MLB The Show 2021 proves it's time to let baseball be weird
Inverse score: 7/10
Despite being the overwhelming division champs, the Dodgers were playing in the National League Division series like underdogs with something to prove.
They had won 104 games over the season, but were mired in a 2-2 tie with their bitter rivals, the San Diego Padres. They had been up 1-0, then tied, then down 2-1, and had eked out a run in the 8th off a string of singles. Now, in the 10th inning, they were down once again, 4-2. A man had been on second to start the inning, and Corey Seager had hit yet another single. Up came Justin Turner.
Like the rest of the Dodgers, Turner spent his at-bat swatting away bad pitches that could have run up the count in his favor. But eventually, miraculously, he is able to get things to 3-2. The crowd cheers. Suddenly, the crack of a bat: a perfect hit. Back, back, back, to the warning track, where it is caught by a waiting Tommy Pham. Game over, series over, season over.
MLB The Show 21 is full of moments like this, when baseball reaches the height of its tensions. Like any strategy game, The Show is a combination of figuring out a plan of attack and being able to execute. It’s easy to wax poetic about baseball after a season where The Show was the closest thing most fans could get to attending a game, and The Show 21 manages a solid move to next-gen systems while showcasing everything worth loving in the sport, but breaks little new ground.
The starting lineup
At the core of The Show 21 is baseball, a sport where the average game lasts over three hours and mostly consists of throwing a ball back and forth, running, and the occasional hit. While pace of play issues have been deemed a “crisis” in real life, players of The Show will find no such problem. Running a number of games on hybrid mode, which combines quick-time elements with TV-like commentary, nine-inning games run a little over an hour.
And within that hour, as was the case with last year’s installment, lives a vibrant and challenging game. Using the game’s dynamic difficulty system, which levels a player up with progress, I found myself constantly challenged. On the whole, hitting was far more difficult than pitching—over the course of a season using the just-the-big-moments March To October mode I was able to approach an All-Star difficulty in pitching while still struggling to break out of Rookie+ in hitting. There was something about low curveballs just out of the strike zone, sliders out of the strike zone, and changeups in general, that left me in a series of 1-2 counts looking for a prayer.
The game, for the most part, feels like baseball. Hitting is hard to get right, just like in real life. The fielding feels fantastic. Sony San Diego Studios says hundreds of new defensive and catch animations have been added for The Show 21, and it shows. Whether watching outfielders chase down doubles or a first baseman flip a ball from his glove to the pitcher running to cover the base, the game felt real. There are a number of pitching styles, ranging from a simple button press to timed color meters to an Okami-like pinpoint style, moving the controller in a design that resembles the pitch.
One mistake the game’s AI would occasionally make was leaving pitchers in too long. I once found myself in the 8th inning facing a starter pressing up against 110 pitchers, far beyond where any modern manager would leave them in. But this happened rarely. The game allows for perfect or imperfect umpiring, and even the imperfect felt mostly fair.
Not quite ready for prime time
On the PS5, The Show looks great in the big picture and less-great on the minutiae. More than once my partner walked by the TV and assumed I was watching an actual baseball game, as opposed to playing one. I’ve missed my beloved Dodger Stadium since the Covid pandemic began, and all the stadiums are wonderful replicas. The jerseys pop with color, the game’s understanding of lighting and shadow in a fading afternoon are gorgeous. The sound effect on a perfect swing understands the game’s best moments.
It was so beautiful that smaller mistakes, like a reliever’s hand moving through an awkwardly bouncing rosin bag, or Dustin May’s hair carrying none of its real-life majesty, were more noticeable. Heidi Watney is back as an in-game reporter, and like the fans in the crowd, she simply looks less realistic than the players.
Mark DeRosa, Dan Plesac, Matt Vasgersian, and Watney again make up the commentary crew, which could really use some change. Recording commentary for a game with this many players is a time-consuming endeavor—Plesac estimates around 45-50 hours for each edition—but I heard several of the exact same lines from last year, and they weren’t exactly winners in 2020.
Baseball commentary is evolving, from Jomboy’s hilarious lip-syncing breakdowns videos to Pitching Ninja’s .GIF overlays. It would be nice to see The Show embrace a bit of baseball’s weirder side, as opposed to the straight-laced, if very polished, MLB Network presentation.
Beyond the basics
March to October, which first became a feature in The Show 19, generally sends a player into the later innings where a moment of possibility emerges, like a man on second base in the seventh inning when your team is down by a run or trying to keep a specific player’s hit streak alive. Successfully completing a scenario means your team is imbued with fiery momentum, failing them brings frosty snowflakes that signify a cold streak. It’s a fun way to understand how teams can change over a season, but the one disadvantage was not seeing many starting pitchers.
Road to the Show, the rise-through-the-ranks mode, this year offers a non-mandatory emphasis on creating a two-way player. Various MLB Network talking heads discuss how hard it is, how incredible it is, and so on. A narrative story, like Madden’s “Face of the Franchise,” could explain why, exactly, this player wants to pitch and hit so bad. But moving through the minors retains its charm.
The new Stadium Creator mode is off to a good start, although it’s not exactly The Sims. There are a number of templates to choose from and a good variety of props, but nothing I built could match what already exists in the Majors. Stadiums are meant to be experienced, and the mode likely feels best when getting a chance to explore what others are doing online. Again, this might be a good place for The Show to embrace some weirdness.
Baseball has its fair share problems these days, but they all seem distant when playing The Show 21. The game communicates much of what is great about baseball—working through continual failure, understanding and breaking down patterns, and slowly watching the narrative of a game or season unfold. A sport that is both enhanced and stifled by tradition, The Show 21 offers some promising new modes and strengthens others. The core product is rock-solid.
But stars like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Tim Anderson have made their name by pushing baseball into parts unknown. It would be nice to see The Show do more than just give them the game’s cover, but follow in their footsteps. 7/10
MLB The Show 21 is available now on PS4, PS5, and Xbox Game Pass.
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