Evaluating an annually released sports game starts with a choice: Are you going to scrutinize the game as a stand-alone, separate from its predecessors? Or are you going to hold it up against its previous installments and focus on the new features? In the case of “MLB The Show 21,” it’s a particularly crucial decision, because the baseball sim feels fairly different when viewed through those two lenses — and because this year’s game will welcome Xbox users for the first time.

Let’s start with the game as a whole: It’s great. It once again offers just about everything a baseball fan could want from a video game. From the created-character focus of the Road to the Show mode, to the roster construction of the franchise mode, to one-off exhibition games, there’s something here for everyone. The animations are smoother and more lifelike than ever. The digital recreations of players like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. radiate the same energy they do in real life. And the surround sound of a stadium resonates in a way that feels particularly warm following a real-life season of empty, fan-free ballparks in 2020.

The sheer number of ways players can customize the game to their preferences leaves little room to critique it. If you don’t like something, you more than likely have an option to change it. “MLB The Show 21” isn’t perfect, but it remains the best baseball simulation game out there. And it’s not particularly close.

Options abound, catering to players of all skill and interest levels. Players choose their competitive level as soon as the game begins, picking from casual, simulation and competitive modes, each escalating in difficulty. First-time players should note: There is no shame in starting with the casual mode. Even the moderate difficulty of simulation mode can provide a major challenge when hitting (adjusting to breaking balls and off-speed pitches without any depth perception is rather frustrating, especially when you can’t really read a pitch’s seams/spin as in real life) or just making an accurate throw. With the latter mechanic, the throw strength meter pops up quickly when you pick up the ball and accelerates rapidly. Hold it too long, and your throws can badly miss the mark.

There is definitely a learning curve, but if you don’t want to invest the time, there’s still plenty to enjoy. For players who don’t want to focus on the nitty-gritty, pop in and play a round of home run derby. If you don’t want to play through a full nine-innings, just shorten the game settings to five innings. For those seeking an in-depth sports sim, tweak the skill ratings and equipment of your created player over multiple seasons in the minors before reaching the majors in Road to the Show.

A new addition for 2021, now you can port that same character over to other modes, like Diamond Dynasty, in which users construct their rosters from players unlocked by game play and through packs of cards (which can be purchased via microtransactions), and Moments (which challenges players to recreate various MLB historical highlights for in-game rewards).

This year, for Xbox users, the best ability of all is simply the game’s availability. The longtime PlayStation exclusive is now available on Xbox One and Series X/S and, what’s more, it’s playable via Game Pass on day one. If you’re looking at this game as a first-time player, you’re going to love what you see.

But should loyal “Show” fans on PlayStation shell out for the latest game if they’re already enjoying a previous version? That’s the bigger question for annually released sports titles, and the verdict there is much less clear.

There are a bunch of new features in “The Show 21,” including the aforementioned ability to use your created Road to the Show character in additional modes. You can also follow in the footsteps of Los Angeles Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani and follow a path as a two-way player, building your career as both a pitcher and a fielder/hitter. Aside from that, the two biggest additions are likely the new pitching control mechanic, called Pinpoint Pitching, and the stadium creator, which is only available on the next-gen versions of the game. Simply put, I could take or leave both of them.

Pinpoint pitching seems like a good idea in theory. Instead of using a series of timed button presses to throw a pitch, Pinpoint Pitching requires players to manipulate the controller’s right analog stick in a specific pattern to determine the location and quality of the pitch. The patterns range from fairly simple and intuitive (down, up, down for a four-seam fastball) to insanely complex (left, rotate clockwise across the top to form a half circle, rotate back counter clockwise for a quarter circle to the apex and then down for a two-seam fastball). It is intricate, and it is very, very, difficult.

Players are evaluated on three criteria for each pitch: the accuracy with which they trace the shape, the speed with which they trace it, and the timing of when they pull the stick down to actually deliver the pitch. The sensitivity of the stick basically requires you to hold the top of it with your thumb and index/middle finger. Even then, I seldom perfectly traced the shape. Timing was even trickier. Bring the stick down too early and the pitch sails high, too late and the ball’s in the dirt. Miss the final target left or right and the ball moves in that direction. It’s a lot.

You do reap the rewards if you can master it. If you get it even close to matching all three elements (accuracy, speed, timing), the pitch result is usually better than a near miss when using the traditional, timed pitching meter. That said, the bar is very high to get it right, and if you can’t get your timing down (which is the hardest aspect of it, in my opinion) you can quickly turn into Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn (pre-eyeglasses). It can get frustrating quickly since if you can’t get anyone out, the inning (and in turn, the game) drags on with no end in sight. It’s a brutal feeling in a timeless game like baseball.

Despite its difficulty, Pinpoint Pitching does feel good and more “authentic” to delivering a pitch than pressing a button. There’s probably a variation of it — maybe just focusing on timing and moving the stick up and down rather than tracing shapes — that I’d find more enjoyable, but this one’s a little too nuanced.

The stadium creator is something that could use some refinement as well. At the moment, the highly anticipated feature is exhausting and a little unsatisfying due to a very clunky user interface. It’s a lot of work to make the stadium you want. Something as theoretically easy as changing a light tower, a foul pole or another slender feature is made difficult by the cursor not locking on to the object when you hover near it. Often times I would zoom past, requiring multiple attempts to change one stinking light pole. When you do click on the desired part of the park you want to alter, there’s no way (that I found) to examine all of your options except by scrolling through them one at a time. These limitations made the idea of tweaking an entire stadium seem overwhelming.

Those who have pushed through have already crafted some stunning recreations of now-demolished ballparks. The potential for the tool is there, it’s just a bear to use.

The other new features are fairly unremarkable. The introduction of “podcasts,” seemingly recorded over Zoom, featuring talent from the MLB Network are fine, but very skippable when they’re discussing your never-named player in the most generic ways possible. There are a few stories from former major leaguers reflecting on their time in the minors that are much more interesting. I’d have preferred them to just focus on those anecdotes from Cliff Floyd and others.

Far more useful is the ability to create player “loadouts,” customized combinations of player perks, which emphasize broader attributes like speed, power and velocity, and equipment that can further boost certain player traits like arm strength, accuracy or contact at the plate. Toggling between multiple loadouts is pretty much mandatory for anyone trying to succeed as a two-way player, as you’ll want one to boost pitching attributes while the other emphasizes hitting and fielding. It’s a clean, clear and useful approach, even if it doesn’t really align with the MLB realism for which the rest of the game strives.

The PS5 controller haptics are fine. Just fine. The trigger tension on throws caught me off guard and I’m not sure why it’s there. The controller’s advanced pulse sensation feels better than the old rumble, but doesn’t really add much. And ironically, there are more vibrations when you crush a ball on the bat’s sweet spot than hit it off the end of the bat or get jammed, which is the opposite of real life. (Note to developers: This is not a call to recreate the vibrations of getting sawed off by a Max Scherzer fastball. Please do not. My finger bones thank you in advance.)

Your history with this franchise will likely determine your satisfaction with this game. If you’re coming in for the first time, as an Xbox user or otherwise, you’re going to come away impressed. There’s plenty to justify playing this game on the regular, particularly as part of Game Pass. (If you don’t need to pay for the game, it makes the game’s microtransactions a bit more palatable, too.)

If you’re a series regular on PlayStation, your enthusiasm may be somewhat muted unless you’re on a PS5 and big into the Stadium Creator. The iterative changes from 2020 aren’t really game-changing to the degree that players are going to miss out on some crucial new component. If you’re the type of player who tends to buy the latest annual release of “The Show” or “Madden” or “FIFA” and then wonder why you shelled out for it, you can probably take a pass.

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