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MLB The Show 21 Continues Field Dominance

Sports games don’t really speak to the intersection of film and gaming that we like to explore here as much as cinematic experiences like “Ghost of Tsushima,” “The Last of Us,” or “Returnal,” but they’re such a major part of the business that it feels odd to completely ignore them. It’s also been interesting to consider over the last year how sports games play differently in a world where sports themselves have been completely reshaped by a global pandemic. A glitch in the latest edition of Sony’s dominant MLB series “The Show” in which the game (I presume) accidentally said the fan total for that day’s outing was zero made me laugh in a way that couldn’t have been predicted (unless it really was a clever nod to empty stadiums in 2020, which I don’t think so given the animated fans in the stands on-screen.) The truth is that I’ve spent more time playing games like “NBA 2K,” “Madden,” and now “The Show,” and perhaps it’s in part because I haven’t been able to attend a basketball, football, or baseball game and the youth sports programs for my children have been put on hold until vaccination rates rise. These games offer a refined simulation of the real thing, with player customization and different addictive modes. The newest version of “The Show,” the first released on the PS5, is no exception.

“MLB The Show” debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2006 and there has been an annual edition ever since. It’s arguable that the franchise plateaued a few years ago as each new edition now serves largely as a roster/menu update. There are always a few tweaks, but even comparing the 2020 edition on the PS4 to the 2021 edition on the PS5 reveals little visual enhancement (although load times are faster, for sure, and the overall fluidity of the graphics seem improved). Note: After years of console exclusivity, “MLB The Show 21” is the first title to also be available on the Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S. It’s such a dominant title that it’s a Sony release that one can play on a Microsoft system.

San Diego Padres player Fernando Tatis Jr. graces the cover of “MLB The Show 2021,” and is the youngest player to ever get that honor (don’t worry, Padres fans, there’s no “Madden Curse” here). What’s striking at first about the 2021 edition of “The Show” is how familiar it feels. Annual games on new consoles often feel a need to reinvent the wheel, showing off the potential of the new system, but the developers of “The Show” have clearly followed a dictum my grandfather liked to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The presentation looks largely the same, right down to Matt Vasgersian, Mark DeRosa, and Dan Plesac returning as commentators and Heidi Watney doing sideline reporting. Once again, the audio is good-not-great, often feeling a beat or two behind the action on the field, and repeating itself more often than a game like “NBA 2K21,” which is a stunning standard bearer of play-by-play that somehow almost sounds live.

The familiar modes have all returned, including obvious ones like Franchise and exclusives like Road to the Show—wherein one player’s rise through the system can be recreated—and Diamond Dynasty—this game’s card-collecting mode wherein gamers can put together dream teams featuring MLB players from different eras. They’re all well-organized and easy to use, and the PS5 version employs the system’s incredible load times, making it easy to jump from something like Road to the Show to March to October (where key moments from one team’s entire season can be played) in seconds.

The main new attraction this year is, believe it or not, a ballpark creator feature, wherein gamers can design their own stadium, complete with dimensions and other options. They can then share their stadiums with other gamers and download ones created by people online. (Note: This feature is only available on the PS5 and new Xbox consoles, not the last-gen.)

After playing several games across all the modes, I can say that “MLB The Show” feels about as refined as any sports game on the market, and the only drawback that one can see for fans is the argument that there’s not enough advancement or change from last year’s edition. The truth is that this is often the case in modern sports games, which usually only make major overhauls every four years or so, rarely doing much to change the format from year to year. I will say that there’s a fluidity to the gameplay that’s improved from last year, and every game runs a little smoother and more quickly on the PS5. But the nuts and bolts are the same. These games have been the MLB standard bearers for years now, and that’s not going to change on the PS5. If anything, the expansion to Microsoft systems indicate that other developers have given up on trying to compete with “The Show.” It’s a true dynasty.

Reviewed on the PS5 with a copy provided by Sony.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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