Baseball gaming fans are spoilt for choice over these next couple of months. Firstly, there is R.B.I. Baseball 21 releasing their annual instalment, closely followed by MLB The Show 21 seeing the series appearing on Xbox for the first time. R.B.I. Baseball 21 remains the more arcadey, cheaper counterpart, but will it be pushed into the shadows when its big brother is unleashed just a few weeks later?
R.B.I. Baseball 21 opens with a new tutorial introducing the tweaks to pitching and batting. After the overhaul in R.B.I Baseball 20, pitching remains largely unchanged: choose from a number of different pitches based on your pitcher’s proficiency and confidence level. Expect the confidence level to fluctuate depending on whether you successfully strike out opponents or get whacked all over the park. Holding the A button down increases the power of the pitch, but also the window of where the ball will go.
On the batting side, things have been improved after the oversimplification from last year. Rather than relying on the A button and how long it was held down for extra power, all of the face buttons are now in use, allowing for different speeds of swinging or a simple bunt. The A button offering is a standard hit, or a contact swing is done by the Y button. If you want to swing for the fences, that is the X button and, providing you hit the ball at the right moment, it can pretty much guarantee a home run.
If you prefer alternative methods of batting or pitching, you can revert back to them in the Settings menu.
Once again Franchise mode and Home Run Derby are the only two main modes to play in R.B.I. Baseball 21, unless you include single match Exhibition or Online multiplayer mode as well. Home Run Derby is a great quick release if you want to send some baseballs into the heavens. A slower than normal pitch is just begging to be walloped and in a series of 1vs1 matches, the person who hits the most home runs in 4 minutes is then declared the winner. The derby is set up as a bracket of 8 players and can be worked to include eight human players should you have that many friends. The Home Run Derby could actually be a good party mode, when we’re allowed to have a party that is.
Franchise mode also returns, giving you the opportunity to take charge of your favourite team over 10 seasons, in an attempt to win as many World Series titles as possible. You can choose how long to make each season: 52, 81 or 162 games. You can also change your starting roster, trade for new players and take charge of other day-to-day activities. Unfortunately, even down to the layout of the UI, this feels identical to last year’s Franchise mode.
In fact, overall, there is a distinct lack of any new features in R.B.I. Baseball 21.
Instead, R.B.I. Baseball 21 has looked to bolster what it already has. The improved batting controls go some way to giving you more control whilst retaining the arcade feel, but several other features build upon the previous entry. There is finally a play-by-play commentary in standard game modes, not just the Home Run Derby. Don’t expect in-depth analysis though; the commentary simply states the previous pitch or where the ball was hit. It rarely even mentions a player’s name but when it does it is usually chopped together in a sentence that was spoken in an entirely different pitch to the player’s name.
You can also create your own player for use in Franchise mode, but this does highlight the awkward character models. In general, player movements have improved since last year, but character models don’t exactly push the boat out, even when playing on Xbox Series X. Whilst being Optimised for Series X|S, there are virtually no differences between the different console generations. Even load times seem comparable.
Graphically, the best thing about R.B.I. Baseball 21 is the new day/night transition. In Franchise mode, depending on the start time you will see this in full effect, but you can choose the start time in Exhibition mode should you wish to see this. It doesn’t exactly change the stadium in terms of lights coming on etc. but you can see the sky changing to a darker shade as the game progresses.
Once again there is a licensed soundtrack that plays in the menus and during the Home Run Derby, featuring the likes of Diplo, Justin Bieber and a host of other artists I am officially too old to know. Sadly, if one of these songs doesn’t tickle your fancy, it’s a case of putting up with it, as there is no way to toggle specific tracks off.
Due to the lower priced nature of R.B.I. Baseball 21 on Xbox, it can get away with less major updates between instalments. This is certainly the case here: there is no sign of any new modes, and instead it is more a case of existing modes receiving a bit of polish. On the other hand, this lower budget baseball title certainly does feel just that at times; dodgy character models even on the Series X and very repetitive commentary don’t help its cause either.
It isn’t all bad however. The improvements over last year’s offering are definitely welcome. They just don’t perhaps improve the game enough to warrant a better rating.