Midway Sports has been known for pushing the sports envelope in broad directions. After all, this is the company that introduced smoking slam dunks in NBA Jam that would make Daryl Dawkins jealous. The same designer whose bodyslams in NFL Blitz would make Jack Lambert wince. Well, the extreme sensibilities taken to these previous titles have been branched out to America’s favorite pastime: baseball. That’s right, we’re not talking about a leisurely summer afternoon watching fungoes launched into outfields. We’re talking Round 3 of Mike Piazza Vs. Guillermo Mota, just without the running away, glove throwing, missed punches or restraints. Get your mound charges ready, cuz it’s time for MLB Slugfest 20-04!
What may be somewhat shocking to critics of Slugfest’s aggressive antics is the solid foundation of baseball that comprises gameplay. In all, more than 20 new features have been included to make this season’s Slugfest the largest yet. A deeper team roster has been added for each squad, boosting the number of available players that ride the pine to twenty athletes. Similarly, many features commonly found within baseball simulations, such as player trades, pinch-hitting or substitutions, and adjustable team lineups have been added this year to allow budding managers tighter control over their game. Those who wish to try their hand at being a general manager can also try to create a team and lead it to the World Series. Additionally, this year’s Slugfest features the ever-popular Home Run Derby, pitting competitors against each other to see who goes yard more.
All these essential aspects of baseball are well implemented, but the attraction to Slugfest is the over the top antics of the gameplay. Both sides of the ball get a limited amount of turbo that can be used to augment practically any play. Powered up pitches, stronger hit balls, or sped up base running can be enacted with the simple press of a button. Stealing bases, scoring, catching pop-flys or tagging players out replenishes your used turbo, and consecutively having a player perform great plays will make them catch “on fire.” Significantly enhancing an athlete’s speed and batting ability, a squad with a number of immolated players can virtually be unstoppable, primarily because they can run right through opposing basemen.
Slugfest has always encouraged “gentle” contact with the hard slide or tackle, which often results in a dropped ball and the opportunity for additional runs or stolen bases. Defensive players can attempt to counter these “advances” with hard tags, which are essentially punches or elbows to the face or stomach. New for the 20-04 season is the ability to set pitchers ablaze, who can throw a number of wild pitches that are almost impossible to hit. They can also bean players, and by specifically targeting areas of the body, like their arms or legs, they can actually hamper a player’s stats for a few innings, reducing their power or their speed. (Just don’t try to do it with a player that’s on fire!)
The designers of Slugfest sunk a lot of attention into the graphical animation of the 3D models of each player, and it definitely pays off. With dozens of additional taunts, celebrations and plays, over 1,500 new animations have been added to make characters look and move as smooth as their real life counterparts. Watching batters pretend to wield their bat like a samurai sword or seeing an outfielder make a gymnastic catch worthy of the Olympics is definitely pleasing to the eye, and it’s truly priceless to watch a pitcher attempt to bean a batter who’s on fire. To add to the atmosphere, a fully 3D crowd attends each and every game, a vast improvement over the older 2D fans, and their cheering and rooting looks rather natural. Every major league park has been accurately modeled, and there’s an additional 7 fantasy parks ranging from Atlantis to the Forbidden City in China that can be played upon for those who want a change in scenery. Along with these graphical touches comes a solid camera system with a full-featured instant replay mode that lets anyone gloat about a double play, a fastball over the plate or a slide into second. In fact, the graphics are pretty solid all around, with the exception of some of the celebrations during homeruns, which are bland in comparison and actually a little distracting because they don’t seem to fit in, quality wise. You’ll also see quite a lot of the same animations over and over again, primarily with respect to batters approaching the plate. Finally, (and this could be considered a minor point) the camera works great, and can even be used for a close up on brawls over bases, but it shies away from players when they charge the mound. Since some of the tantrums or actions performed before they rush forward are hilarious, it’d be even better if you could see how someone takes out their frustration on the pitcher.
Sound has also been vastly improved. While you’ll hear the typical sounds of a baseball stadium, like the cheering fans, vendors hawking food in the stands and organ music, the sound effects have definitely been turned up several notches. The sound of a turbo-enhanced ball streaking into a mitt, or the crackle from a player that’s caught on fire is definitely noticeable. Similarly, the high pitched whimper of a player as they take a well-timed punch, slide or ball to the side is laugh inducing even though it may seem violent at the time. But what really steals the show is the commentary. Taking and expanding upon the repertoire from last year, Tim and Jimmy have amazing comic timing, and will often make you laugh hysterically at some random comment or joke. In fact, they’re used to lessen the impact of the loading screen (which is rather minimal), and gamers are given the choice to let their comedy routine continue once the game has finished playing, or skip the jokes and go straight into the gameplay. This is a great feature that more games should look into implementing.
Speaking of gameplay, Slugfest 20-04 is incredibly easy to pick up and jump into, which is a terrific boon to the title. Within the first five minutes of starting the game, I was charging around the field making basket catches, taking out basemen and knocking homers out of the park. Yet while it’s accessible to the basic player, the control scheme is very deep for players that want to put additional time into the nuances of pitching and stealing bases. While some of the fighting seems a bit repetitive at times – I could deal with seeing a baseman getting picked up and body slammed or jump kicked instead of the same punches and everything – it is rather addictive, and seems just perfect for multiplayer games. In fact, you might be surprised to find yourself throwing out some choice lines based on what happens on the baseball diamond, to the chagrin of your buddy sitting next to you. It’s a crying shame that there’s no online function that would allow you to play against other people across the country, because Slugfest screams out for smack talking between friends. (See instant replay function above)
Overall, though, Midway Sports has definitely hit a home run with their latest version of Slugfest. With zany characters, extreme action, and a solid baseball background, this is the definite break that casual fans of the sport can totally root for. Plus, the easy to learn gameplay and nature of onscreen action could make this a buddy game favorite, most especially with large groups of friends. Grab a mitt, a bat and some cleats, because you should definitely get down and dirty with Slugfest 20-04.