It feels like a critical year for R.B.I Baseball 21.
The smaller annual series put forth by developer MLB Advanced Media not only gets a first chance to tackle a new console generation this year, it no longer has the luxury of being the lone baseball game releasing on multiple consoles—MLB The Show, formerly a PlayStation exclusive, is going multi-platform.
Not that R.B.I Baseball 21 really wants to compete with the heavyweights. It's a smaller, arcade-based series slowly incorporating big-ticket items from other games. But as that happens, it leaves niche territory and heads for bigger things.
That includes this year, where a number of notable upgrades attempt to lure new and returning players alike.
MLB Advanced Media really hit one out of the park (sorry) at the right time with this series.
While the real sport was trying to grasp at ways to keep onlookers interested and capture a younger audience, R.B.I Baseball got revived and offered quick-hitting gameplay that had a ton of pick-up-and-play potential and was simply a blast.
It's more of the same this year for the series, now one year removed from revamping pitching and batting.
The options in the batter's box to gun for quality contact or to throw it all into power and hope for a home run is still a fun, arcadey way to work the timing-based experience. Actually hitting a homer still feels a little limp, but overall, it's almost akin to an enjoyable stress-relieving exercise to take part in the offensive side of things.
Picking from a variety of pitches before winding up and letting it go toward home plate is in again and feels great amid the arcade backdrop. With the modern controls, it's a nice touch to have an effort system that broadens where a pitch could end up over the plate, making for a fun risk-reward sort of minigame.
Luckily for players old or new, player agency is one of the big-ticket themes of this year's release. There are a handful of batting controls and camera angles players can choose from before or during a game. That doesn't sound like much for modern sports games, of course, but it's notable here because the individual can tailor the experience to their liking, which only makes the gameplay better.
Besides pitching and hitting, gameplay in general again feels great for what it is. Pickoff attempts remain an entertaining timing-based minigame, the pace of games is fast enough that fielding doesn't feel like a chore, and while hiccups like a limited number of animations to make every player feel the same persist, some of the smooth presentation upgrades make any negatives small by comparison.
Graphics and Presentation
R.B.I Baseball isn't going to rival The Show in terms of broadcast prowess in the presentation department by any means.
Yet it's clear upping this area is a point of emphasis for MLB Advanced Media. And now that some of these advancements to the series have gone live, it's obvious it was the right decision.
The first big-ticket item is play-by-play commentary from Fran Charles of MLB Network. It's not perfect, just like any announcer in video games aren't, but it does bring some much-needed realism, if not levity, to the action. The calls often come in by the pitch to provide context, and while generic at times, they brighten the experience.
Another fun step forward for the series is time of day finally arriving. Stadiums have always been well-done compared to their real-life counterparts, and now we get to see them progress with realistic time-of-day happenings like sunsets, for example.
The series didn't totally ignore player-model woes from past games, either. While they can still all start to look samey after a while, there was clearly some work put in to upgrade the presentation. It's never going to rival a bigger sports game's ability to implement those little individual things superstar players do, but doing a side-by-side comparison to last year's game is notable.
A nice touch this year is leaving camera angles in the hands of players. Add in a solid soundtrack and it's clear the series continues to make strides in all areas, not just in gameplay. Newcomers to the series might knock it for not having more of a big-budget broadcast feel with sideline reporters, extensive intros and outros and more, but R.B.I Baseball 21 does enough for what it's trying to accomplish—and it should be interesting in future years to see how much it keeps pushing in this area.
Franchise and More
R.B.I Baseball implemented franchise a while ago now, and it remains the most appealing part of the series.
While it does have its limitations if players compare it to a bigger sports game, the franchise mode here retains the smooth pick-up-and-play feel in the bigger confines of a full season and postseason. Players can choose how many games make up each season, play the free-agent market and strike trades with teams among other general things expected of the mode.
Elsewhere, the full list of modes isn't as intimidating as it is in other sports games. Players can organise an exhibition, take part in a home run derby or even take their talents online to spar with fellow players.
These are all fun side activities that retain the feel of the base game and make for strong multiplayer sessions, either on the couch locally or online.
More interesting might be some of the extras going on behind the scenes. Outside of picking modern or classical control schemes and camera angles, the game also offers modern-feeling gameplay sliders found in other games. This lets players control minutiae like fielder speed, for example, and lets each player dictate how the game feels—and in the worst-case scenario could address problems with the A.I. before awaiting a patch.
An uptick in customization was a natural, organic way for the series to turn with some necessary details like franchise locked into the experience.
That makes create-a-player a big-ticket item this year, and it's a little more robust than some might expect. There are a wealth of things to customize, right down to the gear—such as bat color and bat-grip color— though it can be a bit shallow at the same time (there are only 10 facial hair options, for example).
As hinted, R.B.I Baseball 21 takes some natural steps forward for the franchise. More ways to fine-tune the experience for each individual is a nice way to go atop an already sound gameplay experience. Painting in broad strokes, the series continues to mark big items off the checklist and continues to do so in a strong manner.
It's safe to tab R.B.I Baseball 21 as the best game in the series to date.
While individual player expectations will still shape overall reception, this arcade-based experience only continues to improve as more modern items like customization, gameplay tuning and better presentation creep their way into the series.
A year removed from key on-field boosts, this year's game offers organic-feeling upgrades to key areas. Yes, other games did them first, but the overarching package creates the perfect environment for onboarding new players to the series and presents a good ceiling for veterans, too.