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Sports might be the only reason I ever turn on my TV, but I have a hard time sitting through an entire game of televised baseball. It's like watching a boxing match where the fighters throw a jab every 20 seconds or so and one power punch per half hour. Not exactly riveting television.
Baseball video games, however, are a different story altogether thanks to the interactivity, depth and fun, but still, where are the half-naked cheerleaders? And the violence? And the fire?!
In Midway's MLB Slugfest series, of course! That's right, leave it to the creators of Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam to spice up America's most boring sport with some zany, over-the-top play mechanics and a healthy dose of gratuitous violence. The latest, MLB Slugfest: Loaded, contains plenty of these things, but underneath all the kooky Midway trappings and hot-shot maneuvers is a mediocre game with bad A.I. and questionable controls.
There are four playable modes in Loaded: Exhibition, Home Run Derby, Online and the new Franchise. Exhibition throws you into a quick game, Home Run Derby represents a good opportunity to get used to hitting and playing Online is handled well on both the PS2 and Xbox.
Franchise mode is the big new standout. Here you can play with your rosters, tweak your team's play strategies, trade players, send guys back and forth to the minor leagues and generally do lots of impressive things. Impressive, that is, for a Midway game. However, Loaded doesn't push any envelopes with its Franchise mode, and is somewhat behind the curve in its lack of any emotional component or team goals. Given, Midway isn't really trying to compete against the likes of MVP 2004 and ESPN MLB, and so the fact that there's a functional Franchise mode at all is kind of a bonus for people who were going to buy the game anyway.
The over-the-top action, violence, and opportunity to play America's game in a totally inappropriate manner are the pillars of Loaded's playability. Yes, players catch fire. Yes, players beat the crap out of each other, and yes, the pitcher and batter can fight. Sort of.
Before you begin a game or a Franchise, you can choose form one of three play styles: Slugfest, Classic, and Custom. In Slugfest mode, players have access to turbo, which makes them run faster, throw harder, and strike more violently. Pitchers gain access to one special pitch per inning, one uber pitch per five strikes thrown and the ability to purposely bean the batter about the head, chest or legs. Meanwhile, base-runners and fielders can strike each other, and any given player can catch fire if the right circumstances are met.
Generally speaking, the Slugfest powers are interesting and add a bit of strategy to Loaded. Throwing super pitches and using turbo at the right time can mean the difference between a win and a loss. However, the ability to smack your opponent's base runners around is seriously cheap, since it drains turbo and can be done with impunity by the fielders. I also take issue with the fact that if you bean a batter and he rushes the mound to fight with the pitcher, you don't get to watch it at all. Huh?
Fortunately, if you chooses Custom mode, you can toggle the various Slugfest powers as you see fit. Classic mode, however, shouldn't even have been included in Loaded. This seems to be Midway's attempt at baseball legitimacy, but instead glaringly highlights all the many ways in which Loaded can't compete with its more sophisticated rivals.
At the root of Loaded's weakness are its sloppy mechanics, particularly the fielding and base-running, which have been issues for three years in a row now. Simply switching to the right guy is awkward and often doesn't work correctly. The base throwing system is outdated; all the other new games map bases to face buttons, while in Loaded you must press a direction on the left analog stick plus the throw button to throw to a specific base. On the other side, the base-running is atrocious. Runners don't run on their own - even with two outs and the bases loaded - unless you specifically tell them to.
In a related point, the A.I. is simply awful. I once had a guy caught in a run down between second and third, and the computer threw the ball to first. It's also lovely when you tell a runner to run, and he starts to, then changes his mind and heads back to base. Argh. Loaded might be an arcade game at heart, but it's still a sports game and we expect better A.I. than this.
Graphically, Loaded looks like a Midway game should. The characters are blocky but well-animated and nearly everything smokes or flames or has bright purple trails. It kind of needs all the bells and whistles, however, because when played in Classic mode without all the flash, the game looks pretty drab.
We're not certain, but we think one of our GR chimps escaped from the office and was hired as a sound director by Midway. Bobo, if you're reading this, come back to us. Come back to GR and your life of perpetual grooming and typing. The tracks you feature during game menus are awful, and the color commentator/play-by-play team of Tim Kitzrow and Jimmy Shorts needs to be put down, because they've worn out their welcome with a seemingly endless parade of lame jokes. We'll leave some bananas out for ya, big guy.
Underneath all the glitz and pizzazz, MLB Slugfest: Loaded is a mediocre baseball game. It serves up some decent arcade fun, but we've already been here before in the other Slugfest games, and the notable AI and control issues still need to be addressed. The next Slugfest would be vastly improved if they ditched the attempt at Franchise authenticity and focused on fixing the mechanics and core baseball dynamics. Midway has some rules to learn before it breaks any more of them.