MLB The Show 21 Review – Batter Up
MLB The Show 21 has made headlines this year for what it’s done off the field of play. In an unprecedented move, the Sony-developed title is now available on Microsoft consoles, signalling the end of 15 years of PlayStation exclusivity. It’s a monumental shift for a series that’s also making its debut on next-gen consoles, and MLB The Show 21 maintains the series’ high bar of excellence once the ball’s in play. Away from the diamond, however, there are a number of missing features and questionable decisions that take some of the shine off an otherwise fantastic game of baseball.
The card collecting mode, Diamond Dynasty, is the basis for most of these dubious decisions, particularly in regards to Road to the Show (RttS). MLB The Show 21’s career mode still revolves around the core idea of creating a player and taking them from the minor leagues through to the majors, but the structure of the mode has been significantly reworked. Your created Ballplayer is now a single unified entity that functions much like the NBA 2K series’ MyPlayer. This Ballplayer, with all the improvements you make to their attributes, also carries over into Diamond Dynasty, where they can be inserted into the starting lineup alongside current players and legends of the sport. It’s a solid idea on paper, but the execution severely hampers RttS in a few major areas.
For one, having a single Ballplayer limits your options since you’re unable to create more than one distinct character. You can still create multiple saves to make characters who play in different positions, but you’re stuck using the exact same player in each. On top of this, there’s also a new loadout system that allows you to create multiple custom loadouts. Each one features one main archetype and up to two perks that improve certain attributes while slightly decreasing others. This change appears to be geared towards another new addition, which gives you the option to play as a two-way player similar to Shohei Ohtani. For games when you’re hitting and playing the field, you might select a loadout with perks based around improving your contact, power, and arm accuracy; on days when you’re pitching, you might opt for another loadout with pitching-centric perks.
Again, this is a decent idea on paper, but the execution is once again lacking in a number of key areas. Attributes still improve during the process of playing games and completing training drills during your off-days, but natural progression like this is exceedingly slow to the point where it feels like it barely has an impact. By the end of your first season it’s very likely that your Ballplayer’s overall rating will have only risen by two or three points. Loadouts and equipment offset this meager progression by pumping up the numbers, but it’s difficult to feel any attachment to your created player when you have next to no palpable input on how they improve. Completing missions by achieving a specific number of hits, strikeouts, and so on, contributes to a linear upgrade tree for each archetype that gradually unlocks new perks and equipment. At the moment, however, this only adds to the grind, since a glitch is currently preventing the game from properly registering all of your actions.
Of course, you can purchase perks and equipment from the in-game marketplace, too, either by using Stubs earned by playing, or by using real money to bypass this entirely. The series has always been relatively generous when it comes to handing out rewards, and MLB The Show 21 is no different, but introducing microtransactions to a single-player mode is still a cynical maneuver that might also explain part of the reason why year-to-year saves are absent.
When it comes to Diamond Dynasty, there’s an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach this year. The time-consuming mode is still bulging at the seams with various challenges and different ways to play, whether you’re recreating famous moments with legends of the past, stealing fans from other teams in Conquest, or simply competing against other players online. The same can also be said of Franchise mode–only the dearth of updates in this case is disappointing. Trade logic has been improved, and the addition of a yearly depth chart gives you a clear outline of how your team might develop and which areas will eventually need reinforcements. Budgets have also been streamlined so that they’re now readable, making it easier to plan ahead, but Franchise is still missing a number of key features that are mainstays in other sports games, such as online Franchise, expansion teams, and league re-alignments.
Like RttS, year-to-year saves are also absent in Franchise as well, so you won’t be able to carry over your 10-year Orioles rebuild from the previous games. Sounds of the Show is another feature that was lost in the move to newer consoles, meaning there’s no way to import custom music for batter walk-ups and so on. Commentary is also behind the times. There are a couple of new commentary lines in RttS relating to two-way players, but otherwise the three-man booth is overly familiar at this point. As a prime example, new Texas Rangers player David Dahl is still constantly referred to as “the speed outfielder,” despite the fact his speed stat has now regressed to 56. Sideline reporter Heidi Watney also regurgitates the same voice lines as last year.
MLB The Show has always been one of the better-looking sports games, so the increase in graphical fidelity on PlayStation 5 isn’t a significant leap. Lighting has been improved, and managers in particular look more lifelike than before. The addition of hundreds of new animations has a much more discernible impact on the visuals, though, adding to the game’s fluidity and sense of realism. The PS5 controller’s haptic feedback is also utilized to good effect, sending vibrations through your hands that mimic the ball careening off the end of the bat or nestling in a fielder’s glove. The oft-requested Stadium Creator also finally makes its series debut, letting you build ghastly monstrosities from the ground up, recreate famous ballparks, or add your own personal touch to a selection of pre-built stadiums. The only negative right now is you can’t play night games in created stadiums, but this is expected to be introduced in a later patch.
Pinpoint Pitching is the headline new feature once you step out onto the diamond. As the name implies, this is a new pitching interface with an emphasis on precision. Obviously, how precise you are depends on your ability to successfully execute on this new mechanic, and it’s the most challenging pitching interface in the game. Once you’ve picked the pitch type and its placement, you need to use the right analog stick to accurately trace a pattern that’s dictated by your pitch selection. Timing is crucial, as you’re either rewarded or penalized for being too fast or too slow. There’s definitely a steep learning curve to mastering Pinpoint Pitching, but it’s tactile and feels very natural to pull off as though you’re mirroring the player’s pitching motion. It won’t be for everyone, and the series has never forced players into using a particular system, so you can still stick to meter pitching or another interface if need be. It’s a solid new addition, though, and adds another wrinkle to The Show’s on-field quality.
Fielding has also been improved via more fluid animations and better indicators. Check swings are also entirely based on player skill now, removing the element of randomness that was present before, even if the player discipline attribute had an impact. Whether you hold up on a swing or not is predicated on your ability to quickly cancel out of it. This is bound to be a divisive change considering it results in more strikeouts, but favoring skill over an element of luck is a positive change.
Much like its predecessors, MLB The Show 21 is still one of the best sports games available once you step over the foul line. The gameplay has been tightened up and Pinpoint Pitching is a potential game-changer, and all of these elements go some way to dampening the disappointment of its missing features, stale commentary, and changes (or lack thereof) to Road to the Show and Franchise. It’s not the strongest debut the series could’ve had on new hardware, but if you’re in the mood for nine innings of America’s favorite pastime, MLB The Show is still the undisputed king.