A new console generation brings a lot of promise, especially when it comes to sports sims—I don’t think any other genre quite benefits as much from advances in graphical fidelity and realism as sports sims do. That puts a lot of expectation on the shoulders of MLB The Show 21, and while it doesn’t quite push the visual boundaries as much as you’d hope the premier baseball sim would in its PlayStation 5 debut, it adds a wealth of new features and tweaks to what’s long been one of the best sports sims on the market.
The most substantial changes come to Road to the Show, The Show’s version of a career mode. Creating a rookie player and taking him on the journey from the minor leagues to the bigs, growing and improving RPG-style along the way, is always going be an enjoyable experience. But in the past, the specialised nature of baseball forced limitations on this mode: you were either a pitcher or a batter/fielder, and whatever role you chose at the start would be your lot for the rest of your career. Sure, sometimes events might prompt a change in the details—say, from starting pitcher to closer—and depending on league, a pitcher might still have to hit, but your main focus was pretty much set from the start.
The Show 21 lets you be a two-way player. In other words, you don’t have to pick one discipline and stick with it; you can be a starting pitcher who can also swing a bat on your days off the mound, or a star slugger who can also be your team’s go-to closer. With that comes a lot more freedom in how you approach Road to the Show, as well as some welcome variety. As much as I love pitching, spending an entire career mode doing nothing but that can get tiring, but that’s no longer an issue.
You can still specialise, if you want to. You’re given a lot of options in the early stages of a new career to experiment with different positions, find the right fit, and decide if you want to remain a two-way player or put all your energy into one thing. A new approach to character growth, with different skills tied to different positions that can be easily swapped in and out and saved to different loadouts, means character setup is flexible enough that you don’t have to be a complete cookie cutter if you want to play different roles.
Road to the Show also comes with a new approach to the story of your player’s career, told mostly through a live action podcast with real-life commentators. It’s an interesting touch, helped by the compelling personalities of those involved—necessarily generic to a degree, as a necessity of having pre-recorded segments for a career trajectory that can vary wildly from player to player, but still sufficiently responsive that still feels sufficiently connected to your decisions. That said, the narrative itself still feels lacking, especially with the (perhaps unfair) comparison to the cinematic approach that NBA 2K has been taking for the last few years. It’s a standard player journey from minors to majors, with generic coaches and simplistic narrative decisions that mean it lacks any real personality. Road to the Show is a career mode first, and a narrative experience as a distant second.
The other big addition to The Show 21, specifically for the next-gen versions, is a Stadium Creator. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, but with a bevy of customisation options and an interface that’s intuitive yet full of depth when you really dig into it. The playing field itself is understandably limited in how much you can adjust, for the sake of having a legal ballpark, but for walls, batters eyes, seating, and decorations outside the playing area, you can go nuts. There are even dinosaurs! Nothing quite like a bit of prehistoric baseball.
Other additions are smaller, but no less welcome. Pinpoint pitching is a new option for a pitching system, with a focus on giving you much more control as a player at the cost of greater complexity. In short, it sees you delivering pitches by doing fighting game-like motions with the analog stick, with timing and accuracy of your inputs feeding into the quality of your pitch. It’s hard to master, by design, but if you can get to grips with it, you can fine-tune your delivery in ways that none of the other pitching systems come close to. Thankfully, all those other systems are still there, too, if you want something a little bit easier to manage or if you’re just stuck in old habits.
The Show 21 also comes with a new Play Styles option, letting you easily pick from three slider presets. Beginner, as you’d expect, makes things a little easier across the board—not quite arcade-ish, but a little less realistic or demanding of player skill. Simulation is all about the hardcore simulation, with the most lifelike physics and player stats being a major factor, while Competitive puts player skill at the front and centre. A lot of players will still want to delve into the slider options to fine-tune everything, but if you just want to jump into a game, Play Styles are handy to have.
Beyond that, The Show 21 mostly sticks to what’s been working for the past few years. March to October is still a great option for a shorter-form franchise mode, letting you play a full season in a few hours and focus on the most exciting and dramatic moments. Moments are still a good choice for some quick play, and a fun way to celebrate baseball history. Franchise mode is still the most in-depth management sim you could hope for, with a few little tweaks that don’t drastically alter things but add a few more layers to things like player aging and trades.
Sadly, it’s also more of the same when it comes to overall presentation and visual performance, despite the jump to a new hardware generation. Side by side, there’s a noticeable difference between PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 versions, with finer details and smoother performance in the latter, but it’s not the huge leap you’d expect from a new generation (and that we saw in NBA 2K21, for example). The Show has never been an ugly game, but after seeing what the PS5 is capable of, I can’t say I’m not a little disappointed that The Show 21 doesn’t go further. Maybe next year.
The other big elephant in the room: network play. At the time of writing, a couple of weeks out from launch, there are still major network issues, with dropped connections, outages, and extended maintenance periods a common occurrence. I have to assume these will be resolved, hopefully before too much longer, but if you’re picking up The Show for its online play, maybe wait a bit.
Online troubles notwithstanding, MLB The Show 21 is a fantastic game that keeps the series in place as the best baseball sim you can play. It’s not quite the visual jump you’d expect from a new console generation, but the revamped Road to the Show, fun new features like Stadium Creator, and plenty of little tweaks across the board make it a far more substantial step forward than last year’s outing, and something that belongs in every baseball fan’s collection.
Title: MLB The Show 21
Developer: San Diego Studio
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.