Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Blue Castle Games
Release Date: June 25, 2007
I found it slightly ironic that the Mitchell Report, naming all manner of professional baseball players as potential steroid monkeys, was released the day before I received a copy of The Bigs to review. 2K Sports' take on America's pastime celebrates rawhide-ripping home runs, blistering fastballs and supersonic speed. The strange thing is, I found myself enjoying The Bigs more than any other baseball title in recent memory, essentially making me no different than those people who have cheered for Barry Bonds, Jose Conseco and Mark McGuire all these years. Well, I may be a moral sellout, but the important thing is that I'm having fun.
The Bigs could be considered a spiritual successor to the MLB Slugfest franchise. Those titles emphasized over-the-top action, with every play turning into an epic sports opera of splintered wood and screaming baseballs. The Bigs takes us back to those glorious games, with scoreboard-shattering home runs and turbo-charged baserunning. For the most part, the game plays like a sped-up version of a regular ballgame, but with a few specific "enhancements." For example, each team has a turbo gauge and a Big Play meter. The turbo gauge is filled by throwing strikes on the mound or taking balls at the plate, and when it's ready, you can unleash superheated pitches, powered-up hits, light-speed throws or mach-speed baserunning.
The Big Play meter is another beast entirely, and it's what pushes The Bigs into full-fledged arcade territory. Basically, achievements like strikeouts, diving catches, base hits and home runs award a varying amount of points. Once you achieve 100,000 points, the meter will fill and you can press R1 and L1 and unleash either the "Power Blast" or "Big Heat." Power Blast will allow any batter, regardless of his stats, to smoke the next ball his bat touches out of the park in an overpowering and highly stylized way. I always loved the Power Blast, as it meant every hit would end in either a shattered luxury box window or an explosion of sparks as the ball embedded itself in the scoreboard. If you are more of a defensive-minded player, you can activate Big Heat mode while on the mound and juice all of your pitches. While your pitcher is still technically hittable, it is far more likely that you'll strike out the next batter, in turn stealing a portion of your opponent's Big Play meter.
When you fire up the title, you'll be presented with a fair number of game options. You can choose from Exhibition, Home Run Derby, Home Run Pinball, Play Now and Rookie Challenge. Now then, if you were paying attention, you may have noticed something missing; there are no career or franchise modes, which may seem sacrilegious to many baseball fans. In their place, The Bigs features the Rookie Challenge, putting you in the shoes of a hot young prospect trying to make a name for yourself in the league. Starting out, you'll go through the traditional steps of creating your character and assigning skill points, so there's nothing special there. However, once you start the Rookie Challenge proper, you'll not only be tasked with simply winning games, but completing scenarios and participating in training sessions as well. Victory in an event will grant you more skill points, additional venues and new challenges. The tasks set before you in this mode are varied enough to keep things interesting, and the balance between offensive and defensive goals ensures that you must develop skills on both sides of the ball in order to succeed.
However, there is a downside to this mode, as it only lasts one "season," and there's really no way to fail. Completing each challenge moves you closer to the playoffs, and victory in the World Series marks the end of the Rookie Challenge. While you can play the mode over and over again with a new created character every time, it's not the same as the standard career mode. Whereas most sports games task you to build up your character over the course of years and strive to achieve personal records and the Hall of Fame, The Bigs opts for a different, more short-sighted approach. The Rookie Challenge is quite fun, and it takes about 20 hours to get through the whole thing, but I really wish the developers would have included a bona fide career or franchise mode as a supplement.
Home Run Pinball, the other notable mode, places you and a pitcher in Times Square under orders to destroy everything you can. Aim your blasts for cars, signs, buildings and even the famous New Year's Eve Ball. Successful shots fill up your Power Blast meter, and unleashing it allows you to reach the big money targets that are normally too far out of reach. Also, you are occasionally given the opportunity to score power-ups like multi-ball, allowing you wreak true havoc. This mode is great for quick pick-up-and-play sessions, and an online leaderboard serves to keep track of who's the most destructive.
The game's presentation will further remind you of titles like Slugfest and NFL Street. Player models are strikingly accurate, but everyone has been considerably beefed up. Of course, given what the Mitchell Report has disclosed, maybe the player models are accurate after all. On top of the impressive characters, the ballparks all present accurate representations of the real venues, and gameplay animations are smooth and crisp.
In addition to the impressive graphics, The Bigs also features terrific commentary and sound effects. The title has eschewed the traditional two- to three-man broadcast booth in favor of a single announcer. For anyone who has grown tired of listening to the constant yammering of sportscasters, this is a welcome change, as the comments are brief yet appropriate for the moment. Using this approach, the focus is taken off the commentary and put back on the action, where it belongs. The game also places a special emphasis on the audio, with the sound of wind whistling off a hard fastball being interrupted only by the sharp crack of the bat as you make contact. Little touches like these give a great sense of velocity and a hint of violence, all of which further immerse you in the experience.
If there is one area where the game suffers considerably, it's in the controls. You can steer your hits either by holding the left analog stick toward the direction you want to go or by tilting the SixAxis. Truthfully, I found the tilt controls to be significantly inconsistent and hard to nail down, so the analog stick was definitely the way to go. You have a similar option when controlling a diving player on defense, and with either a press of the X button or a flick of the controller, you can send your fielders flailing after a ball. Unfortunately, the X button also controls throws to home, so catches often end with inadvertent throws to the plate, and it's nearly impossible to time a sudden controller jerk with a line drive heading down the foul line.
Furthermore, fielding can be made even more difficult by the fact that it takes your characters a few moments to register and make a break on the ball. Also, there's no fielding assist, so if you aren't standing in exactly the perfect spot, the ball will most likely bounce at your feet or sail over your head. It's really difficult to make a play on any line drives into the outfield; it's strange because the computer always makes it look so easy.
These issues pale in comparison to the biggest control issue: running the base paths. You see, in order to advance or retreat a runner, you have to hold the controller in the direction of the base you want. If you let up, your runner will simply stop and wait to be tagged out, and controlling multiple runners can quickly become frustrating and confusing. While you'll likely get the hang of it after a while, I lost a lot of good men who got within two steps of second base only to be tagged out because I had switched over to take control of the player trying to score.
Getting to the heart of the matter, The Bigs is a fun arcade-style sports game that suffers from just enough shortcomings to keep it from being great. While Rookie Challenge and Home Run Pinball are fun, the lack of a proper career or franchise mode is practically unforgivable. Also, the graphics and sound are terrific, but they're marred by sloppy controls. However, if you're tired of the stats-driven, hyper-accurate baseball games that have dominated the market in recent years, The Bigs delivers a very enjoyable experience that almost anyone can quickly pick up and play. It may not be pure baseball, but with all the steroid controversy surrounding the game these days, it could actually be better than the real thing.
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