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Baseball star Fernando Tatis Jr. is the face of MLB The Show 21.
Baseball star Fernando Tatis Jr. is the face of MLB The Show 21. (San Diego Studio)

The future of baseball is bright with Fernando Tatis Jr. MLB’s new superstar in the making hits home runs, steals bases, and plays a defensively challenging position with aplomb. Then again, he also strikes out a ton, is hitting a whopping .240 on the year, and has yet to play a full injury-free season.

He’s equal parts spectacular and flawed — and that makes him the perfect coverboy for MLB The Show 21. The latest baseball video game from the team over at San Diego Studio is as groundbreaking as they come, the first time Sony’s published its title on both PlayStation and Xbox platforms, complete with a data vault shared between the two consoles, and crossplay online action. It’s an instant triumph that gets more people playing one of the best sports games of the last decade.

And yet it’s a flawed experience, slightly sluggish on Microsoft’s highest-level console, with little annoyances throughout. It’s also a game that’s seen limited evolution in some areas. Make no mistake: MLB The Show 21 is plenty of fun, just like Tatis Jr. Just like Tatis, it has plenty of room for improvement too.

The good, however, is plentiful. You get the standard flood of sports games modes, a collectible card mode, a spectacular Road to the Show mode, and a strong Franchise mode. And the standard gameplay is a site to behold, especially on next-gen consoles. It’s a fully customizable experience that continues to scale as impressively as any sports game, courtesy of dynamic difficulty settings for both pitching and hitting, which adjust as your gameplay adjusts.

Getting better at hitting? Eventually, you’ll go from beginner difficulty to advanced, all as the game watches you improve. Struggling with pitch mix and timing after coming back to the game after several weeks? Watch your difficulty slide slightly, until you adapt and begin to ascend again. This isn’t a new feature, but it’s executed as fluidly as ever in The Show 21, and that keeps things timeless and easy to dive into.

The gameplay itself is also highly versatile. Hitting, fielding, baserunning and pitching can all be tuned the way you want, creating more or less challenge and inviting plenty of playstyles. And however you play, you’ll be greeted by the most visually complete baseball game you’ve ever seen on the field.

Players, hitting stances, pitching idiosyncrasies, and stadiums all feature more detail than they ever have. MLB The Show has always been a good-looking game, but forging onto a new era of consoles creates the expected elevation in visuals, with stronger lighting and many more little details. This feeds onto the field, where every hit seems to have its own story. There are more options for how balls glance off your bat than ever before. Defenses too seem smarter, shifting more frequently, to mirror a real-life game that’s been defined by the shift more than ever.

It’s satisfying to play MLB The Show 21 in any situation, especially online, where the game is more fluid than ever. Only once has the game dropped on me, and the action smartly shifts between gameplay and cutscene so seamlessly that neither you nor your opponent will realize if somebody’s taking a few seconds to guess the next pitch. This is MLB The Show’s best online experience yet, and good thing, too, since it spans across both consoles.

It’s sad, however, that the Franchise mode still hasn’t taken any appreciable steps forward. It’s a solid enough experience, to be sure, and it’s plenty of fun, and I’ll burn plenty of time in here. But the list of things missing from the Franchise mode is growing longer and longer. Every other sports game out there lets you build custom draft classes, but not The Show. NBA 2K tracks advanced stats, but The Show hasn’t embraced the Fangraphs era and doesn’t give you hard-hit data, launch angle data, or anything that feels current with the new analytics era of baseball. In fact, it’s stat tracking feels more convoluted this time around, buried in a new menu structure that seems to waste screen real estate.

Essentially, the Franchise’s biggest issue is that stat-keeping. Baseball is a game that’s historically been about its numbers, but historical stat-keeping is limited, and the menu design overall just doesn’t prioritize any of the special numbers about baseball. The fundamental on-field gameplay in MLB The Show is as good as ever, but not getting the franchise right, after several years of failing to give the mode any TLC, is a bothersome issue. To be fair, MLB isn’t alone in this (Madden has barely touched its franchise either), but MLB fans do deserve better.

Other little issues abound. On the Series X, any time you pull off an achievement, expect a bit of menu hitching. And while the vault of rosters, created players, logos and the like is more vast than ever, it’s also prone to disconnect issues on the Xbox.

The bright side: MLB The Show continues to work on these issues; the game frequently downloads swift updates as it does. So hopefully, the issues improve. And for all the issues, don’t forget how landmark this game is: It’s the first time that Xbox owners get to taste the very best baseball video game out there. All of that helps MLB The Show 21 stand out.

Like Tatis Jr., there’s room for improvement. But as we head into a new console era, there’s a path to improvement too.

Platforms: PlayStation, Xbox Online: theshow.com

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