Big sticks get some soft speaking in MLB The Show 19’s career mode

In MLB The Show 19’s Road to the Show career mode, I now get to talk to my teammates between games. Unfortunately, “What the hell is your problem?!” isn’t among the dialogue options.

That’s what I really wanted to say to Randall Romero, a ringer minor leaguer on my AAA Round Rock Express team. He was my backup catcher — a catcher in name only. My character features a knuckleball, a pitch that sometimes requires a specialist behind the plate. But my usual catcher was given the day off, and Romero couldn’t handle anything I threw. He had four (4) passed balls. Twice, runners reached third base, forcing me to use only my fastball in a 4-1 drubbing, my first loss of the season.

So when “discuss Romero’s recent performance” came up in the conversation choices later, hell yes I wanted a debrief. Instead, I got one of the same four generic, anodyne statements of encouragement for the next game. All of these are answered not with a direct quote from the player himself, but a paraphrase like “Romero agrees today’s game is very important.” I’m not sure he and I resolved our differences. But, playing right field in my next start, he did make a leaping grab to save me from a two-run home run, so I consider this matter closed.

SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

MLB The Show 19 features the 12th installment of Road to the Show, in which the user creates a player and controls only him throughout a multiseason career. Judging by the development attention it receives and the lack of any shown to Franchise for the second straight year, it’s clear which mode more people play. It’s also the best way to take in seasons that stretch 162 games, filter out the national pastime’s mundane tasks, and focus on the good stuff. Sony San Diego tried some new things with it last year — including abandoning a training points system that could be abused, with real money, in a manner I’ve likened to steroid use. RTTS’ job in MLB The Show 19 is more about giving coherence to what was attempted the year before and better connecting the user to their player’s development.

Road to the Show’s perk system now takes a skills tree approach, which as a fan of role-playing games (and Assassin’s Creed, and even F1 2018) I find appealing. Players prioritize three out of four personality types for their character, including “Commander in Chief” (a team captain), “Maverick” (a lone-wolf type), and “Lightning Rod” (a no-nonsense results-getter). Then, as users converse with teammates (or taunt rivals) with dialogue that aligns to the four types, they will progress down a branch of the perk tree. After enough conversations (and it will take many), perks like a more favorable strike zone, or teammates committing fewer errors, become available.

The new perks tree in MLB The Show 19’s Road to the Show, which depends on personality traits and then having conversations according to them.
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

These perks are enhanced further once you develop enough strong clubhouse relationships (the aptly named “Bro” class of friendship). Friendships develop simply by conversing often enough (or doing a workout with a partner in the training layer). There’s a loadout for the perks, too, one that can only be changed once every 30 in-game days.

This is a lot more equitable (as well as interesting) than the old ShowTime system, whereby a player got a pool of mana and could then allocate it, game to game, on perks that unlocked as a player’s attributes passed certain milestone ratings. ShowTime’s biggest effect — one that felt unfair whenever I deployed it — was slowing down time as a hitter or delivering a single pitch with pinpoint accuracy. That’s all gone in MLB The Show 19, and though it was fun to ring guys up every time with it, in truth, that had become a crutch.

But if last year’s progression system was weighed down by what felt like an artificially prolonged slog, this conversation-dependent perk path looks like it will take twice as long to complete. Giving responses concordant to my primary personality type will advance that perk tree the fastest; to my secondary type, less so; and third, the least of all. It’s taking me forever just to see what perks are available down the “Lightning Rod” branch, for example. And “Maverick,” a trait I did not choose, is still available, mainly in the form of talking trash (again, anodyne, good-natured trash) to opposing players before a game, to gin up a rivalry.

It’s still a good analogy of the role that clubhouse relationships and rivalries play in doing well over a very long season. The frequency and variety of off-the-field stuff has long been a weakness even in the best mode of one of the better sports video game series out there. Conversations and training in MLB The Show 19 feel like significant progress in addressing this. Moreover, the conversations really help MLB The Show’s signature mode break up what in the past has been a station-to-station monotony where there wasn’t much to do except play the next game. In MLB The Show 19, I’m guaranteed at least one training opportunity and one conversation opportunity every five games.

That said, training up a player still requires patience and forbearance. The designers obviously don’t want users to become demigods while still in AAA ball. The good news is that all players may now raise any attribute to 99 (last year’s game had artificial caps for some skills, depending on your chosen archetype). It’s just that some archetypes will train certain attributes faster than others (and some much more slowly).

The new Moments mode gives the player some brushes with all-time fame, including Hall of Famers like Tony Gwynn, but too many inconsistencies in the presentation get in the way of the mode’s ambitions.
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Players must still contend with intermittent caps to their progress, which may be lifted only when the game gives you the choice of doing so. Progression, in that sense, is still as slow as in MLB The Show 19. It’s been frustrating to see my H/9 attribute stuck at an intermittent cap of 65 for weeks in-game, leaving me unable to raise that cap and continue to build out a vital skill. But H/9 is a big and possibly the most important attribute for a pitcher, in that it limits solid contact for opposing hitters across the board. So to me, anyway, it makes sense that raising this should be a once-in-a-while opportunity; that way, even after a solid decade of pitching in this mode, I’m still learning how to use my stuff and pitch to all parts of the strike zone, and really paying for my mistakes.

Intermittent caps also neutralize the effect of new midgame challenges the game serves up this year. Throughout my player’s appearance, he’ll be offered goals like “get on base and steal a base” or “retire the side, in order, on fewer than 12 pitches,” and, if met, they multiply the attribute gains the player earns. Some of these challenges are “boss challenges” against an opposing hitter or pitcher who is doing well. But jacking up my K/9 gain by 200 percent for an inning is useless when that attribute has been capped for two in-game weeks.

The challenges themselves, however, are well chosen and they emphasize player development more than they do showy stats like strikeouts or home runs. I was challenged, after a training session with a teammate, to get 10 outs in a game with my third pitch, a slider. I thought about pitch selection in ways I never had before, how to vary and follow locations before deploying the out pitch. I got exactly 10 outs with that slider, too.

Some players won’t like the slow pace of development or the arbitrariness of training opportunities. But on the whole, the new perk system, the clubhouse interactions, and the in-game challenges do combine to give Road to the Show a greater sense of purpose, particularly in the minor leagues, than ever before. The conversations, where you’re trying to build up 15 “bros” on a team so you can really get a strike zone boost, are also a way to stay interested in those grindy early MLB years after the catharsis of reaching the big leagues.

Staples like Road to the Show and Diamond Dynasty, the card-collection/fantasy baseball suite now in its eighth year, are the two biggest reasons to pick up MLB The Show 19. They are brimming with variety and fun experiences both big and small. (The game really, I mean really, wants you to play DD. OK, I finally relented. It’s actually pretty cool.) Both are helped by across-the-board improvements in The Show’s broadcast package, in the form of camera transitions, graphical overlays (who knew that saying what part of the batting order you were in could be so helpful?), better camera work, and an eerily lifelike Heidi Watney providing a pre-game tablesetter just like she does for MLB Network. I play on a launch PlayStation 4, and the visuals are noticeably smoother and more vivid. Sony San Diego even seems to have resolved the bothersome frame rate drops between cutscenes, which I’d come to expect over the years.

March to October begins with picking a team from one of four categories. It’s another attempt to make a 162-game season digestible, and like the others, it also falls short.
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Unfortunately, MLB The Show 19’s newest modes, March to October and Moments, struggle to deliver on their ambition. March to October is yet another attempt to turn a 162-game season into a digestible video game experience. It’s another take on the play-the-moments format, but this one is limited to the 2019 season. It doesn’t really do anything that hasn’t been attempted before, and produces some jarring changes in pace that undercut the goal of speeding things up. It doesn’t matter that I fast-forwarded a week to a keystone game when I couldn’t break the tie in the ninth and had to go to the 14th to finish it off (you can’t simulate to the end of a March to October game the way you can in other modes.)

Moments, in which the player is given an all-time great with the chance of re-creating or altering his most famous deed, also falls well short of its goal. Even if you’ve got Tom Seaver on the mound and even if he’s back in Shea Stadium, there’s no immersion when he’s facing the modern-day Cubs in an attempt to turn his 1969 one-hitter into a perfect game. Roster and uniform inconsistencies (or in some cases, just straight-up generic players with no name) pair with a lack of pep in what should otherwise be special commentary. It’s a decent first stab; with more investment, next year it could be special.

SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

That, of course, would take time and attention away from something like Franchise, and it may be time to admit that this bedrock mode of team sports video gaming has reached the limits of what it can provide. Over the years, Sony San Diego has thrown the kitchen sink at making the mode as accessible and engaging as it is deep, with features like Player Lock, Quick Counts, or Critical Situations. But it’s still competing with Road to the Show and Diamond Dynasty for players’ attention; it loses to RTTS in pace of play and vicarious thrills, and to DD in gameplay variety and player management. Franchise is still here because it always has to be, but I just no longer think it’s fair to hold a lack of major change in this mode against the rest of the work.

Because MLB The Show 19 would be worth it to me for Road to the Show alone, with Diamond Dynasty thrown in for tinkering around. It feels like RTTS is really making progress toward becoming a role-playing game, with more than just cutscenes and a pithy narration or two. The developers just need to work on the conversations. Because Samuel Casto said something to me on the way back to the dugout when I struck him out in Corpus Christi. And if he ever makes The Show, I’m gonna remember that.

MLB The Show 19 launched March 26 on PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PS4 download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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