pros."
The mode includes a solid player progression as well, in the form of skills and personality attributes that can be improved upon. Skills fluctuate based on performance; a great game can raise your skills, while a run of bad games can lower them. Practicing on off days allows you to raise the ceiling that your skills can max out at. Meanwhile, interactions with your teammates can build your relationships with your teammates and buff your personality traits, providing bonuses and unlockable perks that can be applied through a tier system; perks are divided into 4 tiers of increasing quality, and you can mix and match different perks from the different personalities in those tiers. Skills and personality traits can also be improved through periodic challenges on the field, which call for you to make a specific kind of play while at-bat.
Road to the Show is made even better by the remarkably deep player creation, which allows you to tailor nearly every aspect of your character, from skin tone to face shape to his hair style and height. You can then tweak all of his animations, such as home run celebrations, practice swings, and running gait, as well as customizing his walk-on music. Finally, you assign him a broad character type, which outlines his starting skills and skill ceilings, and specify his primary and secondary positions on the field. There’s a lot of room to tweak your player to look and act however you want him to, and you can unlock even more customization options through gameplay. Having that level of control over your player really helps to build your investment in his journey, and helped make Road to the Show my favorite mode in the game.
That’s not to say the other modes aren’t fun as well. March to October sees you taking control of a specific Major League team for the duration of a season. The game throws you into matches, usually mid-match and usually later in the game, where there’s some kind of clutch to pull off, with the goal of building momentum for your team to ride. Depending on the quality of the team you choose, their goals for the season can differ. Some teams only aspire to reach the post-season, while others aren’t satisfied until you lead them all the way to a World Series victory. March to October is kind-of like a bridge between the intimacy of Road to the Show and the larger, more strategic aspects of Franchise mode.
"Having that level of control over your player really helps to build your investment in his journey, and helped make Road to the Show my favorite mode in the game."
Speaking of Franchise mode, this is likely to be the heart of the game for many players. Franchise mode is exactly what it says it is; players take on the role of a team’s general manager, and lead the team for as long as they can, hopefully to a World Series victory. This is by far the most complicated mode, as the player has to manage trades and acquisitions, roster lineups, player salaries, injuries, sponsorship deals… the list goes on. Thankfully, for those of us who are a tad bit less experienced, the game allows you to set any specific aspect of the management simulation to either be manual, or be automatically handled by the computer, allowing you to focus on the aspects of management that you enjoy the most or are most comfortable with.
It’s concessions like that that impress me, as a more casual baseball fan, about this game. For those who want it, there is an intensely deep baseball simulation at work here, with seemingly infinite details and specifics that can be tweaked and controlled to provide you with as much depth and control as you want. And for those who enjoy the game more casually, there’s the option to automate a great deal of the more complex aspects of the game, allowing us to focus on the parts we’re most comfortable or interested in. It’s that willingness to compromise, and to make the game as broadly accepting as possible, that really impressed me here.
The game also includes an online mode, where you build a team, either using a preset pro team or building a custom one of your own, and build up your squad of players, stadiums, and equipment to compete against other players. These are unlocked throughout all the different gameplay modes, not just multiplayer, so everything you do in the game allows you to build and improve your online team. There’s a lot to play with here, though obviously the game was less populated than it will be after release.
"MLB The Show 20 is a strong sports game, one deep enough for pros, but welcoming enough for beginners."
All things considered, MLB The Show 20 surprised me. The depth I expected was there, and on full display. Of course, there are somethings that can’t be compromised; the game makes the (obvious) assumption that you already understand how baseball works. And the game wasn’t perfect; as previously mentioned, commentary can sometimes repeat more than I’d like, and the delivery of custom player names is almost always awkward. But overall, MLB The Show 20 is a strong sports game, one deep enough for pros, but welcoming enough for beginners. If you have any interest at all in a solid, current baseball sim, you need look no further.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Solid gameplay manages to be accessible without sacrificing depth; Huge array of content ensures there’s always something to do.
Commentary, while usually strong, can sometimes be a tad stiff.
MLB The Show 20 walks a fine line between depth and accessibility, providing a baseball experience to satisfy all fans of the sport, regardless of skill.