The story of Mark Prior’s career is filled with incredible highs, devastating lows, comparisons to Tom Seaver, USC folklore, what-if scenarios, and on it goes. It’s weird to think back on Prior’s career now because it technically only lasted for five MLB seasons, but it just felt like so much happened, and there were so many different ways it could have gone. Did a lot people really say he had “perfect” mechanics, or did that just get accepted as part of the lexicon after the fact? Does he still have the same number of injury issues if anyone but Dusty Baker becomes the manager of the Cubs in ’03? Questions like these are hard to answer, and you’re probably also wondering how this relates to an MLB The Show 21 review. Well, a lot like Prior’s career at certain moments, The Show this year does feel like it’s at a crossroads.
The Show‘s pedigree is just about unrivaled in the sports gaming space, but the expectations coming into this season were massive. The Show goes next gen. The Show goes cross platform. The Show was just our Sports Game of the Year for 2020. The pedigree is all here, and this franchise continues to have all the potential in the world. However, while The Show still has nothing but upside, it’s hard to deny this is going to probably end up being that first “arm injury” for the series in many years. It’s not enough on its own to question the long-term prospects of the series. Still, there are growing pains here as The Show tries to get used to this newfound superstardom as a multi-platform system seller that is being featured as a selling point for Xbox Game Pass. The question will be is ’21 just SDS getting Dusty Baker’d a bit by a mix of Covid, next-gen crunch, and multi-platform stress, or are the mechanics of the series not quite as “perfect” as we all thought?
All that being said, SDS has delivered a baseball game that feels more realistic than ever on the field. On top of that, while some modes are stuck in neutral — or even going backwards in some respects — most fans of the sport are going to be able to find something here that scratches that itch.
(Editor’s note: Our reviews for the biggest sports games are never going to cover everything all at once. We try to explain to outsiders at times that folks don’t quite appreciate how deep sports games are now. Even if you play them a lot, you’re still never quite an “expert” at every mode and know every in and out like you can for most other games out there. We have a community concerns/launch guide up to cover some of the feelings of the general populace here at OS, but we like to keep our reviews more focused on the experiences the individual reviewer had. We’ll have more deep dives, thoughts, and all that good stuff as it relates to various modes and aspects of The Show in the days and weeks ahead. In short, if you think we missed your pet issue or something “obvious” in this review, fair enough. However, no one review is ever going to cover every single thing.)
What I Like – MLB The Show 21 Review
The first thing I love to do each year with a new MLB The Show is play a game vs. the CPU without pushing a single button ever to skip any of the presentation between pitches. This year it’s downright astonishing to see all of the little details that beautifully capture the leisurely pace of a day at the stadium. Baseball has its share of exciting moments, but they’re made all the more special by every little mundane action in between them. The game captures so many of these little routine flourishes. From pitchers staring in at an umpire after a close call goes against them, to infielders leisurely throwing the ball around after an out, to a batter’s specific ritual of what he does after stepping out of the batter’s box following each pitch, there’s so much here. In fact, there’s so many little nuances it makes it frustrating on some level that we don’t get catchers throwing the ball back to the mound each time, or little obvious things like that which would make this a “pure” baseball experience if you never clicked any buttons to skip something.
The Show‘s broadcast style continues to make each game feel increasingly like one you would watch at home. Replays are ready to go after highlight players, and the appropriate cutaways, closeups, and scenic wide shots highlight just how faithfully all of the real stadiums have been rendered. The players themselves also closely resemble their real-life counterparts (there are way more face scans this year), and their models are large and detailed enough that they’re easily recognizable based on how they look and move. People who play the game every year are probably still bound to notice more of the similarities to last year’s game than differences (such is the nature of the annual sports release), but you’re also sure to pick up on all sorts of new animations and presentation wrinkles once you’ve played a couple games.
Sure, it’s a little disappointing to find in comparisons that people have done online that there really doesn’t appear to be all that much of a pronounced difference between current gen and next gen when it comes to the graphics. However, I have a hard time complaining about that too much when everything looks really good as is, and all of the action moves at a glorious 60 fps. There’s plenty of room for improvement, and it’ll be interesting to see how SDS fully harnesses and integrates the power of next-gen consoles in future releases once they’ve had more time to develop on them.
As a feature that fans have been demanding for years, it’s nice to see SDS finally allows people to make their own stadiums in MLB The Show 21 — though that creative power is only available on next-gen consoles. The process is fairly intuitive and includes a helpful tutorial from Coach (The Show‘s lovable puppet mascot) on how to master all of the basics. There are a ton of options at your disposal and there’s an undeniable thrill when you design a park with, say, a scoreboard in the shape of a guitar with a brontosaurus hanging out underneath it. It’s made all the more special when you hit a home run in an online game that happens to land right near that dinosaur. The community is bound to have a lot of creations that are both amazing and awful, and I can’t wait to see all of them. I get the gripes about the fact that you have an allocated budget for each stadium, but since this will prevent people from having absolutely every prop imaginable at a single stadium, it does seem like a logical design decision.
As you might expect from a feature in its first year of implementation, there are some things that could be refined to make the whole process a little easier. Often, it can be hard to select certain props when you hover over them with your cursor, which can quickly become frustrating. When toggling between easy edit mode (which you can use to ensure that your ballpark is okay to use in online modes) and pro edit mode, it can be difficult to tell what changes you’ve made in pro edit mode that cause a ballpark to not be playable online (hint: it’s usually the walls not being preset ones).
It’s also unfortunate that you’re not able to play any night games (or have domes) at created stadiums, making it seem like the sun never sets wherever your park happens to be located. That also kind of makes all of the lighting rig props that you can use in designing the stadium all but moot since they’re not ever going to get used anyway. Additionally, there are no ad boards, and there is no search option for the Stadium Creator Vault, which makes it very hard to find specific parks. Lastly, Stadium Creator still needs moderation from SDS/Sony/Microsoft as there are a number of bigoted and/or inappropriate stadiums that need to be purged from the game.
It was already the best card-collecting mode in any of the sports games, and Diamond Dynasty has only become even better in MLB The Show 21. Continuing to work with a model that allows you to build a quality squad by playing games rather than forcing you to spend real money to obtain elite cards, the mode has an overwhelming amount of ways to play. This takes on added focus this year because whether you prefer playing online or offline against the CPU, it feels as “fair” as it has in years in terms of not favoring online or offline people too much one way or another. On top of that, being able to earn any card by grinding is a great change.
New additions this year include Daily Moments, which include some solid rewards for just coming back regularly. Beyond that, the Inning Programs now are the main focus, and SDS has removed the long-term XP goals. I actually like this so far as it keeps me more focused, and the rewards still seem quite good. Plus, there are always more “programs” in progress now since BR and Ranked Seasons now have a more Events-like structure with goals tied to just grinding wins and stats. Even Conquest looks better from the outset because there are a handful of maps that you can conquer, and there is even a reason to repeat some of the maps for extra rewards.
Long overdue for some sort of new pitching mechanic, MLB The Show 21 has introduced Pinpoint Pitching this year. As someone who has long been a meter pitcher, it has quickly become my new go-to on the mound. This probably has as much to do with how fun the new mechanic is as it does with the fact that meter pitching had grown rather stale after all these years.
Owing at least a little something to the MLB 2K series, Pinpoint Pitching involves moving the analog stick in different directions depending on what kind of pitch you are trying to throw. Naturally, a fastball only involves a straight up and down movement (though it can still be difficult to time correctly), while other pitches like sliders and changeups will have you using more elaborate circular motions to locate and command.
Though it takes some time to adjust to and learn exactly what you need to do to perform each pitch correctly (the refined practice mode is a savior on this front), it’s rewarding to finally reach a point where I can routinely perform the correct gestures. I now find myself able to get in a groove that at least in some way mimics the way a real pitcher can get locked in. It feels like it’s almost designed to be an ideal combination of meter (the timing) and analog (the stick use) that leaves you with the impression that you’re doing more to control where every pitch ends up.
It might not be the biggest deal to some players, but the introduction of different styles of play to differentiate between casual, competitive, and simulation styles (similar to what Madden has done) is a great way to now choose whether you want to prioritize the skills of the user or the different attributes of the players involved. It should at least theoretically cut down on the amount of RNG factored into online play while allowing people who prefer more realistic play in franchise mode to keep things based more on the attrbutes of the players.
What I Don’t Like – MLB The Show 21 Review
Road To The Show
Road to the Show mode has always had its problems in my eyes, so it was likely due for an overhaul. But the makeover SDS decided to give it has somehow managed to make it even worse. By introducing a new system that confines you to only using one Ballplayer (though you can create other versions of him in different save slots) and initially focusing on the possibility of becoming a two-way player like Shohei Ohtani, RttS has become limiting, confusing, and at least at launch, it flat out does not work properly.
In theory, there’s some appeal to how you can now integrate your created ballplayer from RttS into Diamond Dynasty (should you happen to enjoy playing both modes), but the way that you use archetypes and specific skills to build separate Loadouts that you employ depending on if you are on the mound or playing out in the field on any given day sort of becomes antithetical to the entire point of a two-way player. The idea of having separate Loadouts that you use depending on your position gives the impression of developing some sort of unrealistic split baseball personality. You might be able to hit well and run fast on days you happen to be playing center field, but as soon as you take the mound, you’re forced to abandon all of those other skills in order to adopt your pitching persona.
To add insult to injury, there’s a progression system that involves accumulating stats like plate appearances and hits for batter archetypes, and innings pitched and strikeouts for pitching archetypes, and this isn’t working for many like myself at the moment. Despite logging the required stats in games, none of these ever register towards the progress, effectively making the entire mode a time sink because nothing you do really matters. It’s expected that a patch will remedy this as soon as possible (in fact, it appears SDS is already on it) because it’s pretty much as game-breaking as bugs can get.
Lastly, because the archetypes are bugged and you can’t use custom sliders without giving up all chances to earn XP, it just feels constricting right now. Your best bet for earning boosts in the quickest fashion is to head to Diamond Dynasty. SDS says the intention was not to funnel people towards any one mode — and that would probably be fair to believe if archetypes were not bugged — but funneling people to DD is still the end result as of now. Again, I think Diamond Dynasty rules, but it does not mean I want to feel “forced” to use my Ballplayer there to progress my attributes.
Look, I’m not going to belabor the point. SDS was upfront about what the focus was this year with franchise mode, so we all sort of did the math before even playing the game. Carryover saves are gone, and what’s in its place is not a great replacement when the selling point for this franchise mode was the long-term relationship many of us had with our franchises. Carryover saves made the shortcomings of the mode easier to swallow, and now it’s gone. I also have to factor in how buggy Sounds of the Show and the Roster Vault are right now across multiple platforms (not to mention roster creators have to start from scratch now on next-gen consoles). When you put all that together, it’s a bummer these things that accentuated franchise mode are now in a worse spot than they were last year.
If you’ve never played The Show, I think there’s plenty in the franchise mode that you will enjoy, but many veterans are not going to be thrilled with what’s here. On top of that, while trade logic was hyped as an area of focus, even that still looks iffy at best.
My hope was that the custom leagues mode that became part of the game last year would grow into a proper online franchise mode rather than just a one-season affair. Instead, the mode has returned largely unchanged from what it was in MLB The Show 20. This is a huge letdown for me, especially given the fact that this couldn’t possibly be some sort of next-gen-only feature. Considering how deep the online franchises are now in NBA 2K and even Madden at this point, there’s really no excuse to not have this be a feature in such a marquee sports franchise. Its absence is now a thing holding the series back from offering everything you would want in a baseball game.
This is more of a minor quibble than anything else, but the commentary is bland and repetitive enough that I don’t want to listen to it much anymore after playing this past week or so. Fortunately, you can always just turn it off in the options menu and listen to the sounds of the ballpark instead (or add your own commentary at home if you’re feeling saucy). Still, it would be nice to hear more insights and variety in what the commentary team has to say over the course of a game.
Every year it seems like MLB The Show flirts with consideration for being the best sports game of the year, and I still think that will end up being the case this year. At the very least, it continues to be the most accessible and realistic experience you can find, at least in part because you rarely have to worry about the AI of other players like you do in other team games. In other words, you generally have to accept the responsibility for your success or failure.
That being said, MLB The Show 21 has not made as big a leap as I hoped from a next-gen perspective. Road to the Show has become a bit of a mess in its current state. And there’s still the missing online franchise mode that needs to be here. However, these things still vanish from my mind when I’m in actual game and completely immersed in all of the tiny ways that The Show re-creates and celebrates the intricacies and atmosphere of baseball both on the field and surrounding it.
MLB The Show 21 is still sure to satisfy most baseball fans in at least one way, and I still believe it’s enjoyable enough to to win over some new fans at a time when baseball could definitely use them. But when you’re the “can’t miss” prospect, expectations are always high, and The Show does not always live up to those expectations this year.