MLB The Show 21 Review
An unimpressive leap to a new console generation
Last year's release of MLB The Show caught me at a weird time. We had just entered lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic and baseball had been delayed for the foreseeable future, making Sony's digital baseball game the only version of the Major Leagues available. Now, a year later, the 2021 season has already begun and The Show is making its debut on Xbox consoles - suffice it to say, it's still a strange time. As such, you can feel the game's developer, Sony San Diego, playing it safe this time around. The changes to MLB The Show 21 largely come in the form of league structure and implementing changes from the real world of baseball - less in the form of gameplay elements. The final product remains solid, but it does make it more difficult to recommend this year's game over The Show 20 in terms of pure mechanics.
Like many sports games, this franchise has spent so many years iterating on its controls and gameplay, that there's a cavalcade of options to choose from. In many sports games this tends to be overwhelming as you try to remember what controls worked for you previously. The first time you boot up The Show 21, it'll take you through a set-up wizard that allows you to customize the controls, difficulty, and play-style to your desired mix. The Show has been exceptional with these settings for a little while now, but this is the best version I've seen. My only complaint is that the Dynamic Difficulty is a little wonky. It was hard to tell if the difficulty was adjusting as I specified. This used to be handled by a graphic that showed how the game was changing. It's possible that the game just always felt I was at the right difficulty, but the scores of my games wouldn't agree. This meant that eventually I was back in the menus fiddling with the difficulty settings.
The customization options continue as The Show 21 offers the ability to create a stadium for the first time. The Show has always had an impressive create-a-character mode, so it's good to see the series expanding. However, this new customization option isn't as elegant. There are two versions to the feature, one that allows players to get into the details of customizing fence sizes and placing stands in specific places, and another that quickly generates a functional field for you to play on. The problem is that neither version works very well. Getting into the details is frustrating and quickly becomes more trouble than it's worth as placing items with the analog stick and sizing up individuals wall panels isn’t very interesting. Conversely, the easy builder makes things feel a little too generic. There is an option to download created stadiums by other players, but the servers for the game have been spotty during the first week and change, making that option not always available.
This is actually an annoying pain point for The Show this year. There are a lot of things you should be able to download which were created by other players - rosters, stadiums, Road to the Show players, team logos, etc. However, I had a lot of trouble getting these things to download as the servers experienced technical difficulties at launch with connectivity. It also affects online play - more on this later.
The biggest gameplay change in the outfield this year is the precise pitching, which has the player maneuver the analogue stick to resemble the symbol on the screen. So with a fastball, you'll basically draw a line, but with a change up, you will have to draw a “G” shape. It's an interesting idea, though I found it a little finicky, sending an occasional pitch wild. The tricky thing when discussing the gameplay in detail is that there is no specific way to play the game. So many of the controls are customizable not just in the details, but in the overall control scheme, it’s difficult to speak for what players will experience. But previously what felt good, still feels good. The haptic feedback of the PS5 DualSense controller is a cool feature as it can give some texture to making solid contact or catching a flyball.
As far as game modes go, the biggest change is for Road to the Show. The mode itself is a step back, instead of creating a player at the beginning of the game, you choose what team you want to play for. Upon joining said team, you're told that you're going to be a two-way player. This is something you can't change, you'll always start as both a pitcher and hitter. Then through a series of minor league games you decide if you want to switch to just a hitter, just a pitcher, or some mix. It's one of those things that probably sounded better as a hypothetical, allowing players in Road to the Show to try out different positions and see what they liked better the same way they can sample different controls when they boot up the game for the first time. However, it just drags up on too long. Upgrading your skills is also a pain as the best way to do so is through Programs, which are daily objectives. The one cool thing about Road to the Show this year is your ability to move your player to a Franchise or Diamond Dynasty game.
The bones of the Franchise mode are still good. It's great that you can quickly jump in and out of games, not only playing the most important moments, but also being able to quickly hop out of those moments and going back to simming through innings quickly. It remains the most impressive way to play through multiple seasons, giving you control, and also acknowledging you might not have 100 hours to put into playing a single season.
Diamond Dynasty also remains the same as previous iterations, the exception being the aforementioned ability to take your RTTS player into the mode. It feels like acquiring the Stubs currency and unlocking card packs may be easier this year, but it's hard to tell and all of these modes kind of run together in my brain - further proof that there's nothing which sets this one apart. You can level up cards so that they're not quite so disposable. It's a neat idea, though it doesn't affect the card grind much. There are still multiple kinds of games packaged into Diamond Dynasty, giving you lots of different ways to upgrade your team.
If you're looking for multiplayer, the Custom Leagues is probably your best bet. The wide range of options when playing this way is pretty great and allows you and a group of friends to create your own league to play against each other. However, the act of playing online with other people isn't ideal. The Show has had a long-standing issue of lag times and this year the issue seems particularly bad with lag times making the timing needed for hitting the ball particularly tricky.
For those who are interested in the March to October mode (the Show's version of a single Season mode) it's perhaps the most unchanged version of the game. Here you choose a team and try to build momentum through winning games. For those looking for a more casual experience, you can find it here.
The jump to next-gen hardware had me curious about The Show's latest entry as the series has been known for being particularly beautiful, though I can't say I noticed much improvement in this year's game. Yes, it still looks good, but it looks about as good as last year's game, not really justifying anyone going out to buy a new console on its behalf.
At this point, MLB The Show feels less like a video game and more like a platform. I've talked about the overwhelming amount of content before, but at this point, overwhelming doesn't even describe it. There's just so much that this game is begging for you to do, it's hard to really feel committed or engaged in any of it. There's so much pulling at your attention with the daily challenges and other achievements that it was kind of hard to lose myself in the actual gameplay. Between having the issues with the servers, the lack of graphical improvement, and the lateral movement of the gameplay, it's hard to say that there's anything in particular this year about The Show that merits buying it over the previous iterations. Unless you're eager to get the game on Xbox for the first time, or a purist who needs to be playing with the new playoff and extra-innings rules, it should be safe to stick with last year's game.