When you first boot up MLB: The Show 18, you are treated to a montage of athletes, old and young, that, presumably, seeks to evoke a mixture of nostalgia, passion, and culture; It’s a good use of pathos that even manages to rekindle this cynical nerd’s former love of the game and appreciation for an athlete’s journey. Obviously, this sort of feeling can be manufactured by a company’s marketing team or, indeed, an essayist, but the franchise’s consistent tendency to elevate the sense of finesse with each subsequent iteration ultimately leads me to believe that this cutscene is not merely an appeal to emotion. Instead, it seems indicative of the team’s collective love for “America’s greatest pastime” which, thankfully, shines through in every critical element of this year’s release.

This year improves on one of the facets I most appreciate about MLB: The Show 18: its unintimidating and unassuming design. I’m inclined to like it to Gran Turismo, another Sony exclusive. Gran Turismo manages to be accessible for newcomers of the genre who just want to speed around a track but also offers depth to a variety of gearheads seeking the ability to fine tune their vehicle towards optimal performance. MLB: The Show 18 is similar. Want to play some baseball? Go for it. If, however, you’re the type of person who scrutinizes player stats and intimidates their fantasy baseball league with your encyclopedic knowledge of the game, well, this game and its RPG elements have a lot on offer.

MLB: The Show 18 bases its core gameplay on easy to understand strategy. As an example, pitchers will perform at different levels of efficiency, depending on the type of pitch selected. The concept is easy to grasp, as a meter conveniently wrapped around the corresponding button in the UI denotes exactly where the pitcher stands on the matter. This system is meant to add a tactical element to the game, essentially creating a risk and reward dynamic in choosing a pitch. If, however, little seems to be working and the pitcher’s confidence and energy level are heavily depleted, it is suggested that the player make a substitute for another pitcher.

As is the usual, MLB: The Show 18 has multiple modes on display. “Play Now” throws players right into a game. Franchise mode casts players in the role of team manager. This is easily the deepest mode in MLB: The Show 18, with an emphasis on player stats. Home Run Derby is standard fare where sluggers play against one another to simply crank out home run after home run. Get the most home runs? You win. Additionally, there is a Retro Mode that is designed to capture the classic baseball games of yesteryear. This mode is exceptionally easy for beginners to understand. Then there are the more intensive, time-consuming, and immersive modes.

One that really grabbed my curiosity is the online Diamond Dynasty mode, where players build their own team by collecting trading cards. These translate to an ability to recruit a wealth of baseball legends. Aiding the sense of team ownership, players are asked to create their own team name and logo before competing online against other players. It’s the collecting aspect of all of this that I am an absolute sucker for. Unfortunately, this mode wasn’t available at the time of review.

Then, there is the captivating narrative mode Road to the Show. This is a returning mode where the goal is to make a character and rise to the big leagues. Often, Road to the Show waxes poetic, just as the opening cinematic does, and for a fan of the sport, it makes your heart swell just a little bit. And, if you are particularly attached to all the hard work you may have put into this mode in MLB The Show 17, you can import your data into this game so you can continue your legacy.

The customization options, including the dialogue choices, are about as reminiscent of the role-playing genre as a “non-RPG” game can get in Road to the Show. Physically, players can make a half-decent depiction of themselves, recreate a celebrity, or, as is my tendency, build an unfortunate looking abomination. Beyond facial features, batting stances can also be customized with the versatile batting stance creation feature.

Levelling up or, in more casual terms, training your character has been revamped as well. Now, instead of primarily navigating menus to improve, stats are raised by actions performed on the field. Strangely, they can also diminish by a poor performance which waves in the face of the game’s otherwise realistic nature but, mechanically, it feels right. Additionally, players can choose to train their players when they aren’t in games with a straightforward, but creative, system that even allows players to choose which athletes train together to maximize their gains. I’d wager that Road to The Show is the mode for people who want to customize their experience as much as possible. In fact, if customization is at the heart of their interest, run game simulations instead of actively playing through them.

MLB: The Show 18’s customization options don’t stop at the character or team growth, though. They are also refreshingly present in the control schemes. Batting exemplifies this point. When batting, players select from three radically different input types: directional, zone, and pure analogue. Directional hitting prioritizes the left analogue stick which will control direction. In this option, the type of swing is mapped to the face buttons: X will initiate a normal swing, circle a contact swing, and square a power swing. This input is the one that feels the most traditional.

Zone hitting, on the other hand, uses face buttons in a similar fashion but the task of the left analogue is to move a reticle, called the plate coverage indicator, to find a sweet spot. Then, on the most basic side of the spectrum, there is the pure analogue input method wherein the player simply flicks the right analogue stick directionally in timing with the pitch. The direction of the analogue replaces the function of the face buttons in the other hitting interfaces. I found this one to be the most basic. A variety of input options are also available for baserunning, pitching, and throwing. It is almost guaranteed that players will find a mode of input that feels intuitive for them. I’d suggest experimenting with each option to find what clicks.