Sony San Diego doesn’t always get the credit that it deserves for MLB The Show, with the franchise routinely overlooked by PlayStation fans as forum list wars focus on the heavy hitters like God of War and The Last of Us: Part II. But the developer’s quietly created one of the best sports series available on any platform, and while this year’s entry may focus on behind-the-scenes updates rather than headline new features, it delivers the most enjoyable rendition of America’s pastime yet.

Some of the smaller details are so insanely specific that they beggar belief; crowd logic has been altered so there’s a lower attendance at games between teams out of the postseason hunt, while home run celebrations now have added context – players will go berserk when they hit a rocket at a crucial point in the game, rather than simply jogging around the bases like they’ve just smashed another zinger in what’s becoming an embarrassing blowout.

The presentation, from top to bottom, is frankly staggering. Tiny details like the train at Minute Maid Park add to the authenticity, while the Judge’s Chambers cheer on the action at Yankee Park. Even if you don’t love baseball, it’s immediately obvious that a dizzying amount of attention to detail has been invested into this intricately crafted game. The lighting across the board has also been improved, and aside from some spotty textures here and there, you could mistake it for the real thing.

But it’s the gameplay that really sells the whole package. As with previous instalments, it’s alarmingly malleable, allowing you to pick from a variety of pitching and batting control options. The latter has been given real attention this year, creating even more thrilling at-bats than ever before. Thousands of animations have been added, allowing for wild variation between shots; the battle between batter and pitcher is brilliantly balanced so that you truly feel the tension when you’re down on strikes.

The fielding also feels better, with outfield players moving with more momentum, making for more realistic plays as you dive for low hits and twist into base throws. This works both ways, because if you shift your momentum the wrong way, then it’s going to take time for you to recover, and by the time you do that clutch hit may just be tumbling towards the warning track. There’s a learning curve here, but like the batting, it never feels unfair – you’ll be at fault for any mistakes you make.

This top-tier gameplay is stretched across a slew of high quality modes, with the popular Road to the Show role-playing campaign again taking centre stage. Archetypes are the big twist here, which prevent you from creating a god-like player, and instead focusing on a specific type of superstar. You may choose to be an outright slugger who hits big but lacks speed – or perhaps an all-rounder with great fielding abilities. It’s up to you.

This tweak affects the way progression works, with every action you take on field contributing to (or damaging) your progress. Hit a clutch shot against a right-handed pitcher and your contact against that type of player will permanently improve. There are caps to how far you can progress all of your attributes, though, and this is likely to prove divisive for fans who liked to create the ultimate player who’s flawless across the board.

The presentation of this mode is still very unique, however, opting for a fly-on-the-wall documentary presentation style, where your progress is narrated. There are dialogue options throughout, as you deal with managers, team mates, and sponsors. One thing of note is that microtransactions have been completely stripped from this portion of the game, so you’ll need to work your way through to the Major Leagues the hard way.

The other main single player option, Franchise mode, has seen less tweaks – in fact, it’s actually removed online play. As always, this allows you to act as the GM of a team and control all the decisions across a 162 game season. The menus have been overhauled to make management much easier, and you can opt to play your campaign using the old-school Retro mode if you prefer, but there’s not a whole lot different for returning players to sink their teeth into here.

Which leaves Diamond Dynasty, the series’ outrageously addictive twist on Ultimate Team. Legends like Babe Ruth have been added to the card collecting portfolio this time around, while an absolute heap of missions mean that you could easily spend upwards of 1,000 hours assembling the best team here. You can take your own team online, or play single player across a variety of returning modes, including the RISK-inspired Conquest.

One last point of note is that MLB Network’s Mark DeRosa has been added to the commentary roster, replacing Harold Reynolds. This means that you’ve now got DeRosa and Dan Plesac adding context to Matt Vasgersian play-by-play announcements. A lot of the commentary has been recorded in the same room, which means all three bounce off each other, and it makes for some entertaining back-and-forths. Naturally, the more you play, the more you’re going to hear repeated lines, though.

Conclusion

MLB The Show 18 is, for our money, the best sports game on console right now. Whether you love baseball or not, this is a flexible simulation that can appeal to both beginners and veterans alike, with some of the best presentation you’ll find on the PS4. On paper this may not sound like a substantial step forward for the series, but the under-the-hood improvements mean that it’s the best playing, best looking version yet. We’re not sure where Sony San Diego goes next with this series, but we say that every year, and it continues to smash our expectations out of the park.