Ah, summer, time for long lazy days and hot summer nights. It’s also time to hit a few homeruns, steal a few bases, and throttle any baseman in your way. You read that last sentence right: I said throttle. While sports franchises from other companies have focused on recreating the realism of the sport, Midway’s focused their attention much more on fanciful arcade style play with their sports brands. So grab your cleats and set yourself on fire, because it’s time to charge the mound with MLB Slugfest: Loaded.
It may seem like a gimmick, but the over-the-top format of Loaded is what makes it stand out from the other baseball games that’ve been released this year. Essentially, players choose a major league baseball team and square off against a friend or the computer in a shortened seven-inning game. Eliminating the last two innings not only speeds the game up, it adds a sense of drama when you find your self down by a large number of runs heading into the bottom of the sixth. That doesn’t sound likely, until you step up against one of the pitchers in the game. Each pitcher has a number of regular pitches that they’ll throw at the plate, like curveballs, sliders and the ubiquitous fastball. Any one of these can be “juiced” up with a little turbo, giving the throw a little extra speed or curve on their way towards the catcher. Hurlers also have a set of trick pitches up their sleeves, which dance, snake and even fly off the screen before streaking towards the strike zone. If a pitcher can get five strikes at any point in time during the game, they acquire a player-specific pitch that’s practically impossible to hit. Needless to say, you’ll want to stock up on these till you really need it.
Batters have three separate ways to return the ball into play. Contact swings are basically designed to knock the ball somewhere within the park to allow the batter to get on base, although some players are strong enough to jack it out of the park with this stroke. Power swings, on the other hand, are designed to send a ball screaming towards the fences, although they can often turn into easily caught fly balls. (Coincidentally, outfielders can catch a ball normally, or they can perform an extravagant catch, such as between the legs or over the shoulder, but their risk of dropping it increases dramatically.) Speedier players can also try to bunt the ball and run out the throw to a base, giving basemen hard tags to ensure that they’ll be safe when they reach the bag. A hard tag is essentially an overpowered sliding kick or a punch to someone’s face or gut that will distract them from accurately making a play. Extremely strong tags will even force players to drop balls, allowing your runners to progress to the next base. However, not only can basemen return the favor with a hard tag of their own, but the pitcher can also attempt to curtail the strength or speed of these players by beaning them at the plate. Sure, it results in that player walking to first base, but hobbling off the location specific pain will hamper their attempts at getting to second. For instance, you can “cripple” a fast runner by pitching into his legs. Luckily, if your timing is just right, you can dodge these dangerous throws.
The only other facet remaining to regular play is the relationship between turbo and being “On Fire.” Each team has an equally allotted amount of turbo at the start of every inning. Adding turbo to specific actions, like throwing balls for extra power or for bursts of speed towards a base decreases your turbo meter. Performing exceptional plays, such as catching pop-ups or getting on base, replenishes some of your meter. However, if a player is performing exceptionally well (as in a pitcher who strikes out a number of people), they’ll catch on fire. Aside from the visual impact of watching a player burst into flames, they’ll be completely immune to beaning attacks and can use turbo as much as they want without depleting the meter. While one player on fire is a handful, an entire team that starts catching on fire is frightening. Now, if people immolating themselves isn’t appealing to you, you can opt to play a classic baseball game without any of the over the top bells and whistles, or you can essentially combine the two, picking and choosing which rules you want and discarding the rest.
Making a return to Slugfest this year is the ever-popular Home Run Derby Mode, which lets up to 8 computer or human players go yard as many times as possible. This is in addition to a quick play mode that starts a game as fast as possible, and the addition of online play that definitely maximizes the replayability factor of the game. It’s one thing to keep playing against your friends and the computer, but challenging online competition is a simple thing to get into, and a good test of your baseball skills. Aside from that, the typical season mode has been replaced by the Franchise mode that’s powered by the Baseball Mogul simulation engine. While you won’t be able to create players or teams, you’ll be able to run the front office operations of a pre-existing organization. This will involve everything from negotiating trades to calling players up from the minors. Much of the information you’ll also receive about the league comes from the newspapers that’ll cross your desk, which displays the stats of players and other games. You’ll also have the option to manipulate your manager’s strategies for a game, including batting orders and defensive alignments.
Players in Slugfest are a creative mix between realistic depictions and overexaggeration. Facially, most of the players included in the game look almost exactly like their real-life counterparts. However, just about every single person on a team seems to be juiced up on league-banned substances. There’s something a bit questionable about that. Stadiums look pretty close to the actual ballparks, with the exception of the extreme parks, which are comical. Particle effects, like smoke or butterfly trails on homers or heat rising from players that are on fire are impressive, and smashing a ball into a scoreboard showers the field with electrical sparks. However, the generic turbo trails that are attached to pitches seem weaker in comparison, and some of the animations from players, particularly transitioning from catching to throwing or some instances of baserunning are somewhat choppy. What’s more, the 2D crowd animation is permanently on a cheering loop, which doesn’t fit all the time. I don’t expect everyone to be pumped up if I’ve just started a game with two low powered teams.
Tim Kitzrow and Jimmy Shorts return to sling wisecracks and insults once again, and while you will hear a bit of repetition after a number of games, their timing is still pretty solid. There are a lot more pre-game bits this time than before, which is great, particularly because it disarms the wait time as the game loads. In-game sounds are pretty solid, from the random cheers and comments thrown from the crowd to the crack of the bats and embellished effects when a homer is hit. While there are a number of songs included by up and coming groups, you’ll barely hear them considering the sound effects and jokes cracked by the commentators.
A major issue with Loaded isn’t so much what Slugfest does to the game of baseball but how far it doesn’t go within its extreme borders. With only homerun derby, quick matches and franchise play, there’s no possibility of creating a player or a team from scratch and trying to take them all the way. Most of the hidden teams and stadiums are repeats from last year’s edition, and what’s more, playing with them isn’t fully fleshed out. For instance, if you choose to play as the Caseys, you’ll see your spectral team approach the field. However, you’re actually playing as the Cubs, and the announcers will call the lineup of the Cubs instead of making any name substitutions. But perhaps the largest issue with Loaded, and perhaps all of Midway’s sports titles from this past season, is the inclusion of the simulation-like play that tones down the style of the game. There’s simply not enough levels of realistic play included to justify the “classic” baseball play, and having to choose to play the extreme version of the sport or explicitly turning turbo on or off in the options takes the fun out of the game.
However, if you’re looking for a sports game that offers somewhat of a break from the norm that you’ll find on store shelves, you really won’t go wrong with MLB Slugfest: Loaded. Over the top gameplay coupled with nicely timed humor and the inclusion of online play makes this a great way to pass the time during the summer. Now if they can expand on the idea and drop some of the realism, Slugfest could become a true classic in the sports gaming pantheon.