Reviewed: April 23, 2004
Released: March 17, 2003
Sports titles have become one of the biggest genres in the video game industry. Any given sport has at least two or three titles representing it and most of these are releasing yearly updates. Over the past several years I have noticed a trend that most of the major improvements in these annually updated sports games occur early in their lifespan then once the gameplay is polished any future releases offer only a few minor tweaks and a new roster of teams and players, yet they still pick your pocket for another $49 every year just like you were getting a new game.
Now that consoles are finally going online and new team rosters are going to be available for download, game publishers are going to have to step-up their “game” in order to convince consumers to part with their “fun money” each year.
MLB SlugFest 20-04 is one such sports title; a sequel to last year’s baseball game of the same name – subtract one from the year – that put a bigger spin on the genre than a Kerry Wood curveball. Midway is notorious for taking a traditional sports game and igniting it with a mixture of adrenaline and napalm giving gamers a fun and somewhat surreal rendition of the game.
Those of you (and I know there are many) who think baseball is “too slow” or “too boring” will certainly want to stand-up and take notice of this particular franchise. With over-the-top action and some of the funniest commentary since Bob Uecker was in the broadcast booth in Major League, SlugFest is a baseball game like no other.
Since this is the second installment in the series there are plenty of serious improvements that make this a worthy purchase for those who own last year’s edition and a boon for those who missed out or were simply waiting for more. Here is what you can expect when you take to the field in SlugFest 20-04:
By playing all of these baseball games within weeks of each other I can easily recognize the strengths and weaknesses in each and will be profiling and comparing these titles in a forthcoming feature article. Meanwhile, the topic of the day is SlugFest 20-04 and I’m up to bat, so here we go.
Midway has recently announced that they are taking their Hitz and Blitz series to a more “serious” place. Whether there is room for another “serious sports sim” in the gaming community or whether Midway will alienate the fans who share their “extreme vision” of these games, only time will tell, but if SlugFest 20-04 is any indication we are going to see some great things from Midway Sports this year.
SlugFest 20-04 adds all sorts of new features to their extreme baseball game that puts this title right alongside any of the other major players in the genre. You now have the Create-a-Team mode, which loosely resembles the franchise mode from other titles. The rosters have been updated and expanded to 20 players and more pitchers have been added giving the game a more realistic appeal. The Home Run Derby is always a welcome addition to any baseball game and this one is no exception, offering hours of challenging fun.
The core of SlugFest is still a very active baseball game that favors fun and extreme action over the slower and more realistic pace of the sport. This is apparent in the very basic control scheme for pitching and hitting. Those of you who have played those other more serious games may find the absence of realistic strike zones, the “sweet spot” on the bat, and other sim-like features too arcade’ish, but then this probably isn’t the game for you anyway.
Pitching and batting are reduced to one-button presses. You pick your pitch then you have the choice to throw that pitch, attempt a pick-off play, or bean the batter. Intentionally hitting the batter with a 100+mph fastball can often be strategic as stat points are deducted depending on where you hit him. A low fastball can reduce a player’s speed while a hit to the arms or torso can take down other stats. Of course, you can take this practice too far and enraged batters will rush the mound and pummel your pitcher taking your stats down a notch.
Batting is even easier. You can fine-tune your closeness to the plate and pivot your batter ever so slightly, but for the most part you pick either normal, power, or bunt and swing at the ball. By design, SlugFest is quite forgiving when it comes to making contact with the ball, especially when compared to the more serious baseball games out there. You can hit 95% of the pitches that cross the plate – even the bad ones. This makes it challenging to “intentionally walk” a player, but who are we kidding? If you want to send a batter to first base you are going to nail him with a fastball and do some damage in the process.
Fielding is still as easy as the last game. You can position your outfielders prior to the pitch, moving them left or right or playing deep or short. Once you catch the ball you throw it with the A button while choosing the base with the D-pad or left stick. The D-pad seems to be the preferred input as the analog stick is just imprecise enough to make it too easy to throw to the wrong base.
If you are running the bases you use the black/white buttons to advance or retreat. My only complaint with this system is that you cannot control which runner is advancing if you have multiple men on base. A deep hit to center field had my runner on first automatically advance to second base. I knew they couldn’t get the ball to third before my flaming runner got there so I had him advance, unaware that my batter (now on first) would also advance to second. While my one runner made it to third my man on first got chased down and tagged somewhere between first and second base.
All of your plays can be enhanced with the Turbo function. This draws energy from the turbo meter that is replenished over time or by performing spectacular plays. You can use the turbo to pitch faster, hit harder, or zing that ball from the 310y mark on the wall to home plate without using the cut-off man. Sure, the entire concept of the turbo meter is fantasy in what is otherwise a very real sport, but this is what sets apart every Midway Sports title from all the rest.
Much like the turbo meter, your players can catch “on fire”. This is akin to adrenaline and allows your players to get motivated by performing well in the game. If your pitcher strikes out several batters in a row he will likely catch on fire becoming even more formidable. Throwing some “heat” now means 120mph flaming fastballs that can crack bats and nearly kill a beaned batter. If your runner manages to steal second then third his shoes might light up for his dash to home. When a player is on fire they are basically performing well above their limits and without you having to use the turbo trigger.
Midway has taken the extreme nature of last year’s game and increased the intensity while adding a bit more humor to the game and the visuals. Veterans of 20-03 may recalls the between-the-legs catch that put a smile on your face. Now you can make that same catch but you may just take a shot in the groin- OUCH! Who’s smiling now? There are many examples of humor in the presentation. One of my favorites is still when the batter storms the mound and you only hear the punches while you watch the rest of the other team grimace and look away in “horror”.
Some of the extreme aspects of this game actually become part of its strategy. As previously mentioned, you can lower the opposing team’s stats by selectively beaning batters, but you also have the unprecedented ability for your runner to sucker punch the baseman in hopes of him dropping the ball and allowing you to steal an extra base.
SlugFest 20-04 enhances the pitching side of the game by adding up to six pitchers per team and a whole new selection of pitches including a new Special Pitch that becomes available after you have thrown x-number of strikes or fouls. This pitch isn’t impossible to hit, but pretty close and varies from lightning zigzags to huge arcing pitches that hang above the visible portion of your TV before dropping like a softball.
You have all your traditional game modes like Exhibition, Season, and of course, the new Create-a-Team that lets you build your own custom club and strive for the World Series. Unfortunately this new mode loses a bit of its appeal when you realize you can’t really create players; only combine existing ones into custom teams. There is also nothing like a point distribution system or anything else to regulate your decisions, making it all too easy to pick the best of the best and create a super-team that can mow through the competition like the outfield grass.
There is also a Challenge mode that lets you play each of the teams in a ladder-style competition advancing from the weakest to the strongest. The Home Run Derby is a lot of fun and I was definitely glad to see it added to this year’s version. I found it surprising that even though most of the new content in this year’s edition was focused on the single-player experience, SlugFest’s major appeal still lies in its two-player game.
The computer AI is still all over the place in SlugFest. I started my season and in my third game I had a final score of 36-34, which is more like a football score than a baseball score. I smacked nine consecutive pitches over the wall, the first bringing three runners in off base. As I entered the ninth inning I had an 18 point lead as I stood there and helplessly watched as the Giants started doing the same exact thing narrowing the gap to 2 points before I was finally able to shut them down and win the game. I’d swear the game was “cheating” just to keep things exciting.
Going head-to-head with another human definitely evens up the teams and the gameplay and makes for a much more enjoyable, and often intense gaming experience. At least when you win or lose a game you know it was based on real player skill (or lack thereof) and not some quirky AI. SlugFest is definitely a game best shared with friends and fellow baseball lovers.
The visuals in SlugFest complement the gameplay. What I mean by this is that all those other games that play with serious sim rules all look just as serious. Realism is always a good thing but you can only stare at so much textured grass and dirty infields for so long before it all gets a bit boring. SlugFest is more colorful, more vibrant, and has more special effects and overall presentation value than all the other baseball games combined.
Having just come off some marathon sessions of ASB and High Heat I can recall their visuals quite clearly, and while they all looked great in a realistic kind of way everything seemed just a bit bland. Graphics were washed out and more importantly; the players just didn’t look that great, facially speaking. SlugFest maintains the same level of superior quality found in last year’s game and adds a few enhancements. The players have never looked better and you will easily recognize your favorites. Many popular players have been mo-capped so you can see all sorts of signature pitching and batting stances plus extreme animations captured by Midway’s resident stuntman. Cover athlete, Jim Edmonds donned the mo-cap suite for a lot of the realistic animation seen in this title.
The entire library of gameplay animation has been bulked up significantly ranging from traditional moves to extreme catches, cartwheels across home plate, helicopter over-swings, and even players kissing the plate. There is plenty of pre-batting animation as well, as batters approach the plate and perform their various rituals before choking up on the bat. Players hit by a 120mph fastball will crumple to the ground clutching the various body part that got hit. It’s painful to watch and will have you groaning along with the player.
Those of you who enjoy the surreal nature of Midway games will love all the fantasy teams and stadiums tossed into this title. Using the now-famous Midway code system you can load up special teams composed of a variety of characters like the cast of Mortal Kombat or how about your favorite team mascots. There is nothing cooler than watching Sub-Zero approach the batter’s box swinging his bat around like a Samurai sword.
The instant replay system has been tweaked to allow you excellent control over watching your favorite plays. It’s nothing that other sports games aren’t already doing, but it is new to this series and will allow you to enjoy the lush graphics at closer range from any angle.
The presentation is still some of the best of any baseball title. The menus are sharp and colorful; easy to navigate assuming you can hit a button to change the screen and deprive yourself of the sexy poses of the Midway Cheerleaders….hubba….hubba. Player stats, options, and all other data screens are easy to read and understand whether you are a rookie or an all-star.
The in-game presentation is network quality with stat boxes, score inserts, and current play information, all onscreen around the borders in a non-intrusive fashion that will have the casual observer asking “who’s playing” not realizing it’s you. Some of this realism is partly credited to the wonderful look of the stadiums, complete with all of the banners, Diamond-Vision screens, and 3D crowds while a bigger part is due to the television-style camera angles and views.
There are also plenty of excellent special effects like flaming players, flaming balls, blue and red vapor trails on the balls, dust clouds that trail the players as they round the bases, excellent lighting, realistic shadows, colorful fireworks, and night and day effects. It doesn’t get much better than this for realism and sheer vibrancy.
There’s a good selection of video bonus material you can find in the Extra’s section of the DVD. These are excellent quality and professionally shot to appear as authentic documentaries and behind-the-scenes videos. My favorite has to be the “Meet the Team” video which is one of the best ways I have ever seen a company make you “want” to watch the credits. Here, you get to watch the design team complain about their lack of active participation in the 2003 title then you can watch them get physically and verbally abused in mo-cap and recording studio sessions.
Perhaps the single most talked-about feature of last year’s game was the commentary, which was informative, topical to the gameplay, and downright hilarious thanks to the wonderful interaction of announcers, Tim Kitzrow and color man, Jimmy Shorts. You can enjoy even more of their witty banter in this new version in the DVD bonus material. Tim does some excellent play-by-play commentary while Jimmy talks about everything but baseball. He will even break the “4th wall” and throw an insult at the human player on the other side of the screen.
There is all new commentary recorded for this new edition and for those that missed out on last year’s game or if you just can’t get enough of Jimmy’s wisecracks, you can choose either 2003 or 2004 commentary or combine the two. Even with the additional content you will certainly start hearing the same comments over and over again, especially in season play. Midway has wisely given you the option to turn Jimmy “off” and stick to the pertinent commentary. Sorry Jimmy, but your comments are only funny the first ten times I hear them.
The music is still great with your traditional licensed tracks along with energetic sports-type music and some bouncy organ tunes that strike up the appropriate mood. The metallic menus all clank and slide open and shut and there are plenty of in-game effects. You will hear the unmistakable “whoosh” of fire and screams from the player who just got “fired up”. Punches thud, the ball cracks off the bat with a descent smack and home runs have a suitable swoosh and sonic boom as they leave the park, and perhaps Earth’s gravitational pull.
My only complaint with the entire sound presentation is that the crowd just doesn’t seem to get that involved with the game. When the designers take the time to have the ballpark organist play the “Charge” theme then fail to follow through with the crowd’s part of the cheer, the entire thing falls short of the mark. Aside from home runs, the crowd is just a background murmur rather than a roar.
Alone, SlugFest 20-04 will keep you playing for 50-80 hours depending on how motivated you are to complete the season mode or tackle the Create-A-Team. The Challenge and Home Run Derby modes also give this title extended life above and beyond that of last year’s offering and the secret codes that unlock new stadiums and players are always good incentive to thoroughly explore this title.
If you have friends who enjoy baseball of an extreme nature then this will become an instant favorite and you may find yourself the frequent host of impromptu SlugFest parties – make the losers buy the beer. The multiplayer aspect of SlugFest is still one of its strongest features and the focus of fun over realistic gameplay takes the edge off a traditionally slow and often boring sport.
If you are stuck with a copy of last year’s game you can probably unload it on eBay or give it away to a friend. There is certainly no reason to keep that game around any more and every reason to make sure and get the 20-04 edition.
There are plenty of baseball games currently available and most offer all the depth, realism, and historical value you could ever want along with various levels of gameplay. Every sports game is licensed and they all have the same teams, players, stadiums, etc. so when it comes time to pick the game that’s right for you it all comes down to those extra features and just what kind of game you really want to play.
Midway is certainly on the right track with their sports games. Adding features and tweaking the gameplay so that it appeals to the serious sports enthusiasts will bring in a whole new demographic of gamers, and if they can manage to keep the “exaggerated gameplay” that Midway is famous for, everyone will be happy.
MLB SlugFest 20-04 marks a prominent step in the right direction. The gameplay remains fun and humorous yet it features all the modes and licensing you would expect from the more serious games. It’s still a niche genre, but a niche that definitely has potential and a receptive group of faithful followers. This is one title that needs to be part of every baseball lover’s Xbox collection.