If you're looking for a superfun, easy-to-understand baseball game this year, SlugFest: Loaded is definitely your best bet.
Once Midway started getting into the arcade sports business with NBA Jam, it took the company forever to finally figure out a way to make an over-the-top baseball game that was fast and fun while still sticking closely to the basics of the sports. In 2002, the pieces of the puzzle finally came together, and MLB SlugFest 2003 was released. Now that Midway has figured out the formula, the SlugFest series has turned into an annual franchise. 2004 marks the third year for the series, and MLB SlugFest: Loaded also marks the most change the series has seen to date. With additions like a frighteningly deep franchise mode and online play, SlugFest's already option-laden package gets even deeper this year, though some of these additions are better suited for the game than others.
If you're unfamiliar with the MLB SlugFest series, it's always done a great job of providing a fun, accessible baseball experience. As baseball simulations become more and more complex in their quests to be as accurate as possible, SlugFest goes the other way and has some fun with the sport. The controls are simple and easy to pick up, and, generally speaking, the game has the pacing and depth of some of the greatest baseball games of the 16-bit era. It also has a lot of wild rules and options that don't fit into the actual sport. For starters, you can execute "hard tags" when you're in the field. A hard tag is essentially a punch to the stomach of a base runner. Base runners can counter this sort of play with stiff arms and slides. These sorts of additions add a level of strategy to baserunning. You also have a turbo meter that can be used to pump up just about anything in the game, from your fielders' running speeds, to the breaks on your curveballs, to the power of your batters. You earn turbo by performing well, though your turbo is replenished after every half-inning of play. This keeps things fast and interesting. Enhancements this year include such things as new special pitches. Now you get one special pitch per inning, plus one more pitcher-specific special hurl that only appears when your special meter is full.
Like last year's game, you can turn off all of the madness to try to go for a slightly more simulation-oriented game. You can turn off turbo, the ability to catch "on fire," special or trick pitches, and more. You can also make changes to the batting and pitching systems. Regularly, pitching is a push-button affair, but when you switch over to MLB mode, it becomes a simple timing-based system. While it's very cool that you can customize the game as you see fit, SlugFest's simulation mode isn't really as deep as an honest-to-goodness baseball simulation. So the out-of-control arcade style is really SlugFest's strength.
The main mode of play is a quickplay option that lets you get right down to business. You can also enter a home run derby. Furthermore, you can play online, which works quite well and definitely adds a lot of replay value to the game. Loaded doesn't have a straight-up season mode, which is a little disappointing, but it does have a deep franchise mode. The franchise mode gives you a much deeper level of control over your team than you'd expect from an arcade-style sports game. All of the basic franchise options are present. You can manage your payroll, play around with lineups and positions, edit your starting rotation, and execute trades, free agent signing, and other clubhouse duties. You can opt to play your team's games yourself, using whatever rules you see fit, or you can simply simulate games. You can also mix the two, jumping in whenever you feel like actually controlling your team's destiny firsthand. The game has all the bases covered, so to speak, as far as a franchise mode goes, but it also feels pretty out of place in a game like MLB SlugFest.
Getting back to the crazier side of things, SlugFest has a pretty decent selection of unlockable stadiums and teams. Each object is unlocked differently. So to unlock Midway Stadium, you'll have to hit a homer in Wrigley. Hitting a homer in Midway Stadium unlocks a team full of Sub-Zero models from Mortal Kombat, and so on. The only hitch is that the unlockable teams aren't as fleshed-out as they could have been. Though the models look differently, the team you're playing is actually one of the major-league ballclubs. As a result, the announcers still refer to your team full of Scorpions as players from other pro rosters.
The announce team of Tim Kitzrow and Jimmy Shorts return for SlugFest: Loaded, and they're up to the same sort of shenanigans. The commentary, which includes a pretty good pregame joke or two, is still pretty funny. But when it comes to actually calling the game, the commentary is a bit more general than you'd like. Additionally, you'll start to hear a few repeated bits after only a few games. What's there works well, but overall, the commentary would have been better if there was more to it. The rest of the game's sound is pretty good. The sounds of baseball are accurately represented, and there are even a few nice little changes for the hidden teams. Since the Scorpion team uses swords for bats, you'll hear a clank every time a batter makes contact with the ball. The game has a selection of licensed music for the menu screens too, though it's pretty average and doesn't really help or hurt the game.
Graphically, MLB SlugFest: Loaded looks a bit more polished than its predecessor. There are some new animations here and there, and the game looks pretty solid. Some of the player models look a little weird at times, though, and the crowds in each stadium are pretty awful-looking 2D cutouts. Additionally, the game's player animation is pretty good. The game is available on both the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox. The Xbox version is a bit cleaner, but both versions of the game share the same strengths and weaknesses. The game's control is roughly identical on both platforms, so the only real difference is the slight graphical improvement on the Xbox.
Overall, the biggest new addition to SlugFest is online play. Being able to take the game online ensures that you'll have plenty of players to compete against. The franchise mode is a nice addition, though some players will definitely get a lot more use out of it than others, so it seems a little superfluous in a game that, really, is about throwing wild-looking pitches and using the turbo button to knock the ball from a fielder's hand. It cleans up well if you want to turn off the crazy aspects in favor of a more sim-oriented game, but it doesn't really surpass the gameplay found in most of this year's actual baseball sims. However, if you're looking for a superfun, easy-to-understand baseball game this year, SlugFest: Loaded is definitely your best bet.