MLB SlugFest: Loaded Preview

We go in-depth with Midway's upcoming slugger for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

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By this point in the year, most baseball fans have already comfortably settled into the 2004 season with their baseball game of choice. With pretty much every major baseball game on the market already out in stores for well over a month, it might seem like it would be difficult to get excited about yet another MLB game coming on the horizon--but then, Midway's MLB Slugfest: Loaded isn't just another typical MLB game. For the past couple of years, baseball fans have been enjoying the Slugfest series not for its simulation-based gameplay or deep franchise modes, but because of the games' decidedly exaggerated and over-the-top slant on the sport of baseball.

It's a whole new season, and it's a whole new ballgame for Midway's popular MLB Slugfest series.
It's a whole new season, and it's a whole new ballgame for Midway's popular MLB Slugfest series.

For Slugfest: Loaded, Midway is poised to bring another healthy dose of arcade-style baseball gameplay, but this time, it's bringing that arcade-style gameplay along with simulation-based gameplay options and an extremely deep franchise mode that features the Baseball Mogul engine--which most any enthusiast for baseball statistics will tell you is one of the best in the business. We spent some time playing MLB Slugfest: Loaded, and thus far we're pretty pleased with its more-traditional arcade elements and the new simulation elements.

Upon picking up Slugfest: Loaded for the first time, you'll be given three options for how you want to play the game: Slugfest, MLB classic, and your own custom style. The Slugfest mode is pretty much the same game you've come to know and love over the years. You'll be able to punch and generally knock around players, catch fire when on a particularly hot streak, and perform some pretty wacky special and trick pitches, the likes of which defy, nay, insult the laws of physics. If you select the MLB classic mode, you will notice a fairly considerable difference in how the game plays. There's no more fighting, the speed of the game becomes more realistically paced, and all the nutty pitches go by the wayside.

While the MLB classic mode won't feature any sort of ultrasimulation-based batting mechanics, there will be a new pitch meter, which, when used correctly, will let you control the accuracy of your pitches considerably. The custom-style mode will let you simply decide how much arcade and how much simulation you want in your game, so if you want players to catch fire and want the pitch meter turned on at the same time, you'll have that option.

Slugfest: Loaded's franchise mode is almost frighteningly deep for an arcade baseball game.
Slugfest: Loaded's franchise mode is almost frighteningly deep for an arcade baseball game.

The biggest addition to MLB Slugfest: Loaded is the game's brand-new franchise mode. This isn't just some run-of-the-mill, halfhearted franchise mode either. Having licensed the Baseball Mogul engine, Midway is going all out to try to provide the most accurate statistics possible, as well as plenty of fun bells and whistles to keep the mode interesting for those who aren't obsessed with number crunching.

From the beginning of your franchise, you'll have four primary options at your fingertips. The schedule is your first selection, and it's pretty cut-and-dried. From here, you can look at every game on your schedule for the season, opt to simulate past games or play specific games, and get a quick look at your current season record, as well as your payroll versus your number of credits. Credits are the game's method of currency, and if your payroll too heavily outweighs your current bankroll, your franchise will be hosed. To earn more credits, you'll need to win games; in order to win more games, you'll have to make smart moves with your team's roster.

The next option at your disposal is the clubhouse, where you can tweak everything about your team's lineup. Batting order, pitching rotation, positions, and team strategies can all be tweaked here to your personal satisfaction. In the front-office section, you can call up batters and pitchers, sign free agents to contracts of varying lengths and monetary values, and make trades with other teams. From what we've played so far, both the free agent and trade portions of the mode look like they'll be nicely fleshed out.

The newest Slugfest's player models look closer to real life than in previous games.
The newest Slugfest's player models look closer to real life than in previous games.

When signing a free agent, you'll essentially be given a list of seven different contracts that the free agent can sign, ranging from one to seven years, and each will have a different yearly salary. When making a trade, you will be able to add credits to a deal to try to sweeten it. If a trade is unappealing to the other team, the game will specifically give you a reason, such as the offered players aren't good enough, the other team doesn't have enough credits to complete the deal, and so on.

The last franchise option is the news pages. Here, you can check the stats for all of your players to see who the leaders are on the team, look at the standings across the league, and check the headlines. The headlines give you a unique insight into what's going on around the league through a newspaper style of presentation. If Detroit puts down Minnesota by one run to take the first-place spot in their division, the headline will tell you just that. Headlines will even get fairly player-specific, letting you know about how a specific starting pitcher performed especially well to help bring his team to victory and recapping notable statistics. The headlines look to be quite accurate, and overall, this seems like a pretty cool addition to an otherwise impressive-looking franchise mode.

In terms of presentation, Slugfest: Loaded doesn't deviate too much from the visual and audio styles presented in the last couple of games, but it does appear to provide a pretty decent upgrade on the whole. The player models are still very much what you'd expect to see in a Midway sports game, with slightly exaggerated body features and more outlandish animations. However, each of the marquee players looks fairly close to his real-life counterpart--more so than in previous years.

Slugfest: Loaded will be the first game to take full advantage of the features in Xbox Live 3.0.
Slugfest: Loaded will be the first game to take full advantage of the features in Xbox Live 3.0.

The various stadiums and fields are looking quite good, and little visual effects--like the "on fire" effect and the little trail that follows the ball as it is sent flying around the field--all look great. Commentary will once again be provided by longtime Midway mainstay Tim Kitzrow and his wacky sidekick Jim Shorts. Though not all of the commentary appeared to be working correctly in the build of the game we played, we still caught more than a few hysterical lines of dialogue.

MLB Slugfest: Loaded appears to be an interesting animal. The mixture of the classic arcade gameplay with a realistic franchise mode is a little off-putting at first, but after spending some time with the game, we're pleased to say that we're quite happy with this seemingly unholy union of arcade and realism. All of this, coupled with full online support for both console versions (including the fact that it's the first game to feature the full benefit of Xbox Live 3.0 features), should make Slugfest a nice alternative, even for baseball fans who have already picked up one of the many MLB games currently available. MLB Slugfest: Loaded is set to ship in late June. Stay tuned for a full review of the game upon its release.

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