The Year is 2008.
My home-team, the Philadelphia Phillies, just won their first World Series championship in 28 years against the Tampa Bay Rays in controversial fashion. My city’s spirits were sky-high, and I was an Xbox 360 owner looking to buy a baseball video game to celebrate. The only issues being Take-Two’s MLB entries were declining in quality since the excellent 2K5 release, EA’s MVP Baseball series was cancelled due to a licensing agreement between Take-Two and the MLB, and my only other option was an exclusive title on the PlayStation 3, a console I didn’t own.
So, I bought a PlayStation 3 for Sony San Diego’s MLB The Show 09, and in short time, I was in baseball heaven. The attention to detail in the stadiums, the animations, and the all-around flow of the game were top-notch. It was a series that I didn’t mind spending sixty dollars on year-after-year, because my love for the game had been re-ignited by my home-team’s continued success, and the franchise’s consistent quality.
But as it often does, life gets in the way. I didn’t buy a PlayStation 4 because I couldn’t financially justify two consoles, and Xbox was where I felt the most comfortable, even if that meant losing out on the best sports game ever.
Fast-Forward to December, 2019. Sony announces that they’ve signed a new multi-year deal with the MLB, and also revealed that The Show will be going multi-platform starting as early as 2021.
The Year is 2021, MLB The Show is now playable on Xbox consoles for the first time ever. Is it everything that I remembered? Did it live up to my fond memories of entries past? Did Sony San Diego do justice to the Boys of Summer in their first multi-platform release? Here is my review of MLB The Show 21 on Xbox Series X.
Baseball is For Everyone
Upon booting the game, it’s a bit surreal to see the Playstation Studio’s MCU-like opening stinger being played by my Xbox console. Let’s call it a “never-in-a-million-years” moment come true thanks to MLB, who is the listed publisher of the two Xbox versions. Lack of smart delivery is a bit of a bummer, but thankfully, at time of writing, both versions of the game are available on Xbox Game Pass. When the opening title cinematic begins, there is an undeniable energy that fills the screen. An energy which possibly feels a bit more amplified due to the circumstances surrounding this year’s release, It being the first multi-platform entry and also coinciding with the first full season of Major League Baseball in a post-COVID America.
You’re first asked to select your favorite MLB team, a preferred gameplay style template and one-of-six difficulty levels. Your chosen favorite team will be automatically selected in the pre-game set-up menus, as well as giving your menus some eye candy in the form of a vignette of the team’s stadium. The gameplay style templates allow you to choose how you want to control the game on both sides of the ball, all of which are customizable in the “Options Explorer”.
The “Options Explorer” is a really nice tool that helps you choose a play style that best suits you, while allowing you to test these mechanics in a practice environment. Difficulty levels range from “Beginner” to “Legend” and determine how hard or forgiving the game’s mechanics are. There’s also a dynamic difficulty option that you can toggle, which raises or lowers the difficulty based on how well or poorly you’re playing. If it’s your first time playing this series, don’t be ashamed to start at a more casual difficulty, as the game’s hitting mechanics can be especially unforgiving. You’re then thrown into an exhibition game as your favorite team, where you can see all of your gameplay selections in a real-game environment.
A Game For All Generations
The exhibition game is a snapshot of The Show in it’s full glory. At first glance, the overall look of the game is really sharp, with a superb image quality and a mostly-locked 60 frames-per-second. The stadiums look really well-detailed and each one has their signature landmarks fully realized. Animations look great and the players feel great to play and control. Making solid contact as a batter and painting the strike zone as a pitcher feels just as good as it ever has, and the presentation of the game feels as close to a real broadcast as you’d see on-air.
Upon closer examination, the cross-generation limitations rear their ugly head. Character models leave a lot to be desired. Some of these models just look downright ugly next to their real-life counter-parts. They all fall victim to the “dead eye” syndrome that plague many sports titles. To make matters worse, Sony San Diego also made the decision to render a virtual speaking model of MLB Network’s Heidi Watney for on-field reporting, and the results are terrifying, to say the least. The fans in the stands are rendered about as well as you’d expect, mostly an after-thought. Hopefully, these issues can be addressed in future entries.The game’s menu system is a nuisance to navigate. The game inundates you with menus upon menus at seemingly every turn. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent design layout between one screen and the next, and the menu buttons are bland looking.
When you finish the exhibition, the game wastes absolutely no time trying to direct you to its signature cash cows.
“Road to the Show”(RTTS), a fan favorite, is a baseball player RPG. You create your player’s appearance and choose your jersey number. After some dialogue options on a phone call with one of your former coaches, you get drafted by the team of your choice. You’ll then answer more questions to determine what position you’ll play. After that, you’re off to the grind as you develop your player’s tools through AA and AAA affiliate teams in the hopes of making your way to the Majors, or as the game so endearingly calls it, “The Show”. You’ll even have real MLB Network analysts discussing your growth, or lack thereof, which is a really nice touch. I chose to be a pitcher because my batting skills were very rusty and I didn’t want to be traded from my favorite team.
“March To October” is a partially-simulated, abbreviated season, where you choose a team and try to take them all the way to a World Series title. The gameplay usually starts in the later innings, in an important game where clutch hitting or lights-out pitching can swing the momentum of your season one way or another. It’s baseball without all of the boring baseball in between, and my favorite mode of the bunch.
Then there’s Franchise mode, which is a General Manager simulator, similar to Sega’s Football Manager franchise, where you control the front office decisions of the team that you choose. Unlike Football Manager, you also get to participate in the fun parts of the sport, as well. This mode is a perfect fit for those that really are interested in the minutiae of running a professional baseball team.
Finally, “Diamond Dynasty”(DD) is The Show’s answer to the “Ultimate Team” modes found in the FIFA and Madden games. It’s a marriage of fantasy sports leagues and collectible card games. You complete challenges large and small which net you XP that goes towards the game’s virtual currency, “Stubs”. Stubs unlock packs which contain players and cosmetics for your RTTS player and Dynasty team. There’s also a market place to buy cards from other players, or sell your own duplicates. It’s an engaging mode that can keep you coming back daily. That being said, you already know where this is going.
“Shoeless” Joe, Pete Rose, and the hypocrisy of Baseball
The progression in RTTS and DD can be described as nothing less than an excruciating grind and a shameless money pit. If you want to earn card packs, you’ll be spending a lot of time playing, or spending a little time paying for The Show’s in-game currency. The header at the top of the store page describes them in detail.
“Stubs are a universal currency that you earn while you play, but hey, if you want to buy some we won’t stop you.”MLB The Show 21
The card packs that you purchase can cost anywhere between 1,500 to 75,000 stubs. There’s no option to buy the specific amount you need, of course, because the entire store is built around you making at least two purchases. For example, If you want to buy a card pack that costs 1500 stubs, you’d need to buy two 1,000 stub packs. There is a toggle to view the odds of what your pack will contain, but make no mistake, this is gambling.
In the early 1900’s, gambling was running rampant in baseball fields all over, with gamblers placing bets on every single part of the game. In 1919, 8 players on the Chicago White Sox, including superstar “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, accepted bribes by Arnold Rothstein, a gambler, to intentionally lose, or “throw” the World Series. The Chicago “Black Sox” as they came to be known were permanently banned from the game. Pete Rose is still listed as “permanently ineligible” from baseball for gambling on baseball games while he was a player and manager.
These two bruises(of which there are many) on baseball’s storied history are still felt to this day, so it’s disappointing to see MLB allow and encourage such monetization tactics.
In closing, it feels good to have baseball back on Xbox again, because the core gameplay of MLB The Show 21 remains excellent. You’ll have a blast learning and mastering the mechanics, and once you get the hang of it, everything just clicks. Outside of the gameplay itself, the game feels like a sometimes-ugly, disorganized collection of menus that wants you to pay extra money to really enjoy the most engaging content without falling victim to an endless grind.