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Monday, May 20, 2024

MLB The Show 23 Review

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It’s a tale as old as sports: an established star has an off year, and people begin to wonder if this is the beginning of their long slide into mediocrity. Then, they come roaring back with a season for the ages, putting all doubts to rest as to who sits at the pinnacle of the sport. After having somewhat of a down year of its own in 2022, MLB The Show 23 has returned to claim its crown as the undisputed king of simulation baseball with a long list of upgrades, gameplay shakeups, and an incredible new mode that redefines what the sports genre is capable of.

The most signifiant addition to MLB The Show 23 is the Negro Leagues mode, a dedicated single-player story focused on the legends of a league that ran parallel to the MLB from 1920 to 1948. Eight different players are highlighted, from the Legendary Satchel Paige to the groundbreaking Jackie Robinson. Each is lovingly introduced by Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick, with missions that recreate exciting moments from their careers. One mission begins with a story about Rube Foster's devastating “fadeaway," a pitch better known today as a screwball, only to drop me into a game where I needed to notch two strike outs using just that pitch. As I worked through the batters, the returning two-man announcer team of Boog Sciambi and Chris Singleton provided interesting insights about Foster and his success with the fadeaway.

This mode is a stunning achievement. The video packages that accompany the players are poignant, funny, well produced, and lay out brilliantly what makes these guys giants in the history of the sport. Kendrick speaks with tremendous passion and charisma. I could watch him describe the weather and I would be enraptured, but when he tells legendary stories, like when Satchel Paige called in the entire field of players to sit around him while he struck out the side in a game, I was on the edge of my seat. That also meant I was blown away when I took control of Paige myself, teammates kneeling around me without a care in the world, and sat down each of the hitters I faced.

The Negro Leagues Mode is a stunning achievement.


It’s a loving tribute to the Negro Leagues that didn’t need to be as detailed as it is. It would have been simple and safe to just add some throwback uniforms and a few legends to Diamond Dynasty. Instead, developer Sony San Diego thoughtfully recreated uniforms, equipment, and crowds from yesteryear. It all ties together in a cohesive package that’s equal parts history lesson and satisfying challenge.

The Negro Leagues storyline focuses on the triumphs of the players, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from the prejudice of the era and the reasons the Leagues existed to begin with. It formed long before the Civil Rights movement and did a lot to bridge a massive racial divide, bringing in audiences and filling the stands with people of all colors even as the players featured in these stories faced racism and segregation. It’s an important account that transcends baseball, and a credit to the developer for its inclusion. Even as a lifelong lover of both baseball and history, most of what I saw and heard was new to me. The stories are entertaining, powerful, and often end with me in periods of quiet reflection.

MLB The Show 23 Gameplay Screenshots

New Facets on the Diamond

Diamond Dynasty, which combines baseball card collection with a slew of single-player and online multiplayer modes, has undergone a number of smart changes. The basic idea is the same: you complete challenges or spend Stubs to unlock cards, which can then be used to assemble a team. The cards range from today’s players to stars from the World Baseball Classic, legends of baseball’s past, to the featured players from the Negro Leagues. It’s great for scratching that live service itch for those that enjoy the grind in a way that feels compelling, but not coercive.

This year brings with it the introduction of sets and seasons that effectively act like The Show’s battle pass, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. Ranging from six to eight weeks, seasons create a defined beginning and end to a specific stretch of Diamond Dynasty baseball that each has an accompanying set of cards. Season 1 has Set 1, Season 2 will bring Set 2, and so on. The significance of this is that certain modes, such as ranked competitive, will be locked to specific sets based on the current season, giving the strategy of each one a bit of a unique flavor.

A number of tweaks reinvigorate the already great Diamond Dynasty mode.


I like the general idea, as it injects some variety from season to season, but it also means cards from each set will eventually become obsolete, requiring many rosters to be rebuilt as time goes on. Cards with exceptionally high ratings are available from day one, but the planned obsolescence is a tough pill to swallow. You can at least have one “Wild” card on your roster, which allows you to keep one player from any Set active, which does help take some of the sting out. Likewise there are some cards from a separate “Core” set, which are universal for any season. It’s hard to predict how that will play out over a full year of Diamond Dynasty, but it definitely sucked some of the joy out of unlocking high end players in the short term.

A number of other, smaller changes help refresh the Diamond Dynasty. Ranked co-op matches, which let you and a friend combine your squads to play against another fused team, are more worthwhile now that they have the same reward trees as ranked solo. There are also new Captain Cards that can bestow team-wide bonuses in certain circumstances – a Captain Series Bryce Harper, for example, provides a growing boost as you add more players from the All-Star Series to your squad, which should both result in some interesting and unique team builds and be a fun incentive to pursue cards for reasons other than just the highest overall rating. New team affinity programs also make it easier to earn cards for your favorite teams. Each of those tweaks on their own is an incremental change, but taken together they reinvigorate a great mode that otherwise may have been in danger of growing stale.

Rounding out the roster

The Show has a deep roster of modes after nearly two decades of iteration, and it seems like all of them have received at least some updates for the better. Road to the Show, which puts you in the career of a created player working your way up to the big leagues, has added an easy-to-use face scanning feature and a long needed overhaul to its user interface. Cool new cutscenes have been added, including a brand new introduction sequence, and slowly building your attributes up remains as compelling as ever. Information about how the individual plays you make affect your progression is given in greater detail, too, and the challenges offered at crucial moments in games remain exceptionally rewarding to complete.

The Show has finally been updated to reflect the current MLB rulebook, with major implications for the Franchise mode in particular. There are new rules dictating defensive shifts, and now two-way players can now be used as both Designated Hitter and Pitcher in the same game, fixing a glaring issue affecting stars like Shohei Ohtani in last year's edition. The scouting and drafting system has been noticeably improved – I found it much easier to scout with a strategy in mind, with scouting abilities focused on pitchers, position players, and discovering talent. As someone who enjoys the front office nuance, it was a thrill to discover hidden gems in international leagues, though people who aren’t as interested can still automate the process.

New animations push it all closer to matching what you see on tv. 


Custom practice now lets you designate which pitches and locations you will see. Have trouble with sinkers down in the zone? Queue them up, then start hacking away until you get the motion down. This is a massive improvement, and makes it much more effective as a skill building tool. I found myself regularly spending time in batting practice at the start of a play session as a warm up, and genuinely felt like it helped me regain my timing.

Another year of development on the current generation of consoles continues to pay graphical dividends as well. Gorgeous and lifelike recreations of stadiums, now including exteriors, make it easy to get lost in the spectacle. Team-specific VFX packages introduce games with a more personal touch, and a new batch of animations, like the Mariners signature victory dance, push it all closer and closer to matching what you see on tv.

Baseball is just as much about the sounds as it is the sights, and The Show smartly rebuilt much of the audio for this year's release. Whether it's capturing the subtle reverb in the stadium following the crack of a bat, or the concussion pop of a glove that catches a speeding line drive, the explosive power of baseball played at the major league is an essential part of the sport’s essence, and it’s recreated brilliantly here. A much deeper pool of recorded dialogue by the commentator crew, now in their second year, is also readily apparent, with thankfully fewer instances of the same lines being repeated ad-nauseum.

The on-the-field play has been stellar for years, but there are some smart improvements here too that are worth mentioning. Just like previous iterations, there are a range of control options for each of the phases of baseball, be they pitching, hitting, fielding, or baserunning. Simple options like one-button hitting are great at allowing anyone to play, while opting into more complex options like zone-hitting rewards players who want to reach for a higher skill ceiling.

Single-button throwing for fielders is back, but the addition of a moving target on Button Accuracy Throws adds a challenging new wrinkle. Now, on long tosses from the outfield or difficult passes from the infield, the accurate zone for throws moves around. It’s a small adjustment that adds a surprising amount of challenge, and games I played against other humans had a number of errant throws much more in line with actual MLB games. Too often in previous years it felt like every defender was an all-star, and this change is a welcome dose of realism.

Verdict

After a somewhat disappointing 2022, it’s amazing how far forward Sony San Diego has pushed MLB The Show 23. It seems like every element has received attention, whether its the improved scouting in the Franchise mode, updates to match the current MLB rulebook, or a vastly more helpful practice mode. This remains a gorgeous showcase for baseball, with some of the most lifelike sights and sounds to behold in a sports game. It remains to be seen if Sets and Seasons in Diamond Dynasty will frustrate in the long run, but the crowning achievement this year is the Negro Leagues mode. This playable piece of baseball history is a triumph, presented with care, grace, and attention to detail. It’s courageous and bold, like the pioneers it highlights, and it’s astonishing to experience something so affecting from a baseball game. If for nothing else, that alone makes MLB The Show 23 a must-play.

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