Review: If steroids were legal, this is what baseball would be like.
Over the past decade, Midway has been responsible for over-the-top arcade classics such as NBA Jam, NHL Hitz and NFL Blitz. Those looking to escape the world of defensive goaltending, off-sides and late hits could look forward to sports the way they were meant to be played? fast-paced action with minimal rules. The current generation of consoles has also blessed us with the MLB SlugFest series, a series that makes baseball purists weep and keeps casual fans of America's favorite pastime satisfied.
When the industry learned that Take Two landed an exclusive license for third-party MLB games, baseball fans realized that all of a sudden their annual offering of video games had dwindled down to a number far smaller than it had been in previous years. Yet to everyone's surprise, Midway surprised many with the release of MLB SlugFest 2006 (at a budget price of $19.99), the fourth installment in the notorious MLB SlugFest series. Why? Because apparently Take Two's licensed did not cover arcade baseball games, just third-party simulations.
MLB SlugFest 2006 has a fair amount of game modes, although some might argue that a few critical ones are missing. Featured in the 2006 installment are the Home Run Derby, Create-A-Team, Create-A-Player, Quick Play, Season Mode, Challenge Mode and Playoff Mode. After seeing this, I was initially frustrated by the lack of a franchise mode, which was apparently a part of the previous installment, MLB SlugFest: Loaded. No franchise mode bundled with a lack of Xbox Live support means no rookie drafts and no trading players. Therefore, all line-ups are essentially locked. I can't trade Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to the Nationals, Carlos Lee isn't headed to the Rangers, and Alfonso Soriano isn't going anywhere before the trade deadline.
But once I got past the initial disappointment, I began to appreciate what the game has to offer. The Season Mode is the where I've spent the bulk of my time thus far, and it features a 52 game season (as opposed to the traditional 162 game season) followed by the playoffs. Over the course of eight weeks, your team will face-off against a plethora of division and league rivals, along with a few interleague games thrown in for good measure. The shorter season is a welcome change, as I was never a huge fan of the 162 games you had to play through just to hopefully reach the playoffs. If you want to skip a season and head straight to the playoffs, Playoff Mode is your destination. Here you can set up a bracket with either four or eight teams to face-off in the chase for the World Series. Challenge Mode is more of a gimmick than anything else, as you simply choose a team and then face-off against the rest of the teams in MLB in succession by order of difficulty.
If you want to play a single game by yourself or with a friend, Quick Play is the mode for it. This mode allows you to pick two teams, pick a stadium and square off for nine innings of fun. Without Xbox Live compatibility, Quick Play is most multi-player action that you will be getting out of MLB SlugFest 2006. To keep you busy, however, Midway included the Home Run Derby, Create-A-Team and brand new Create-A-Player. The Home Run Derby is one of the best and most fun modes that the game has to offer. You simply select a minimum of two sluggers from a pre-determined list of roughly 50 of the game's most powerful hitters (sorry, no Ryan Howard), select the venue and then proceed to launch as many long balls as you can. You can select the pitch type, pitch location, skill level and designate CPU or User hitters if you please.
The Create-A-Player and Create-A-Team modes are present, but they don't add much to the experience. Create-A-Player allows you to start from scratch and customize a player's appearance in many ways and then adjust player ratings with no limits. To be honest, however, the most recent Tony Hawk games have had far more detailed Create-A-Skater options. As for Create-A-Team, you simply create a team name, pick a venue, choose from a limited amount of logos and edit your line-up to include any roster you could possibly want. Then you can use this team in Season Mode if you please. And to squeeze out a little more replay value, Midway has included unlockables in the form of fictional stadiums and teams. By successfully completing tasks such as ?Hit 10 Home Runs in a Single Game,? ?Hit a Home Run in Yankee Stadium,? ?Steal 5 Bases in a Single Game?, you can unload venues such as Rocket Park, Atlantis, Coliseum and teams such as Team Evil Clowns and Team Gladiator. The unlockable teams are just scrambled rosters, but the extra stadiums look great and are a nice extra.
When it comes to gameplay, MLB SlugFest 2006 is in a league of its own. This is the only game that features stiff-arms, brawls on the pitcher's mound, deliberate bean balls, towering 800+ feet home runs and trick pitches. The controls are very user-friendly, and anyone can pick up a control and pick up on the action right away. What makes the game stand out is the use of a special turbo meter. At the beginning of each half-inning, this meter is replenished and allows you to perform some special feats. By holding down turbo, batters will hit balls further, fielders will run faster and can throw the ball to anywhere on the field in a matter of milliseconds, baserunners are faster and can perform take-out slides and pitchers can throw special pitches. When used sparingly and at the right time, the turbo can be crucial in scoring or preventing a few more runs.
The batting and pitching mechanics are fairly simple. Batters have the option of a contact swing, a power swing, bunting and dodging bean balls. Timing is obviously crucial, but placement is important as well. If a pitcher throws a high fastball, you must press up on the left analog stick to make contact at the right time. Pitching is not complicated either ? you simply select from one of four pitches that each pitcher is capable of throwing, select one of nine locations, select whether you wish to throw a ball or a strike or bean the hitter, and the pitch will be delivered. I believe that all pitches in this game are hittable, so striking out hitters with normal pitches isn't very easy. But that is where special pitches and trick pitches come into play. After accruing five strikes, a pitcher will be rewarded with one special pitch, a wild and virtually unhittable pitch that is sure to get you a strike-out. In between those five strikes, however, you can also throw trick pitches. With specific button combinations during the wind-up, you can have Dontrelle Willis throw not only fastballs and curveballs, but Freight Trains and Bell Curves that swerve and dive and dip like crazy. In certain situations or just for fun, you also always have the option of beaning a hitter. Sometimes he will fall to the ground, absorb a decrease in stats and walk casually to first base. Other times, however, he will charge the mound, literally beat up the pitcher and will become ?On Fire.?
A hitter can become ?On Fire? in several ways. The first two hitters to go 2 for 2 when batting for each team will become on fire, or they can be angered when beaned and can become ?On Fire? as well. Pitchers can become ?On Fire? if they throw three strike-outs without surrendering a run in between. When a player is on fire, he will have unlimited turbo. This means they will become better hitters, better pitchers, faster fielders and quicker baserunners. However, if the pitcher surrenders a home run, or the batter is caught stealing or fails to get a hit when ?On Fire,? they lose their ?On Fire? status.
When it comes to baserunning, the game becomes a bit complicated. Advancing runners, retreating runners and stealing bases is tricky at first. By using the awkwardly placed white button to control baserunning, the developers didn't make life any easier. Beyond simple slides, baserunners can also perform take-out slides and stiff-arms in hopes of dislodging the ball from the fielder. When a player is ?on fire,? baserunning can become very fun and a double can be stretched into an inside the park home run with some strategic ?moves.? Fielding is very simple, as most of it is controlled with the right thumbstick. Showboat catches can be made with the left trigger as well. However, there are a few small glitches that I have noticed that have been very frustrating at time. The worst one occurs when a ground ball is hit between the second and first basemen, and when you move toward the ball with the second baseman, he usually ends up scampering away from the ball, leading to a base hit. This hasn't happened once or twice, it is a recurring glitch.
Graphically, MLB SlugFest 2006 is somewhat disappointing. At first glance, I thought I was playing a PlayStation One game. The more I played, the more impressed I became with the visuals, but these are visuals you would be deeply impressed by three years ago, not in 2006. Even some of the superstars like Albert Pujols are hard to recognize at times. As for the fans, they look atrocious. They look like 2D sprites out of a '96 hockey game. Nevertheless, the player animations are some of the best I've seen in years. All of the animations are extremely fluid and are perfect for this type of game. From the brawls on the mound to the diving catches to the monster swings to David Ortiz doing the robot after hitting a homer, everything looks great. I'm a huge fan of the particle effects that trail the ball when using turbo to throw or pitch it. And I am also very impressed by the ballparks. From the Green Monster at Fenway to the Gateway Arch in the background of Busch Stadium, baseball fans are bound to recognize and enjoy the replications of their favorite ballparks. Even the fictional parks are cleverly designed and are a treat to the eye.
As for audio, nothing really stands out. Commentators Tim Kitzrow and Jimmy Shorts try their best to inject some comedy into the title, but their commentary grows stale after a while. Some of the comments will have you scratching your head and asking why they just said that, especially when Shorts goes extremely off-topic. The sound effects are your standard arsenal of bats connecting with the ball, slides and dives. As for musical accommodations, several rock songs are blasted while you select your mode of play and options. Custom soundtracks are not supported, but atleast you can skip around songs with the left and right triggers.