Arguably no bigger set of expectations have ever faced a sports game before release than MLB The Show 21.
The annual baseball titan from developer San Diego Studio sets the expectations for itself high enough each year. But 2021 is a different beast as this is the first next-generation offering in the series.
Oh, and it's coming to Xbox, too.
What would have been a daunting task for arguably the best sports series out there thanks to the console leap is even more dramatic thanks to the sudden willingness to play ball with all. And if there's a sports series that can knock this out of the proverbial park, it's surely The Show.
MLB The Show 21 doesn't pull any punches right away, asking players to work through a set of difficulty options.
This year, players can choose between casual, simulation and competitive settings. The middle one is where most players figure to land, as it leans heavily into player and team rating to give a noteworthy sim experience. The competitive setting is where online-heavy gamers will reside given the emphasis on player performance over everything else.
The game also gives the option to let the difficulty adjust as a player improves, a novel idea that seems to work well enough. Sports games in the past have had an issue with players improving and kicking the tar out of the computer opponent, leading to some silly non-simulation results. That seems to be mitigated here.
Arguably the biggest gameplay highlight of the next-generation release is the haptic feedback on the PS5 controller. That's more a nod to the feat that is the controller's vibration technology than it is anything else, but it's implemented incredibly well. Ripping off big hits feels amazing and even something as simple as a ball landing in a first baseman's mitt is improved.
Elsewhere, Pinpoint Pitching is the first attempt by the series to implement a new way to pitch in a long time.
This will be familiar to players at first, as they must pick the pitch and then placement. What follows, though, is an almost fighting-game task of tracing a series of swoops with an analog stick. Maybe it won't feel too unfamiliar to players with experience in golf games, but it's pretty tough to get right initially.
That said, players can still use the tried-and-true meter approach—player agency remains a big theme in the series, as always. Right now, it feels like players will just stick with the traditional approach, but Pinpoint Pitching does feel a little more immersive.
Otherwise, this is traditional The Show from a gameplay perspective, which is a good thing. Some of the finer details implemented in past years, like the catch meter and throw-home meter, play well with an emphasis on player ratings to keep you engaged at all times.
It's an overall blend of old and new that manages to grab and keep a player's attention at a time when the real sport itself continues to have image and pacing problems. Plus, it sure doesn't hurt that the series spars for the title of best presentation of any sports game out there.
Graphics and Presentation
There's an interesting dynamic going on in MLB The Show 21.
On one hand, it's still one of the better-looking packages of any sporting game thanks to the graphics and overall presentation that gives off a realistic broadcast feel.
On the other, players might have expected more from the first next-generation offering in the series.
As such, it's all about managing expectations. This year's game doesn't look dated per se, but it's also hard to see the major differences between last-generation consoles and the new wave. Maybe that big generational leap happens in 2022 instead of now, but it's worth noting.
Which isn't to say MLB The Show 21 looks bad. Far from it. Some of the wow-worthy details like sweat, jersey animations, shadows, reflections on the helmets, field wear and tear and more still stand out. Even the crowds remain varied and seem to react realistically on most occasions.
On the sound design front, the team of Matt Vasgersian, Mark DeRosa, and Dan Plesac has perhaps run its course. Longtime players of the series will recognize some of the same phrases and interactions the trio has said for years now. Again, the same give-and-take applies—it's not bad, it merely needs some slight updating.
The Show didn't remain stagnant in all presentation areas, of course. It continues to major in the smaller details, such as showcasing the distance and other stats of a home run while the runner works the bases, meaning no diving into the menus just to see these details like in the past.
There's also the typical deep as you want it to be feel, as players can lean heavily in the daunting number of graphs, advanced metrics and stat sheets in an effort to find an edge. Micro-managers will find a home here—but so will those seeking out a pick-up-and-play experience.
Provided annual players can look past some of the areas that didn't receive as much love and attention as others, The Show remains a heavyweight in the sporting game realm.
Stadium Creator and More
It isn't hard to pick out the big headline item for The Show this year: the stadium creator.
Yes, the ability to create stadiums in a variety of sports games has happened in the past. But this is a next-generation exclusive mode and it feels special.
It's a little intimidating, with 30 base stadiums or an outright blank one to choose from right away. Now add in the ability to alter the field, 1,000-plus props, the ability to change the dimensions, scenery and more and one can see how players could lose hours and hours in this mode.
Like everything else in the series, players have some choice over just how difficult this process is by choosing between an Easy or Pro editor. That's a big detail because The Show lets players upload their stadiums online or download another player's creation.
Otherwise, it seems even those who don't play the series often know Road to the Show is the staple feature, mostly because it is often displayed as the high bar every other sports game needs to reach.
In an effort to keep other games from leaping and grasping at that bar, the mode gets a fresh coat of paint so players don't have to slog through the exhibitions on the way to draft night now. It's streamlined and starts right on draft night, where position and team fit end up being determined by interviews and such. It's a little rudimentary, but it gets players where they want to be faster—drafted and playing in games that matter.
Truthfully, much remains the same for the mode. But that's not a bad thing, as the RPG-isms implemented in recent years like managing player relationships and always updating challenges—in the middle of a game or over the long term—still work.
There is one other notable next-gen exclusive in RttS: video podcasts that help better flesh out the story around a created ballplayer. It sounds like a little detail, but some added oomph that is well done only offers deeper immersion. This is especially the case because these are shot from the respective homes of analysts just like real broadcasts over the course of the last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite all that, the biggest noteworthy item in RttS is the ability to create a two-way player. It makes sense from a video game perspective—players can work an infield or outfield spot for four games, then take the mound as a pitcher on the fifth. It's a why-didn't-they-do-this-sooner feature that keeps things from feeling drab.
Also a highlight here is the inclusion of Loadouts. For video gamers of pretty much any genre, this is exactly what it sounds like—players can fire up different sets of equipment, archetypes, perks and even types of pitches and save it.
It's also worth pointing out that The Show once again bests all other competition in the sheer longevity of a created player's journey. The player seamlessly transitions from RttS to Diamond Dynasty, complete with some of the production values and even Loadouts carrying over to the card-collecting mode.
Speaking of Diamond Dynasty, it returns with many of last year's improvements. The streamlined goals and routes to rewards continues to be a welcome feature and the really fun, innovative modes like Battle Royale, Conquests and moments make a return. Sprinkle in ranked play and seasons, and it once again feels like a game within a game.
Traditionalists pounding the table for franchise aren't left out of the fun either. While the changes aren't dramatic, the returning trade and player value metrics really lean into a strong general manager feel.
It's also worth pointing out how nice it is that budget responsibilities seem to have been dialed back a bit. Simulation of owning a team is fun, but the sheer depth of it—down to the price of a hotdog—was maybe something the majority of players clicked through as fast as possible.
One would expect the franchise to get even more love in future installments of the series. But it's a mode most sports games have been ignoring for a long time. The Show still sits firmly at the top, even if it would be nice to see it receive even more attention.
As if this all didn't sound robust enough, keep in mind The Show has the usual gamut of expected modes—home run derby, exhibitions, weekly challenges, postseasons, custom leagues and even the smooth retro mode.
On a bit of a surprising note, The Show permits cross-platform play. The fact this normally Sony exclusive is not only on Xbox but also allows cross-play, is a big win for gamers as a whole (and hopefully a continued sign of things to come overall).
When a consistent RBI machine without a ton of power smacks a home run it feels like a great bonus.
That's MLB The Show 21.
As a whole, the series doesn't have any problems standing as one of the best sports games out there. This year's game, though, seemingly effortlessly tackles the challenge of a new generation and leaves the cozy confines of a single-system launch.
The result is the best game in the series to date, boasting a broad appeal most games can't achieve. The presentation is strong, the gameplay stronger and the wealth of modes and options will leave players sated until things fully and exclusively transition to the next generation.