Reviewed: July 12, 2004
Released: June 21, 2003
Sports titles represent a huge market segment in the videogame industry with many companies making their bid for your gaming dollar. This year we are seeing some of the most advanced sports titles in the history of the genre creating a lot of hard decisions for a lot of sports fans.
Baseball has always been a tricky genre, at least for me, since it is probably my least favorite sport. Yes, I know it’s “America’s Favorite Pastime” and no, I’m not some subversive communist, but let’s face it, out of all the sports out there (including golf) there is just too much uneventful time spent during those nine innings. Homer Simpson said it best when he was forced to attend a ballgame and not drink any beer, “I never realized how boring this game really is.”
Perhaps it is for that very reason that Midway’s take on the sport of baseball has always found a special spot in my sports library. Their SlugFest titles have always infused a bit of over-the-top action into the sport, creating a unique hybrid somewhere between hockey, football, and of course, baseball.
This year Midway is taking sports seriously with their Pro series of football and hockey titles and yes, MLB SlugFest: Loaded also comes with a serious side, but if you still demand those flaming players, sucker punches at second base, and turbo charged pitches, it’s all just a few option clicks away.
Baseball fans have several options this year. Those looking for the most realistic graphics and slick gameplay will certainly want to checkout EA’s MVP Baseball 2004 and those looking for the ultimate franchise mode will be pleased with ASB 2005. Then you have SlugFest, falling somewhere in the middle, a game for casual baseball fans looking for a variety of experiences ranging from flaming fun to a fairly in-depth franchise mode.
History has shown that most yearly released sports titles 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. MLB SlugFest: Loaded, as the name implies, it truly loaded with exceptional content, both updated from last year and all new features like support for Xbox Live 3.0 and Baseball Mogul; the second-best franchise mode in this year’s crop of baseball games.
MLB SlugFest: Loaded is the third edition of the SlugFest franchise and this time Midway has delivered a comprehensive baseball package that stacks up with any of the competition, both in features and gameplay. Prior to starting any game you can choose from MLB Classic (by the rules) baseball or Over-the-Top, which pumps your players full of steroids and douses them in napalm.
You can also create a custom configuration by tweaking dozens of options like trick and special pitches, turbo, fire, etc. You can also pick from three batting styles; authentic, directional, and SlugFest. Authentic is all about precise timing while directional allows you to control the direction of the hit ball. SlugFest batting is more arcade and significantly easier to hit a ball. You can also pick an easy pitch mode or a more challenging timed pitch where you must hit the button to start the windup and again to release the ball.
From the main menu you can dive right into an exhibition or Quickplay game, begin your lengthy career in the Franchise mode, compete in the Homerun Derby, or take your skills online in the most advanced Xbox Live sports game to date.
Regardless of the mode you choose the game plays much like last year’s SlugFest or any other baseball game for that matter. 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 his stats down a notch.
Throwing strikes will increment your special pitch meter (shown as five stars), and after five strikes you earn a special pitch that is nearly impossible to make contact with. You can further energize these pitches with any available turbo power; all of this is assuming you have these options turned on.
When you finally step into the batters box 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. In SlugFest mode 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. The game gets significantly harder and more realistic in MLB Classic mode.
Running the bases is easy with the black and white buttons being used to tell your runners to advance or retreat. You can also signal them to steal a base prior to swinging your bat. There’s no PIP to show the runners on base – instead you get a small diagram of the diamond with dots indicating runners on base.
If the ball beats you to base all is not lost. You can stiff-arm the baseman and try to make him drop the ball. If you are truly daring and fast you can punch the baseman after reaching base and make him drop the ball then try to steal another base. The computer is especially good at this tactic, so I try to get the ball back to the mound as quickly as possible. All of this violence is only available in SlugFest or custom games. MLB Classic plays by proper sportsman-like conduct.
Fielding is still just as easy as the previous games. 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 left stick or you can use the right stick for a quicker more direct throw without having to hit the A button. There is still the recurring problem of the computer auto-selecting the wrong fielder which can lead to some extra bases for the other team.
All of your plays can be enhanced with the Turbo function to some degree. 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 and that’s why it’s only available in SlugFest mode.
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.
The two biggest additions to SlugFest are Franchise and online play. The Franchise mode is surprisingly deep and starts you off with selecting your favorite team then using the Fantasy Draft to enhance the game. After you name your franchise you get your schedule and it’s off to the clubhouse that serves as your menu for all managerial decisions. Here, you can pick your batting order, pitching rotation, and any special strategies. You can scout new players, trade, and even deal with free agents. This is a serious franchise mode that is only bested by ASB 2005.
Xbox Live support was sorely missed last year but not only has it been included for this year’s game, MLB SlugFest: Loaded is the very first title to use the new 3.0 enhancements for the Live network. In addition to the Quick Match and Optimatch, you can host your own games or setup complex tournaments; something previously reserved for XSN. Tournaments consist of 4, 8 or 16 teams and can be controlled by the user via private, password-protected channels that only allow invited players to join.
Other online bonuses include updated rosters than can be downloaded throughout the actual season as well as a link to the MLB.com website that feeds a sports ticker tape along the bottom of your screen providing real information in real-time. Naturally, you can use your headset to chat with other gamers before and during the game.
The visuals in SlugFest are outstanding, starting with the detailed stadiums right down to the photo-realistic facial textures on the players. 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.
MLB SlugFest: Loaded 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 including cover athlete, Sammy Sosa, so you can see all sorts of signature pitching and batting stances plus extreme animations captured by Midway’s resident stuntman.
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.
There are some new graphical effects like exploding scoreboards and some unique comet trails that follow the ball. The fire has never looked better and the lighting, shadows, day, night, and weather effects are flawless. Even subtle details like clouds of dust kicking up behind the runner are all there. It doesn’t get much better than this for realism and sheer vibrancy.
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 Scorpion approach the batter’s box swinging his bat around like a Samurai sword.
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. 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. The instant replay system hasn't changed much since last year and still offers excellent control over watching your favorite plays and will allow you to enjoy the lush graphics at closer range from any angle.
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 although I have to admit that after three years their act is getting a bit stale. Tim still 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, but a lot of his humor is really starting to sound forced.
If you play the game long enough (about 5 games) you will certainly start hearing the same comments over and over again. 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. You can choose from Onfield, Old School, No Jokes or Default (all) commentary tracks.
The music awesome with your traditional licensed tracks from breakthrough bands like Ivory Wire, Buckfast Superbee and Flipswitch 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 explodes 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 the same one I had last year and that is that the crowd just doesn’t seem to get that involved with the game. Aside from multi-base runs and home runs, the crowd is just a background murmur rather than a roar.
MLB SlugFest: Loaded will keep you playing for 50-80 hours depending on how motivated you are to complete a season or tackle the new Franchise mode for multiple seasons. The Home Run Derby and online support gives this title extended life above and beyond that of last year’s offering and the secret codes that unlock new stadiums, players, and content in the SlugFest Theater are always good incentive to thoroughly explore this title.
If you have friends who enjoy baseball 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. Of course, the added support for Xbox Live means you don’t have to pack your living room full of friends or strangers to experience the thrill of multiplayer baseball. Midway’s first online sports offering is easily one of the best, both in connecting and playing.
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.
MLB SlugFest: Loaded is the culmination of more than three years of baseball and easily the most comprehensive and accessible baseball game for players of all ages and skills. The gameplay remains fun and humorous yet it features all the modes and licensing you would expect from the more serious games including a new serious mode of play. Midway has definitely hit this one out of the park. MLB SlugFest: Loaded is a grand slam homerun that deserves a spot in every baseball lover’s Xbox collection.