MLB The Show 21 is a historic game: For the first time since the series began as a PlayStation exclusive in 2006, both Xbox and PlayStation owners can take their favorite teams head to head in Sony San Diego’s consistently excellent baseball simulation. And it’s even on Game Pass! With that in mind, this year’s addition of three distinct difficulty modes and in-depth tutorial cards makes a lot of sense for helping new players break into its complex game modes. It also has an enticing new custom Stadium Creator, and the ability to export your Road to the Show player across modes, which fans have been asking for for years. That said, moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t meaningfully different from the most recent iterations, and it doesn’t look like a generational leap forward, so it’s not quite a home run for series veterans – especially if you aren’t playing on a DualSense controller.
The biggest new feature of the year is the flexible Stadium Creator, which brings a new layer of depth and creativity to MLB The Show. You can alter seating arrangements, change the height and location of your walls, and even create entire cities in the background. But like most first drafts, it has some areas that need improvement: The controls are tough to get used to and can often seem misleading, especially if you’re trying to make your way through its confusing menu system. It’s also weird that none of your custom ballparks have a nighttime variant, so evening games that should extend into the night remain bathed in perpetual sunlight.
Of the returning modes, the Road to the Show campaign mode has received the most significant changes from last year’s version. For starters, your character is a “two-way” player by default, meaning that they can be a hitter and a pitcher without you needing to create a new save file in order to switch between the two roles. Eventually, anyway – you need to play several games before you’re even allowed the option to specialize the way you want, which is a little annoying. The story in this year’s Road to the Show is still barebones, but if you’re playing on PS5 or Series X you’ll get video commentary on your performance from sportscasters like Ben Gellman. It’s certainly a neat addition that vaguely calls out your decisions on the field, but it still manages to fall flat in its delivery.
The downside of no longer starting in a room where you define your archetype is that you are less connected to your character’s skills and development as a player. There’s more emphasis on on-the-fly loadouts, and it’s actually harder to track the Programs that define your progression. They’re in the menus if you want to find them, but it definitely isn’t as straightforward as last year, when you were still able to choose an archetype and specialize in your role early.
Another nice touch is that when you take your custom Road to the Show player into Diamond Dynasty or Franchise mode you can finally pair them with your own custom teams. The bummer here is that you can no longer move your save file forward from previous games in the series, meaning you need to start fresh. Given how insubstantial the changes are to the mechanics of how characters work in MLB The Show 21 this is surprising – I can’t imagine what’s so different about this year’s version that would prevent a feature that’s carried over for years.
There’s also a potential downside for diehard Road to the Show fans in that because of this year’s broader focus on Diamond Dynasty interweaving into each of the other modes, the best way to progress in Road to the Show is no longer directly by playing in that mode, but rather through Programs, which is basically like a Battle Pass from a game like Fortnite or Destiny 2, where you complete daily objectives to essentially level up and earn rewards. This is buried in the Diamond Dynasty menus, and it heavily encourages you to engage with those systems instead of giving you the best results by sticking solely to Road to the Show mode like in MLB The Show 20.
When it comes to content, there is still no baseball simulator on the planet that is as attentive to its teams and rosters, as meticulous with the momentum of its on-field baseball simulation, or as awash with diverse and interesting gameplay modes as MLB The Show. The list of modes hasn’t gotten any longer this year and pretty much everything is carried over from MLB The Show 20, but there are a handful of notable improvements.
March to October mode isn’t too much different this year than last, but it still lets you take the reins of your team of choice and participate in vignettes where your decision as a pinch hitter can change the dynamic of a ballgame. Additionally, its momentum system that makes your team play better or worse based on your performance is still great and leads to some exciting comebacks.
Over in the Diamond Dynasty card collection mode, things are a bit friendlier this year. It offers the same diverse set of modes like last year’s fantastic Showdown, Battle Royale, and more. The main difference is that it’s much more generous: you can carry your Road to the Show player over with all their stats intact, and it introduces the new Community Parallel cards, which let you level up each player card up to five times to keep them relevant for longer.
And of course, MLB The Show 21’s Franchise mode benefits greatly from custom stadiums and the ability to bring your Road to the Show player into your custom teams. However, it’s disappointing that there is still no way to take your Franchise mode team head to head with others online, especially given that this year’s addition of cross-platform multiplayer in standard play seems like a perfect opportunity for that.
MLB The Show 21 can also lay claim to the cleanest main menu screen in the series’ recent memory. Where previous years’ modes were unintuitively jumbled together, this time I could easily figure out exactly where I wanted to go for the experience I wanted to have, and all of the most feature-rich modes are right at the top. It really ties everything together.
Upon loading up for the first time, you immediately have a selection between Casual, Simulation, and Competitive modes, which means you can fine-tune the amount of challenge you want right off the bat. For a game as complex as MLB The Show 21, it’s probably wise for most people jumping in for the first time to dabble in Casual to find their footing before cranking it up to the more intensive levels. Everything you need to know about each of MLB The Show’s controls and game modes is broken down for you into convenient tutorial cards until you deem them no longer useful and decide to turn them off or switch to a harder difficulty mode.
The advantage of graduating to the tougher Simulation mode is that it makes AI more challenging and you can play with things like super-precise, zone-based hitting that lets you take more control over your swings, and a brand-new Pinpoint Pitching feature. It’s a much more challenging pitching mode wherein you use your thumbsticks to manually wind up the pitch, giving you maximum control of your precision on the plate. Likewise, the better you get at playing this way, the more likely you’ll strike hitters out once you master the controls.
On the other hand, the graphics aren’t quite as revolutionary, which is kind of a letdown from the first iteration of a Sony-developed game appearing on the PlayStation 5. The field looks as good as always, but there’s really nothing much about this that jumps off the screen if you’ve played any of the other recent MLB The Show games on a PS4 Pro. Player models are well beyond showing their age, and most textures still look like they were picked directly out of the previous games. This problem extends to reused animations and even voiced lines as well. Granted, that’s fairly typical of an annualized sports series; I don’t expect a full do-over every year but the launch of a new console generation demands substantial improvements, and MLB The Show 21 has not kept up.
MLB The Show 21 Screenshots
One of the most noticeable graphical issues is the uncanny valley vibe when a character is speaking during a close-up shot. Heidi Watney looks just as much like a mannequin as she did in MLB The Show 20 on the PS4 Pro. When you compare this to other recent Sony-developed games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales or The Last of Us Part 2 it leaves much to be desired.
It’s also notable that, when playing on PlayStation 5, there doesn’t appear to be an option between performance or graphics modes, meaning that you are locked to 60 frames per second at 4K without an option for 120 frames per second. This is disappointing, given that 120fps is one of the marquee features of the PS5 and Series X for those with TVs that support it.
That’s not to say MLB The Show 21 isn’t worth playing on PS5 if you have the opportunity. The DualSense controller and Pulse 3D headphones combine to create the most immersive stadium experience yet. Feeling the DualSense pulse between my palms as the pitcher winds up their pitch to the backdrop of music and crowd cheers echoing around the stadium is sublime. This is especially great when your controller emulates the crack of your bat upon contact with a flyball. You know immediately when you’ve landed a home run, and having experienced it I dread the thought of playing without it now.