Midway Sports has slowly but surely been transforming many of our normal day sports into the so-called "extreme" ones for the past five or six years. The first sport to transcend was basketball with the NBA Jam series. Next came football with the NFL Blitz series and in the past years we have seen hockey, soccer, and even golf be transformed. Now it is baseball's turn as MLB Slugfest makes its debut on the PS2 with its inaugural 2003 edition.
Presentation/Graphics : 55
I had the luxury of playing all of the PS2 baseball games this past spring and unfortunately MLB Slugfest can't keep up with its virtual diamond brethren. While Slugfest does incorporate face mapping of some of the MLB players, it's not enough to give a passing grade. Aside from the faces there seems to be little attention given to the rest of the game in the eye candy department.
The player models look smooth and clean, but almost none are scaled to the correct weight or height. From my observations I could only decipher two body types, normal and chunky. My team of choice, the St. Louis Cardinals, has an array of body sizes. On one hand you have some thin and small guys like Fernando Vina and Edgar Renterria in the line-up, but you also have some guys who look like the guy from the Bowflex commercials like Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols. In Slugfest you can't tell one from the other except by the color of their skin. I was also equally disappointed to see that height was not worked into the player models. Randy Johnson is intimidating enough in this game with his 124 m.p.h. fastball, but I would have probably peed by pants if he was his real-life 6'10" behemoth instead of the standard Joe Blow model. Mo Vaughn, a great player, but a hefty one, looks so slimmed down it appears he used the "Jerrod from Subway" diet.
I can't say anything much better about the stadiums. I am disappointed to note that everything with the stadium, excluding some pixilated fans and the sporadic waving flag in the outfield, is pre-rendered. While you could get away with this in a golf game (the Links golf series is notorious for this) it is an absolute annoyance in a baseball game. I love the High Heat baseball series, as I am a proud owner of the 2000 and 2001 PC versions and 2003 PS2 version, but some of the stadiums in those earlier PC games were down right hideous. While the stadiums in MLB weren't quite as bad they still were painful to look at. The level of detail that I had become accustomed to from the other PS2 baseball games (and all PS2 sports games in general) was simply not there. The grass and dirt lacked so much texture that it could easily be confused with globs of paint on a barren parking lot.
What saves the game in this area is a quasi-fast frame rate and the amazing pitcher and batter animation set the game boasts. In all of Midway Sports' games the frame rate has always thankfully kept up with its ultra-fast style of game play. Slugfest doesn't disappoint in that area. The sheer number of quirky animations found in the game is also a joy. You will be treated to fielders catching fly balls behind their backs, pitchers receiving the throwback from the catcher between his legs (with his glove of course), and batters twirling the bat in a way that would receive a hearty brush back pitch if it were to be done in real life.
Presentation/Audio : 92
I don't want to spoil the rest of the review for you, but the audio aspect is the best part of the game. The main reason for that, surprise, surprise, is the play-by-play duo of Tim Kitzrow and Kevin Matthews (who assumes the name of Jimmy Short in the game). In all my years of sports gaming I have never encountered a duo so funny and witty. Most of their comments have nothing to do with baseball, but provide a comedy element that made me turn down all the ambient noise just to focus in on the duo's punch lines. For example, one comment was about how a hitting coach took a new strategy for his batters-how he actually hit them! I also heard comments about sushi, world's strongest men playing baseball, and big feet among other non-baseball topics. Kitzrow is your standard, deep-voiced play-by-play guy (who still finds time for some hilarious one-liners), but Matthews was the one that had me keeled over from laughter. His character, Jimmy Short, does the color commentary in this Jerry Lewis, half-drunk tone that's so goofy and off-the-wall that it actually works. I thought about it for a while and what the guys really remind me of are the two guys off The Man Show on Comedy Central.
The two-man team, for all their comical relief, still manages to portray a great chemistry while announcing the game. Their dialogue doesn't ever seem out of place, but just flows. While the duo will offer the occasional tidbit of advice (saying a batter should choke up because the pitcher's fastball is smoking today) or the occasional generic praise (his hitting eye has vastly improved) they don't say much about the game. I don't believe I ever heard anything mentioned about a certain situation, game score, or even game statistics (player X is 2-4 on the day). In a pure arcade like Slugfest however, I don't think a replica of a radio broadcast is needed.
Aside from the play-by-play duo the sounds are pretty average. When throwing the ball to the bases you get a missile sound and when you hit the ball you get the over exaggerated thwack. The crowd cheers and boos when plays are made or not made.
The in-game music is the typical rock music found on the Fast and the Furious sound track. I didn't really enjoy the music, but it didn't make me turn it off either.
Interface/Options : 74
Slugfest has four main game modes to choose from. There is the Quick Play/Exhibition mode, a Challenge mode similar to the one found in the original NBA Jam, and a season and a tournament mode. But what left its mark wasn't really what the game had, but what it didn't.
Of all the PS2 baseball games I thought that Slugfest would be the game that would have the most natural fit for home run derby. Much to my dismay that game mode was left out. If anything the inclusion of a home run derby would have served as an acceptable party game for single or multi-player use. I would have loved to use the game mode as batting practice because I struggled with hitting early on.
Also left out of the game was a Create-A-Player option and A.I. sliders. You can adjust the difficulty level from Trainee to All-Star, whether or not balls will be called, and the number of innings, but you have little control over everything else. You can adjust your line-up, but there are no bench players. You can change your pitching rotation, but there are only two starters and a relief pitcher.
The interface is very simple as most everything is only one or two presses of the X-button away. Although there aren't many stats tracked, they are easily sorted by leader, player, or team. The loading times are bearable for two reasons: the background always boasts one of the two scantily clad Slugfest babes and Kitzrow and Matthews give a little preview for the game as you wait.
Gameplay : 50
After playing fellow Midway Sports games NHL Hitz and NFL Blitz, I expected a lot from Slugfest in terms of game play. Hitz and Blitz were able to successfully exuberate the crazy, breakneck style of play that it so desired. Slugfest showed some potential early, but eventually fell flat on its face. In the end I thought EA Sports Triple Play was a more enjoyable arcade experience (and it doesn't even really want to be a pure arcade).
The main reasons for my frustrations are a steep learning curve and a clunky and unpractical control scheme. Season mode spans over 52 games and I lost my first 15 games on the default Pro mode before squeaking out a 9-8 victory. There were many reasons for that, but the main culprit was my inability to play defense. Slugfest, unlike every other baseball game to date, doesn't automatically switch human control over to the nearest defender when the ball is hit. To control that fielder closest to the ground or fly ball you must first press the square button. This might seem like an elementary thing, but you would not believe how much time and covered ground is lost in this wearisome process. It's frustrating because the CPU in comparison covers the outfield so well; anything outside of a screaming line drive will most likely be caught, most times in a Willie Mays, head-to-toe diving fashion. And it doesn't help that the fielding AI is about as smart as Tonya Harding. I couldn't count how many times I failed to press the square button at Mach 3 speed and watched as my CPU controlled player literally watched a ground ball dribble (not bounce, it was going much too slow to be called a bounce) by or a fly ball descend to my player's feet. To give you a gauge of how aggravated I got, when Slugfest came in the mail I had an afro that Ben Wallace would be jealous of and now after a week and a half of hair pulling aggravation I look like Michael Wilbon.
Listen to this, you actually run faster when a player is human controlled opposed to when a player is CPU controlled, so it makes it even more imperative for you to hit the square button as soon as possible.
Pitching, hitting, and base running are not much better. Since there is no ability to purposely throw a ball instead of a strike most of my pitches are glorified batting practice for the CPU opposition. My team ERA was slightly lower than Alex Rodriguez's contract because I hung so many pitches over the plate. And in many cases I was getting rocked on the first pitch of the at-bat. After the CPU would ring up four or five straight, first-pitch hits I would give anything to just throw a ball outside of the strike zone and make them chase it. My only viable option to unintentionally grooving a pitch was beaning the hitter, which more times than not was what I ended up doing because it was the most pleasing action to do.
The bean ball is especially fun because there is some strategy worked into the execution of it. If you bean the batter in the head you will probably cause that batter's player attributes to go down. If you hit them anywhere else you'll just piss them off and their attributes will actually go up! Either way, it's funny to see Barry Bonds cower and limp down the first base line after issuing him his seventh bean ball free ride of the day.
Hitting is annoying only because the CPU defense is so incredibly awesome. Like I said earlier, the outfielders pretty much catch everything and adding to the challenge is the rocket arms that all of them possess. Unless you are using Ichiro or unless you crushed the ball into a power alley, you have to waste some of your turbo meter (which doesn't recharge unless you score a run or take a ball) to sprint down to first base. This of course leads me to another pet peeve, base running. Everything is manual, including advancing the runner to second base on a base hit. You get a sick feeling to the stomach after you hit a gap shot in the right-center alley only to get doubled up because you forgot to manually advance the runner. There is also no check swing, if you press the swing button you're pretty much stuck with that decision.
I did have some fun with the hard tag ability. Essentially what a hard tag does is punching your opponent in the face. Like the bean ball there is actually a strategy to it. If you hard tag your opponent with the turbo button you can decrease their base running attributes. But I mainly used the hard tag feature to vent some frustration. You have to be careful in punching the standing base runner too much as he might punch you back and knock the ball out of your glove! You might be able to get away with it at second base with the shortstop nearby, but at either of the corner bases it's a risk because there is no such back up. After the ball is knocked loose the player falls to the ground and is unable to complete any action for a few seconds, which is just long enough for the base runner to advance.
In conclusion, there are so many things that you must manually do in this game that it eventually makes the experience one frustration after another. It's sort of a shame that you can't allow the CPU to do many of those aforementioned things because the ball physics are pretty damn good. The ball bounces correctly off outfield walls (something I experienced far too much) and off the pitcher's mound.
Replay Value : 60
The only reason I give this score a 60 is because when I played the game with my buddies I had a great time. We both were on the same level and I actually had an equal opponent. We both sucked, but at least it was a competitive game. But the Midway Sports games are usually strong in the multi-player department. Everything else is crap because the game doesn't provide much entertainment simming games and I don't think I need to repeat why I don't like playing the game. A home run derby would have helped out here also as would have online play.
Overall : 64
If it weren't for the remarkable performance of the play-by-play duo this score would be much lower. If you can somehow master the entire manual switching and controlling, Slugfest might be a fun game. I just can't get over how frustrating the game was. I almost reverted back to my controller smashing days I was so irked. If you can get some buddies together this wouldn't be a bad weekend rental, but if you're looking for a game where you can hit colossal home runs and enjoy an easier learning curve, I would suggest trying EA's Triple Play series. The graphics are much better, the game play smoother, and the control scheme more practical.