Good news, in theory: MLB The Show 21 celebrates Jackie Robinson. While any year is fitting to his legacy, America’s pastime standing for racial equality as the country struggles with well-documented issues should be celebrated. Baseball – and sports – matter, even the interactive kind. Yet while Robinson is the cover star, it’s only on the pricier, beefier edition. That seems crass, especially as Robinson’s in-game addition amounts to a few branded, RPG-like stat-boosting items, and cards for the costlier-still Diamond Dynasty mode. However well-intentioned, his inclusion could have been better handled. More on that shortly…
Release date: April 20, 2021
Platform: PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X / Xbox One
It's not only the push for equality which has made for a 12-month period like no other. During that time fan attendance at sports events has been either limited or banned completely, yet MLB The Show 21 doesn’t contend with this new normal. Other pro sports games failed there too, like NBA 2K21’s inability to reconcile the league’s prominent statements against police violence, but its commentary at least mentions COVID and the unusual season. Nothing in The Show 21 does, and every stadium is stuffed with fans, akin to the controversial Texas Rangers’ opening day sellout with 40,000+ people in attendance. That’s a lot of skirting reality for a series applauded for authenticity.
There's a powerful caveat though: where it matters – out on the field – MLB The Show 21 is still a notable, impressive simulation, up there with the sporting elite. For instance, added fielding animations bring a weightier feel when chasing liners or pop-ups. PS5 advancements boost facial expressions, and while imperfect, they capture the frustration on a pitcher’s face after giving up a hit or a coach screaming over a botched strike call from the dugout.
With Matt Vasgersian returning on the call (the best in the video game sports commentary world alongside NBA 2K’s Kevin Harlan) and authentic MLB Network graphics and music, it’s a series still near-indistinguishable from broadcasts, with or without major visual upgrades on PS5… and mostly without. Next-gen improvements concern lighting, especially outside stadiums. Passing sun casts different shadows on buildings, particularly somewhere like Detroit as the park is surrounded by downtown.
What’s odd is that way in which MLB The Show 21 wrestles with the sport it purports to represent. The league employed additional runners in extra innings and tested pitch clocks to speed up play. For The Show, much of the focus is expediency, on how to slice through the dead air that permeates the game’s natural tension.
The most prominent example of this is March to October mode, where only key games and season moments are played, and the rest simulated. It’s clever though, bolstered by simulated hot and cold streaks, individual player bonuses, and front office dealings. There’s enough to get the feel of managing a team when only playing parts of 40-50 clashes out of 162. Plus, March to October uses variety. Some outings lock on to a single player, others giving full team control.
Longer-form mode Road to the Show's focus is on the solo player too, a rookie beginning in the minors and working up to the majors. Narrative is limited, barely threaded by video clips (and oddly, audio only on PS4), loosely related to the custom player's successes or failures. Maybe that’s a disappointment when compared to others in the genre (which find inconsistent results), but MLB The Show 21 finds its own lean way. And again, quicker, faster, and rushed, utterly unlike baseball itself.
Additions to Road to the Show come by way of unlocks and leveling, allowing the option to become a two position player, and setting loadouts for each. It’s one of those sports games where it IS the shoes, because cleats, bats gloves, glasses, etc. offer stat boosts. Forget reality, and instead focus on unlocking goods or using the marketplace to buy more, and there's obviously the option of splurging on real-world cash to acquire more in-game currency.
The monetisation of modes is worst in the clumsy, bloated, virtual card-collecting Diamond Dynasty – now a staple in yearly sports sims. It’s noxious and obnoxious, more so in a game purporting to champion civil rights via its cover athlete. Instead of celebrating legacy, The Show begs for regular cash infusions, none of which go to the foundation set up alongside this release – a mere dollar of each initial sale goes to lengthily named education fund, “Jackie Robinson Foundation MLB The Show Scholars supported by PlayStation Career Pathways”. Hilariously tasteless in generosity, considering the option to buy $100 worth of power-leveling Stubs on the PS Store – after paying upwards of $100 for the game itself.
Elsewhere the series' stalwart Franchise mode returns, practically unchanged aside from deeper trade data, still with no option for online franchises. Once the community has its shot to work, a newly implemented Stadium Creator is certain to boost the value, doubly so for those waiting to see their hometown minor league teams in accurate parks. It’s a beefy and mostly intuitive tool (once through a test run or two), loaded with objects and items to toy with. Do note this is exclusive to the PS5/Xbox Series X, and almost certainly will stay as such in the future.
Regardless of modes, MLB The Show retains its throwback options, notably the multitude of pitching/batting/fielding methods. For debuting Xbox players – the series arrives on Microsoft machines for the first time ever this year – this might prove overwhelming, but thankfully there’s a refreshed introductory tutorial that lays out features. Longtime Sony devotees will note successful tweaks to fielding indicators to track ball paths like bounce trails, and a new complex pitching option that requires tricky right stick motions to determine pitch accuracy.
This doesn’t feel natural. I'd even say it's unnecessarily complicated, and creates room for error that – unlike with the meter-based options – doesn’t always feel like the faults lie on the one holding the controller. Trying to mimic Street Fighter-like half circles on a thumbstick can quickly turn messy.
As far as your platform choices go, the current-gen editions bring the Stadium Editor and small visual boosts for $10 more. With cross-play available regardless of console (or console generation), if there’s a PS5 under your TV, you might as well aim there. Hopefully, in a year minus a global pandemic, the dev team can also bring some added visual kick, and keep expanding the feature set to completely separate the two.
MLB The Show 21 is strong in so many areas, yet also an opportunity missed – and not only in relation to Jackie Robinson.
Reviewed on PS5. Code provided by the publisher.