Two out, bottom of the ninth...Down by one with the tying run on second base and you're up to bat with a full count. The pitcher kicks and fires, and you swing with everything you've got. Time stands still as you smash the ball over the wall...
How many times have you thought about this scenario when you've been playing a baseball game? You know, those incredible moments that make you stand up and cheer along with the rest of the fans in the stands as you turn into a game or series winning hero? These clips you watch over and over again on Sportscenter or Baseball Tonight because it impresses you when an outfielder scales a wall to rob a homer. Well fans, your highlight package has finally arrived thanks to 2K Sports' arcade baseball take on America's national pastime. While it's nowhere near as deep as other baseball titles, what The Bigs does, (meaning dramatic game moments) it does quite well.
Part of the thing that makes The Bigs so thrilling is that the presentation of the game is an homage to the exciting elements of the sport of baseball, like a heightened focus upon the batter/pitcher duel for every at bat. While this is a fundamental aspect of the sport, this showdown plays into the game's turbo and big play meters by revolving around balls and strikes. If a player is on the mound, they increase their turbo meter by throwing strikes or getting a batter to swing for a deceptive pitch. On the other hand, batters can boost their turbo meters by taking balls whenever they're at the plate. You're not forced to use any collected turbo in that particular inning, so players can attempt to max out the five slots on the turbo meter and decide to trigger it when they really need it.
Turbo acts as an all-purpose enhancement on both sides of the ball. As long as one of the slots on the turbo meter is filled, a player can activate it to power up their actions on the field. This means anything from a little extra power behind a swing to influencing the break on a pitch to accelerate a fielder's or baserunner's speed. Now, just because you manage to boost the power behind a hit or thrown ball doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to get the result you want. The stats of some players may wind up canceling out the effects of a turbo-powered ball. For example, a hard hit ball can still be snatched out of the air by a baseman with a five star glove ranking (the best rating for fielding in the game). Similarly, a baserunner with a five star speed rating can sometimes outrun a turbocharged throw if they have an early jump on the bag. Having these stat based aspects of the game helps to balance out what could otherwise be an overpowering arcade feature.
Regardless of the play that you manage to make, whether that means getting on base or making an incredible defensive stop or double play, you'll add points to your Big Play meter. Unlike the turbo meter, you can only trigger this meter when it's completely filled and glowing, which will trigger one of two game options: a Big Blast (when you're batting) or Big Heat (when you're on the mound). A Big Blast is a batter's best dream come true -- if any part of the bat manages to make contact with the ball, it goes screaming out of the park, often smashing into billboards or clanging off foul poles. Big Heat, on the other hand, is a batter's worst nightmare, because the hurler on the mound gets every single pitch that he has boosted. Good luck successfully connecting with any of these shots.
Plays like this amp up the excitement and tension of the games. These are further strengthened by the two contextual mini-games, which takes your and a player's stats into account to help determine whether your big play will succeed or fail. The first one is related to a player climbing the wall to rob a batter of a home run. Assuming that your timing is right and you scale the wall, you'll have to input a sequence of buttons correctly to snatch the ball out of the air. Fail and you could knock the ball back into the outfield or accidentally cause the homer yourself. The other mini-game is related to plate collisions - depending on where the ball happens to be and how large the player is that barreling down on home plate, a runner can overpower a catcher and safely score or get completely rejected with a hard shoulder check. Watch any one of these mini-games to completion, and you'll easily get a quick adrenaline rush.
This excitement can be tempered somewhat by a couple of issues that you'll run into. While they don't ruin the game, they can be somewhat frustrating when you stumble across them. Three problems immediately come to mind - every now and then, you'll find that the ball will warp to a player's glove a bit unnaturally, as if a string was tied to the ball and quickly retracted to that player's hands. It's a minor occurrence, but it does look pretty strange. The more serious issue is how the computer will often stage ridiculous comebacks if it's behind in a game. Batters will suddenly start getting singles and doubles, and even the weakest fielders will suddenly get a hot glove and snag every ball without bobbling anything. This usually crops up more on the higher difficulty levels, and it can be infuriating to gain a two or three run lead, only to watch it evaporate in one inning.
While some fielders will try to get a jump on the ball, anticipating where the ball might go (although they're not always correct with their decisions), other fielders may find themselves standing still for a second or two instead of shifting over to back up another player. If the player you're controlling isn't in position to make a play that bounces off the wall often the other fielders won't be in position either, usually resulting in extra bases. The other issue on defense is the fact that the all purpose button for dives and jumps is the same one you'll use to throw the ball home. Whenever you make a diving or leaping catch, you run the risk of throwing it to the catcher instead of possibly throwing it to another base you need. This is fine if no one is on base, but if you're trying to turn a double play, this can be extremely difficult.
While the default game that you'll experience in a Play Now session is a shortened five inning meeting to highlight the fast paced nature of The Bigs, you can easily extend this via the Exhibition mode to a regulation nine inning game. Fans of the Home Run Derby that is often broken out during All-Star Weekend can square off against an opponent to see who manages to get to ten homers first. It's a fun, albeit quick diversion that can help you get your timing on various pitches, and with bonus pitches every four balls, you can easily get back into a game if you happen to be playing badly. However, the Derby is definitely overshadowed by the inclusion of Home Run Pinball, which is much more engaging.
Home Run Pinball places a pitcher and batter in the middle of Times Square with a crowd of onlookers. The goal of the mode is to score as many points as you can by hitting balls into taxicabs, neon billboards and streetlights, amongst other objects. Based on what you hit, you can release random multipliers. For instance, knock out all of the letters on a parking garage sign, and you might unlock a multiplier on any score for ten seconds. You'll also wind up building up a power gauge, which you can use to smash balls even farther than humanly possible, including breaking the world famous New Year's Eve ball into a shower of sparks. The game will provide you with a level of challenge, as the more points you score, the more pitches you unlock until the computer is throwing almost every ball in its repertoire. You also face trouble if you accidentally knock a ball back into the pitcher, as he'll get pissed and fire off a payback pitch designed to make you swing and miss.
Unfortunately, you won't find a franchise or season mode within The Bigs, which is disappointing for hardcore baseball fans. In their place is the Rookie Challenge, which is The Bigs' version of create-a-player. In this 20 hour or so mode, players will move from the Cactus or Grapefruit leagues of Spring Training to a spot on the roster during the season, with the eventual goal of becoming the MVP of the World Series. Sounds like a lofty goal, but the game manages to string out the gameplay over the course of a season with a variety of situations and challenges that you have to complete to move forward. Some of these are relatively straightforward, like beating a team in a standard five inning game, while others are a bit trickier, such as getting a couple of stolen bases or a set number of RBIs or home runs in a game. Fortunately, if you find that you're having trouble with one team or challenge, you can choose to play a different one in a different city instead of being locked into a series with a rival club.
You'll even have the opportunity to steal ten players away from other teams in certain games, which adds a slight amount of roster management to the game mode. Don't like how your shortstop is playing? Replace him with a better player from a team that you've just beaten. Based on your player's individual performance, each game will provide you with attribute points, which you can spend to boost your player's stats. As the game progresses, you'll also unlock training mini-games to test and improve your batting, fielding and speed ratings, as well as receive little adjustments that you can make to your player's appearance. That includes items like tattoos, nicknames and special bats that you can walk up to the plate with.
While it's enjoyable, there are a few odd changes that crop up with the Rookie Challenge mode. For one thing, you never have a sense of how your club is doing on the year or what their season is like in relation to every other club. Since losing only makes you replay a challenge over and over again (albeit with a slight attribute point penalty), you get a sense that your club has a miraculous season where they win every game they play. It's a minor issue, but it's odd to not have any idea where you are in your team's division. Similarly, it's somewhat strange that once you start getting into the playoffs, the rookie challenge games immediately move from the five-inning format to the regulation nine innings. If the game is going to try to push an enhanced, somewhat unrealistic style of baseball, it shouldn't switch back to something that's familiar to fans, because it feels a bit disjointed.
While the PS3 version obviously lacks vibration to tell players when they're about to pitch a ball outside of the strike zone, it does come through with some interesting applications for the Sixaxis controller. Players can turn the controller to the left or the right to influence the stance of a batter and watch as the player physically adjusts his direction to push or pull the ball. It's a subtle adjustment, but it works. Fielders can also use the Sixaxis to dive for balls by snapping the controller to the left or right, which works, but can backfire on you or your friends if you get too excited about making a play and you accidentally move the controller too quickly. Finally, players can also quickly shake the controller to influence the plate collision mini-game in favor of the catcher or the runner. It's a good idea and a hell of a workout, but unless you've got an overwhelming advantage, you're better off pounding the X button when it pops up onscreen.
Online play is easy to get into, with either ranked or unranked games and customized matches with three, five, seven or nine inning games available to be played. You can easily set whether or not your teams are randomized, and decide whether or not you'll have co-op or versus games between four players. There's also an option to download updated rosters for every team, which should keep your copy of The Bigs current with the real life lineups. Play online is quick and responsive without any lag in the games that we played, although we noticed that the commentary track would sometimes fade out every now and then.
As far as the game goes, The Bigs is a mix of incredible visuals mixed with slight issues. The ballparks look great, and the decision to scale up recognizable landmarks to give you a better sense of the park and city skylines works well. It's also impressive that elements such as damage to the billboards remains throughout a game, while celebratory fireworks and water spouts where applicable, like Angels Stadium or Kauffman Stadium, are triggered with home runs. The addition of the visual adjustments when you trigger turbo or Big Blasts also adds to the dramatic effect of the gameplay, and the slowed down moments during mini-games or double play attempts add to the drama of the on-field action. The players themselves are perhaps the true stars, and The Bigs doesn't disappoint. The facial quality of every player is incredible, and it really feels like you're playing as that athlete when they step up to bat. Unfortunately, to help keep the focus so sharp on the batters, some of the other textures wind up suffering. Some of the backgrounds start to get a bit chunky and generic, and the rendering passes for the stands that plagued MLB 2K7 return in The Bigs as well. At least the game doesn't suffer from slowdown...
There is a definite departure in the commentary department for 2K Sports fans, as Jon Miller and Joe Morgan aren't behind the mike. Instead, Damon Bruce takes over in the booth, and he does a decent job. Every now and then, he'll constantly repeat the same line, or call a hit ball a laser when it's actually blooped to the outfield, but that's not really enough to detract from the game. The sound effects work well, from the crack and echo of a hard hit to the whoosh of a turbo-powered ball. Plus, you can't go wrong with the soundtrack, which features a ton of recognizable songs from great groups. Personally, you can't go wrong with Ace of Spades from Motorhead, but having Stone Temple Pilots and Primus amongst some of the artists is a great touch as well.
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