This year presents a gigantic opportunity for "MLB The Show 21." Not only is it the franchise's first crack at creating a game for next-gen consoles, it also is the first time that the game has been available to both PlayStation and Xbox players -- with cross-play to boot. (The series was previously PlayStation-exclusive since its inception in 2006.)
With that in mind, there's also a lot of pressure on this year's release to bring its...fastball. MLB The Show 21 is likely going to offer a first impression of the series to lots of newcomers, and Sony San Diego doesn't want to...swing and miss...on this opportunity. But does it make solid contact?
(Okay, I'm sorry. Done with the puns.)
The answer to that question may be found in how long it's been since your last spin around The Show. It's hard to imagine that experienced and annual players of the franchise (such as myself) are going to be blown away by this year's installment. The upgrades you'll find are subtle and, overall, there's not a whole lot to point to to suggest that this year's release provides a meaningful step forward for the franchise.
But if you're someone who hasn't played the series in a few years (or if you're a loyal Xbox gamer who's considering seeing what it's all about), then there's a lot to like.
With about a week's worth of gameplay under my belt now, let's take a look at some pros and cons from The Show 21:
The most meaningful difference in gameplay this year comes via fielding, which feels a bit smoother and more intuitive. You're less likely to be burned by clunky movements or awkward ball-tracking mechanics, especially in the outfield. A significant increase in ball pickup animations has made a big difference here. Plays just develop more cleanly in the field.
The franchise has needed a fresh coat of paint visually for a while, and my hope was that next-gen consoles would provide an immediate opportunity for a significant step forward. Unfortunately, that just hasn't happened with this initial next-gen release. Things look largely the same, from player models & face scans, to hair/facial hair, jerseys and environments. You're not going to be wowed by the visuals, even on PS5 or Xbox Series X.
Pro: Stadium Creator
One of the most notable additions to this year's game, feature-wise, is Stadium Creator. It's not necessarily an innovative idea in itself (various sports games have featured stadium/arena creators going back more than a decade at this point) but it's still a welcome addition -- especially when it comes to Franchise and Diamond Dynasty modes. More importantly, The Show made sure to deliver the goods on the first try. It's a tremendous builder that allows players a wide variety of customization options -- from field dimensions, to unique ballpark features, to the surrounding landscapes.
Finally, the game offers something users have been clamoring for forever: The ability to make a tower of cows.
There are going to be countless community stadiums worth gawking over, and not just ones that have stacked farm animals.
I've seen mixed reactions on the revamped menu system in this year's game. On one hand, the menu options are minimalized and it makes for clean game screens that do a good job of not overwhelming. That being said, it can be a battle to find certain things, even if you're an experienced player of the franchise. I'm sure some of that struggle will be alleviated with more reps, but it can be a process in the early going. I will say, for what it's worth, moving through the menus on a next-gen system is lightning quick, so that's a plus.
Pro: Two-way play
We can probably thank Shohei Ohtani, but this year's version of Road To The Show allows gamers to make their characters two-way players -- meaning they can both pitch and hit regularly as part of the career mode. This is a welcome addition to players who have an interest in doing both and don't want to switch between two separate careers/save files. Unfortunately, the downside to this is that the game forces you to start off your RTTS career as a two-way player every time, only offering the option to become a one-way player after you've played a few games. This can be a bit annoying if someone already has an idea of what kind of player they want to be.
Con: Road To The Show depth
While two-way play is a nice added feature to Road To The Show, there's not much else that the game mode offers that hasn't previously been seen before. The "story" is thin, there aren't many narrative elements that help bring life to your character and immerse you in the mode. It's still a bit barebones and things can get awfully repetitive.
Pro: Diamond Dynasty
I'm not the biggest Diamond Dynasty player but I toyed around with the mode for a bit earlier this week and it seems pretty user-friendly for a newcomer. The card-opening system is clean and managing your squad is relatively easy. The team creator offers plenty of customization options. There's also a variety of ways to play and unlock cards without having to dump a bunch of extra money into the game, which is always appreciated.
Most games tend to have issues with bugs and glitches at launch, and The Show is expanding its player base and absorbing cross-play into its online game modes....so you may want to cut them some slack. That being said, the online servers have struggled a bit in the first week of launch and it's led to some challenging obstacles for online players.
If they can't work those kinks out in the coming weeks, then we'll have a real problem.
MLB The Show 21 is a game that continues to build on its impressive foundation, but only with very minor and fairly inconsequential adjustments. If you're new to the franchise, the game is absolutely worth picking up. But for those who have been with The Show for a while now, it may be a somewhat underwhelming update...especially for those on next-gen. Grade: B-