Until recently, big budget baseball sports sim “MLB The Show” was a PlayStation exclusive. However, with its 2021 release, it’s now available on the Xbox, including the Series X|S. This review is based on what was seen for the Xbox One but I’ve included some notes based on features that are available through X|S.
MLB The Show is a long-running game about baseball. A hugely popular sport in some parts of the world, baseball, in a nutshell, sees teams take turns pitching and hitting. Players have three strikes to hit the ball in bounds and get “on base” or, better still, knock the ball out of the park and get a home-run. Pitchers have the advantage here but across nine innings and a huge number of games, baseball is one of the easier to predict sports due to the sheer number of pitches, “at bats” and games that will play out across a season.
Which isn’t to say that there’s not a lot of fun variables. The Show allows a player to fine-tune the difficulty and complexity of the game to suit their tastes and experience. MLB The Show 21 is no joke in terms of complexity – it’s a much more complex sport than you may have been expecting and new players are best off starting on casual mode before moving up to the other two tiers of complexity! You can also fine-tune your control methods, leaving certain elements to the AI and then moving the difficulty around or using the game’s “dynamic” difficulty which will increase if you’re doing well and decrease if you aren’t.
The controls, which you can fine-tune and meddle with to your heart’s content, are complex even on casual mode. You’ll need to keep an eye on a wide array of options and whilst the game simplifies things, a neonate to baseball might not know the difference between a seamer, a splitter or a two-finger fastball. The game does feature some in-game tutorials and a baseball strategy page you can look at to figure out when you may wish to bunt, for example, and then explains what that is. Most actions in the game require a number of steps, button pushes and stick pushes. Just getting through an innings pitching can take a fair amount of effort.
There are multiple modes to play, ranging from one-off exhibition games to a full blown multi-season “franchise” mode that allows you to mould the massive number of players in various triple-A, double-A and single-A franchises that constitute the average major league baseball franchise. In most modes you have the option to fast manage the games in a sort of stripped-down management sim mode, manage or play the game yourself. You can also just hit simulate and get the result.
But you’ll probably want to play some games and then go through nine (or more) innings of pitching and hitting. MLB’s graphics are solid but not exactly eye-popping, but the presentation is slick and has the normal glossy finish that is associated with US sports. The commentators are fine, though due to the sheer number of games you’ll play, you’ll hear the same phrases an awful lot of times and they’ll start to get grating after a while.
The general sound effects found in MLB: The Show 21 are good, with the expected crack of the ball being hit and the shouts of “safe” or “out” adding ballpark ambience. Speaking of which, the famous MLB ball parks are here and they are all rendered rather nicely. The game has a rather nifty, if tricky to control, option to design your own stadium too!
A full game of baseball can take about half an hour or so; longer if an innings drags on or you get to nine and the scores are tied, in which case there will be extra innings to play. Of course, you can always sim the rest of a game to get to the end of the story depending on the mode you’re playing.
In terms of game modes, The Show has lots of choice. The above-mentioned Franchise mode gives you a chance to build not just a championship winning team but to forge a dynasty that will last multiple seasons, and features a huge amount of depth, though this mode would take a very long time to finish just one season if you don’t simulate a few games.
For those looking to get the feel of a season without playing out the long-haul of a full season, you can play “March to October” which will see you pick a team and then play out “moments” across the season, where you’ll be dropped into a set innings and situation and you’ll need to play it out to the end. Maybe it’s the top of the seventh and the scores are tied, or maybe it’s the bottom of the ninth and you’ve just got to close the game out. Winning grabs momentum which will improve your results between moments, whilst losses will cost you momentum and results.
March is definitely a lot more stripped down and feels a bit more accessible. There’s also the Diamond Dynasty option which allows you to play the loot box and card collecting mode, very much in vogue with most modern sports games. There’s a vibrant community and a million different options to interact with here, but there are also lurking micro-transactions all over the place, though if you can grind through a few challenges, you’ll be able to grab a decent amount of the in-game currency.
You can also play a career mode in “Road to the Show” where your mute character can be designed from the ground up, given a specific look and very snazzy facial hair and then given “loadouts” of skills for different games. You start the game as a “two-way” player, meaning you’re a pitcher and a hitter but after a few games you’ll get the option to choose one or the other if you so wish. Here there’s a major split with the Xbox One and the X|S version of the Show as the game’s presentation in this mode is rather minimalist, feeling about a generation behind with no voices in cutscenes and still images while your character chats to coaches and agents.
It’s not as engaging as the career mode was in the most recent NBA 2K21, and apparently in the X|S version the commentary actually addresses your specific character, which is a nice touch. The game lacks the emotional connection with the character and feels a bit more like an RPG where you’re just trying to maximise your output and unlocks, rather than living the career. Still, it’s nice to be able to take your character into other modes of the game too.
MLB The Show 21 has done a good job of making not just the game, but baseball as a whole, a bit more approachable, but there is still a punishingly high difficulty curve, with hitting the ball a particular challenge. The presentation and UI are good but at times there could have been more use of colour; having things like “at bats”, “outs” or who is pitching colour coded would have been nice.
Still, MLB The Show 21 is a very well-presented game with a lot of sizzle. However, I’m no baseball expert and couldn’t tell you how well it models the myriad players it has; Aaron Judge is sometimes referred to as “The Judge” by the commentators, for example, which is a nice touch.
Remember that even the great Ty Cobb only hit about 30% of the balls pitched to him so dust yourself off, make sure your cleats are laced up and head up to the plate and give The Show your best shot. You never know, you may get on base this time.
If you wish to grab MLB The Show 21 on Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S, the Xbox Store will help