Okay, look, I love baseball and happen to be a diehard fan of simulation-style baseball videogames like ESPN Baseball and MVP Baseball 2004 . You're going to have to read my review of MLB SlugFest: Loaded with that information in mind. Don't hate me. I have a secret crush on Hilary Duff. Wait. Did I type that or just think it? Nevermind. — Frank
When Midway introduced MLB SlugFest a few years ago, as an alternative to the traditional baseball simulators that usually fill store shelves, it quickly became the #1 selling baseball game. Why? Most likely, because it finally gave casual fans–who comprise a rather large silent majority–a baseball videogame that actually played more like a videogame than an interactive television broadcast. In SlugFest , swings tend to put the ball in play; home runs and multi-hit games can catch batters on fire (making them stronger and faster); pitchers can throw screwy trick pitches; and base runners and fielders can start fights out on the base paths.
The only major complaints people had about MLB SlugFest 2003 and 2004 were that they didn't have online play, that they didn't have a franchise mode, and that they didn't have a realistic simulation mode to go along with the namesake slugfest setup.
MLB SlugFest: Loaded satisfies those concerns, and it does so in such a way that absolutely lives up to the "Loaded" subtitle. Online play isn't limited to exhibition games. You can also download roster updates and work your way up a "pro" rank ladder (which will apparently feature tournament competitions once more players sign up). The franchise mode isn't just a season mode with trades and custom players. Midway licensed the popular PC-based Baseball Mogul simulator to provide the stats, player development formulas, and news updates for SlugFest: Loaded 's new franchise mode. Lastly, the new "MLB" (simulation) setting isn't just the standard game with the turbo boosts, on fires, and punches turned off. It also makes the hitting and pitching interfaces more precise and scales back the power that's put into hits, so that games play out like the kind of low scoring, ground ball laden contests that normally only happen in simulators like MVP Baseball or ESPN Baseball .
The overall design of the game hasn't changed much since last year. The hitting, fielding, batting, and base running controls are setup identical to the control schemes in other baseball games. What SlugFest does differently is that it lets you play "dirty." Pitchers can throw beanballs at batters to diminish their skills, batters can charge the mound to retaliate, base runners can throw punches at basemen to knock the ball out of their gloves, and fielders can apply hard tags to weaken opposing players. Also, like most of Midway's sports games, there are turbo boost and "on fire" features that let players run faster and throw harder for brief periods of time. The turbo boost is something you can activate (by pressing R2), whereas the "on fire" status is a reward that's earned by striking out batters, hitting homers, and plunking multiple base hits in a game.
The pitching and fielding interfaces have a couple sweet new features. If you own an older version of SlugFest , you're already familiar with what the game calls "special" pitches, which you earn whenever you rack up a couple K's. SlugFest: Loaded adds "trick" pitches to the mix. In addition to the four normal pitches that each pitcher has, each pitcher also has his own quartet of unique trick pitches. These trick pitches aren't as showy or explosive as special pitches, but with names like "fireball" and "Mr. Snappy," you know they've got some movement on them. The fielding interface hasn't been improved to the same extent that the pitching interface has. The lone change there is the addition of what the game calls the "cocky play" button. It lets you perform behind-the-back and show-off catches. The odds of botching the play are higher, but if you're successful, you can put out the runner's "on fire" status and give your pitcher a few more points toward his next "special" pitch.
What I like most about Loaded are the things that don't have anything to do with swinging a bat or scoring runs. I'm talking about the franchise mode and the online play options. Midway didn't go buckwild and put concession prices or expansion teams into the franchise mode, but everything else you could want is in there. That includes CPU-generated players, drafts, trades, free agents, a minor league roster (initially stocked with actual AAA players), and the ability to set a handful of batting and pitching strategies (bunt attempts, hit and runs, intentional walks, etc.). Midway turned to Sports Mogul Inc., the creators of the Baseball Mogul simulator, to contribute the stats tracking, news headlines, and player development formulas for the game, which means you can look forward to the CPU coming up with realistic players and then giving you the chance to pour through pages of stats and daily news reports pertaining to the players on your team.
For those of you, unlike myself, that enjoy playing against other human beings, the online play options are also deeper than you'd expect for a game such as this. I was expecting to see exhibition games and roster downloads, and some sort of stats tracking, but was surprised to see a hall of fame stats board and a separate "pro" ladder that will (so they say) eventually be used for tournament match-ups. The handful of online games that I participated in went smoothly, with little to no lag. Obviously, your mileage will vary if you log on at 4AM and the only other person logged on happens to live in Juneau.
When I first heard about all of the new features and tweaks that Midway was implementing into SlugFest: Loaded , I got my hopes up that they'd improve the graphics and audio as well. They did, although not as much as I would have liked. Visually, the player models and stadiums still look crisp and clear. Players' bodies look much more lifelike this year–less BALCO and more Atkins it seems–and there are dozens of new animations for walk ups, reactions, and windmill strikeouts. It bothers me that some parks have all of their trademark features and others don't. Wrigley Field has its ivy and tavern seats, but the choo choo is missing from Minute Maid in Houston. What gives? Also, random weather is a great idea, but not when the graphics for the clouds and buildings outside the ballpark are too blurry to look at for more than a second or two. To be honest, though, you probably won't notice or mind with all of the laser trails, fire effects, and confetti that go off after every pitch or swing.
The audio didn't change one bit from SlugFest 2004 . Tim Kitzrow and "Jimmy Shorts" have returned to do the play by play. They're not an energetic pair, but their comments are accurate, on time, and hardly ever repeat during the same game. Some of the things they say are flat out hilarious. I basically laughed myself to a strikeout when Jimmy asked Tim, "Hey Tim, you ever cry yourself to sleep at night" and Tim responded with a lead in for a fake anti-depressant drug called Zoritan.
Will you like MLB SlugFest: Loaded ? If you're the kind of person that wants a baseball videogame with trick pitches, turbo boosts, and sucker punches, then I have little doubt that you'll appreciate Midway's take on America's national pastime. For those of you that own last year's game, the new features (online play, franchise mode, trick pitches) should give you plenty of reason to upgrade to this latest installment.