MLB The Show 21 Review: Designated Hit
MLB The Show has long been regarded as one of the better annual sports sims, and this year, many more players will come to find the reputation that precedes it is well-earned.
Sony San Diego's yearly ballgame is now cross-gen and cross-play, making it the first of the major sports game to offer such flexibility, but none of it would matter if the game wasn't a delight to play. Thankfully, it is.
While the major changes to its many modes are slim, MLB The Show 21 shines on the field like nothing else in the sports sim world.
MLB The Show 21 Review: Designated Hit
If you're new to The Show, the first thing you'll notice is an unrivaled number of game modes to choose from. While every sports game today offers foundational modes such as Exhibition, Franchise, and a card collecting mode — in this case, called Diamond Dynasty — MLB The Show supports those major pillars with several more modes, such as Custom League, Postseason, and more. Usually, they're worth exploring.
The best of the entire suite of modes is March to October, which plays like a hastened Franchise mode, jumping around to different games and even different moments in different games. Here, you build out a light story for your team's long season and build momentum with good performances to influence more wins when some parts are simmed.
For the players not interested in playing all 162 games or fine-tuning the minutia of a baseball franchise, March To October is a creative alternative that still hits the emotional beats that come with feeling a sense of ownership of your team's successes and failures.
While Diamond Dynasty can be seen as the main reason The Show has gone multiplatform for the first time ever, the mode is surprisingly stale from previous years. This is a time-tested card-collecting mode, and it's not just The Show's fault. Each game in the sports world is seeming to mesh into a singular form, so it can feel like if you've played one, you've played them all.
Unfortunately, one area where Diamond Dynasty is still different is in its lack of streamlining. In something like Madden Ultimate Team, the endless parade of challenges feels inviting rather than intimidating because you can swiftly move on to subsequent challenges as you complete them with little break in the action. In The Show, you have to back out to the mode's landing page and move through several menus each time you complete any mission and intend to play another. This quickly grows tiresome as it feels old-school in the wrong way in 2021.
Road To The Show is the game's story mode, and like Madden and NBA 2K in recent years, it takes a rather hands-off approach, which has done wonders for this and other sports games. It once more provides rewarding context to your actions without too heavy of a writing hand, which is good when you consider how lackluster those efforts have been in years past.
In this year's story, you're a prospective two-way player, trying to play the field and bat on your days off from pitching. Interestingly, the game eventually lets you move away from that intent if you really don't want to do that, but all the faux podcast and talking-head segments do seem built on the idea that you accept the challenge.
It's fun to see real MLB Network talent and former stars like Mike Lowell and Jenny Finch dish on a fake player as if they're real and in every case, the performances are surprisingly strong. It's as though the on-air talent can give an honest opinion of any player provided they have their stats and story as background.
The biggest new addition to MLB The Show 21 is the Stadium Creator. This awesomely deep creation suite allows you to make, share, and download custom stadia with the attention to detail of building your house in The Sims. Seemingly everything one could ask for is present and customizable, from the placement and type of concession stands to the landscape your stadium is set in and the angles of every wall panel across the width of the stadium.
It's a fun side attraction when you're off the field, though a few more wacky options, like the game's handful of sci-fi decor objects, would be welcome if next year's game builds on this.
All of the above acts as a preamble for the folks who have played The Show before and just want to know what's new. But if it's you who is, in fact, new to this series, you also need to know what makes The Show so special, and that's all on the field.
Simulating its real-life counterpart better than any other series in the sports gaming world, MLB The Show stands alone at the top both for its deeply rewarding mechanics and detailed presentation. The game makes a remarkable first impression by dropping players into a dynamic tutorial that allows you to try out the several different ways to bat, pitch, field, and baserun.
These options include much simpler button presses for arcade players to something in between, like a power meter for pitchers akin to kicking in Madden. In this year's game, pitching can be even more complex with a new right-stick-driven control scheme that feels more like a UFC game.
Every aspect of baseball offers several options like this, representing a spectrum of intensity from low to quite high depending on your preferred play style. This can make the game feel very different for different players, but it always plays according to your preferences and thus always feels accessible even as its details run so deep.
Whatever you choose, the game supplements it with gorgeous player models and some of the best mocap ever put to games. The way a player will whiff on a strike and fall to one knee, or revert to first after thinking better of their attempted double, or climb the wall to rob a home run — it all looks so good. I've not seen anything like it.
There's weight to each movement, and the game uses the full range of its 0-100 attribute system. Some guys' sub-20 speed was startling to read, but it's all reliably based on real data, and it helps separate the elite players from the spot starters.
Curiously, animations don't seem to be any less pre-canned than the animation systems in other sports games, and yet, if so, it hides it so well. There is a fluidity to everything and as someone who grew out of MLB spectatorship a few years ago, I find myself pulled back into the sport with such an uncanny valley simulation like The Show is.
Fans rise to their feet for the final strike of a game. The announcers accurately recall not just your past plate appearances, but on what pitch and what location you may have struck out on. You'll see the camera cut to your closer warming up in a tight game. While some of the stadium-specific traditions are absent (no licensing Sweet Caroline, it seems), The Show does everything else right when it comes to putting you in the game.
You can even feel it in three ways at once, which I've never felt in a sports game before. The sights and sounds make you feel like you're in the bleachers, the camera work sells it like a TV product, and the gameplay, hinging so much on your players' skills as well as your own, puts you right in the middle of the action.
Most sports games worth their time get that last one right, the best ones do the middle one as well. Only The Show makes you feel like you're in the crowd. Nothing else comes close, really.
MLB The Show 21 Review — The Bottom Line
- Best-in-class gameplay
- Stadium Creator is a fun distraction
- March To October smartly provides Franchise highs and lows in a fraction of the time
- Superb broadcast-style presentation
- Diamond Dynasty remains a slog to move through
- Few changes to major modes or on-field gameplay
MLB The Show 21 isn't as flashy as its cover star. Lacking many overhauls to its modes, this year's game focuses on a decent laissez-faire story mode, a cool new Stadium Creator, and more of the superb baseball sim gameplay that has earned the series its reputation as one of the best Sony exclusives.
MLB The Show isn't exclusive anymore, but that just means many more people are about to learn firsthand how lifelike a sports game's on-field gameplay can be.
[Note: Sony provided the copy of MLB The Show 21 used for this review.]