MLB The Show 18: But how's the *baseball* in this baseball game?
How you feel about MLB The Show 18 is largely going to be predicated on how you answer two questions: Do you like hardcore simulation baseball, and do you like hats? No, hats. Yes. Hats.
MLB The Show 18 reminds me a bit of Angels 1st baseman and DH Albert Pujols. From 2001 to 2011, Pujols was a dominant force in baseball, a perennial All Star, winning Rookie of the Year, 3 MVPs, finishing top 5 in MVP voting seven other times, and hitting a home run so mammoth in Game 5 of the 2005 World Series that Brad Lidge was never really quite the same pitcher as he had been. Since those years and his free agent move to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Pujoles has been mostly a shell of himself, still capable of moments of greatness of but clearly struggling to maintain the kind of consistency that put him among - if not atop - the elites of the game.
If you want simulation baseball, MLB The Show 18 is still the only game in town, and it's perfectly passable. The title features most of the same modes as previous years, with only Online Franchise not making this year's roster. Road to the Show, the single player, RPG-lite mode that sees you control only your created player has a few notable tweaks. There are more interactable moments, where you're presented with choices like to try a secondary position or to tell your agent how happy you are or aren't with your team and instruct him to pursue a trade. These don't feel like they carry much weight, but the new Archetype system does. In player creation, you'll choose form one of several archetypes, limiting how your player can grow in certain areas. If you want to be a speedy, slick fielding middle infielder, don't expect to have the same kind of power in your swing as Giancarlo Stanton. If you're going to create a flamethrowing lefty starter, you'll probably never have the same pinpoint command as a Greg Maddux. This isn't to say those players won't hit home runs or be able to locate pitches, but the days of starting with a blank slate and creating a jack of all trades, master of all are gone since certain abilities' level cvap will eb reduced based on your chosen Archetype. Your progression is also not as free form as prior years when you would earn training points for what you did in game to spend freely. Now, a multi-hit game off a right-handed pitcher will see your contact rating vs RHPs increase. Hit two home runs off a lefty? Expect that Power vs LHP to rise. Boot three ground balls and sail a throw to first? Your fielding and throwing stats will suffer. It's still rewarding to see your player progress from Prospect showcase to the major leagues, and the Archetype system did make me feel like I was playing more of an RPG class, which connected me more to my created catcher.
MLB The Show has, for multiple years, had an Ultimate Team-like mode known as Diamond Dynasty. As a solo player, I've avoided it until this year, when I learned developer San Diego Studios had made strides in 2017 in creating single player content for the mode. This consists largely of "missions" and "programs." Missions are discreet tasks to be completed with a specific player or players of a certain type. Examples include "Collect 20 hits and 5 extra base hits with this specific player," "Collect 120 hits, 50 HRs, 20 stolen bases, and 150 RBIs with this type of player," or "Hit one home run and steal one base in the same game with player x." These add a meta challenge to the game that reward you with more currency to use in purchasing more cards to upgrade your team. Several of these are also structures into a larger progression focused on "Immortal" players like Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken Jr, Nolan Ryan, or, yes, Albert Pujols. Each of these Immortals has a 99-rated overall card you can earn by completing their program. COmpleting their program involves completing multiple missions with cards representing these players at different parts of their career. To earn THOSE cards, you need to complete "Career Arcs" for other players, which are the same thing but for "lesser" stars, usually of the same position. Below these Career Arcs are smaller, shorter, programs for individual players that usually involve only one or two missions. This would all be perfectly fine, if these missions didn't also involve "souvenirs."
In order to complete most programs, there are missions to trade in related players, i.e. a certain number of catchers for a catcher's program, and other missions to trade in collectible "souvenirs." These are digital hats, and jerseys, and bobbleheads, and autographed baseballs earned from buying card packs or trading cards to earn the game's digital currency ("Stubs") to buy them on the community marketplace. Low level programs have reasonable requirements to trade in, for example, "one Red Sox hat" for a mission tied to a red Sox player. These used to have more specific requirements, calling for "one road Red Sox hat," for instance, where different teams' home, road, and alternate jerseys and hats had different rarity values. The better the rewards from the Program/Career Arc, the more hats and jerseys are required to complete it. Each souvenir has a point value attached to it, so you can mix and match the rarity of what you exchange to meet the mission's threshold. This does mean players who played for multiple teams *should* be easier targets for completing these missions - Nolan Ryan's hat and jersey exchange accepts trinkets from the Mets, Angels, Astros, and Rangers. The flip side is that players who spent their entire careers with one team have severely limited options subject to market inflation and speculation. If you want Immortal Chipper Jones or Cal Ripken, Jr prepare to spend, spend, spend, for Atlanta and Baltimore hats, respectively.
The souvenir economy is a major bummer for a mode that otherwise adds focused challenges with a sense of progression to a mode I would otherwise completely ignore. I've played hundreds of games against the CPU, grinding out stats or trying desperately to collect the right one game stat tallies for specific players and had fun doing so. Looking for advice on how to complete some of the more tricky challenges led me to the game's official site and Reddit, and this is why I've not spoken a lot about how the baseball game feels when you're actually playing the baseball part of the baseball game. To me, it's felt fine. Not every good hit is a home run, and sometimes fielders miss seemingly easy fly balls while other times laying out to make impressive diving plays. To the hardcore players on Reddit and the official site, all the physics are broken and the gameplay is a terrible mess for which the development team should use their regular Twitch streams to self-flagellate instead of announcing new content. There are things I wish felt different - throwing animations when fielding are sometimes surprisingly lackadaisical - but the baseball playing? It's fine. It's good. It's fun.
The major draw to a baseball fan to this game is going to be one of three modes: Diamond Dynasty, Franchise, or Road to the Show. Diamond Dynasty is the money and time suck we expect from these types of modes, but isn't without a sense of reward and live content to bring players back. Franchise and Road to the Show have the depth needed to keep you playing all season and longer.
Just stay off Reddit.