MLB The Show 16: Conquest Mode Makes Playing the Computer Fun Again
In most sports videogames, I spend the majority of my time each year playing the human vs. human modes. Since NHL 09 introduced me to Online Team Play, my motto has been, "The less AI on the field, the more fun I'll likely have." But a combination of server errors, latency, and "challenge failed" messages has kept me from playing much Head-to-Head or Battle Royale in MLB The Show 16's first week.
Instead, I can't recall another sports videogame where I've enjoyed battling the computer as much as I have during the opening days of MLB The Show 16's new Conquest mode. It isn't because The Show's AI is especially bright –- it still struggles to keep speedy bunt/steal specialists like Craig "Do not go" Gentry from getting to third base.
And whenever that type of player is on the CPU's team (I'm thinking of you, Kansas City Royals), the AI isn't nearly as aggressive as it should be with their own bunt and steal attempts. Conquest mode's appeal comes from giving these computer matches a meaning and purpose beyond simply being another number that gets added to your franchise's win total.
Like the board game Risk or the videogame Civilization, your goal in Conquest is to spread your team's fanbase across the continental United States (and into Toronto, Canada). You'll accomplish that task with a mixture of simulated dice rolls and actual human vs. COM matches. The system smartly lets users simulate past the incessant tug-of-war for insignificant territories so that players can skip straight to the all-important stronghold takeovers. When a team loses control of its last remaining stronghold, they can no longer attract any new fans, and their surviving supporters can be easily swayed to follow a franchise that's still alive.
With so much at stake, these stronghold battles tend to become extremely tense, and depending on their outcome, they usually end up being immensely satisfying or ruthlessly heartbreaking (screw you, Chicago Cubs!). Even fighting to eliminate smaller organizations like the Minnesota Twins or Milwaukee Brewers carries extra weight when millions of fans' loyalty is on the line.
I'm afraid I might have tweaked some shoulder muscles Saturday night after celebrating too fiercely following a go-ahead pinch-hit home run against the reigning world champion Royals (thank you, Michael Conforto!). That kind of emotional reaction never would have happened in any other human vs. COM sports mode on my PlayStation 4. I've had tons of close calls this year while doing offline MyTeam challenges in NBA 2K16, but those contests became so dull within the first week of playing that not even a buzzer beater could get me excited when competing against Visual Concepts' AI.
When Conquest games are blowouts (I've only experienced one double-digit stinker on All-Star difficulty), you can still chase statistical milestones, or follow captain missions, which reward two separate forms of in-game currency, and also help to unlock special edition players. Randomized post-game reward cards will pop up on screen after each match, further enhancing the feeling that you're not wasting your time playing the computer, like you often are in 2K's/EA's competing MyTeam/Ultimate Team models.
Being able to create my club's logo and uniforms (something MyTeam allows but Ultimate Team lacks), and having my home city in the announcer's database can't be overlooked, either, as features that have helped foster an emotional attachment to my pink and purple Nashville Nutz.
I've only conquered seven of MLB's 30 teams, so we'll see how long Conquest's appeal lasts, but so far, I feel like this is the most well-designed fantasy mode I've played since All-Pro Football 2K8's online drafts -- a game that kept me entertained for eight straight years before I finally retired from head-to-head competition. A single-player mode with a definitive ending can't have that kind of crazy-long lifespan. But if Sony San Diego ever found a way to let users create Conquest leagues with 30 human owners -- where each "season" lasts until one team is left on the map -- then Conquest mode could become more than just a series of memorable battles; it could become baseball's never-ending war.