The BIGS Review (Xbox 360)
Five years have passed since Midway introduced modern arcade-style baseball to consoles with the release of the first incarnation of the MLB Slugfest series. They proceeded to advance the genre by releasing yearly installments of the series until recently. When details of The Bigs first emerged, many expected 2K Sports and Blue Castle Games to target the void left by MLB Slugfest with this release. Playing just a few innings of The Bigs, however, will quickly convince you that this game aims not to merely replace MLB Slugfest, but to carve its own niche in the world of sports gaming.
While some will choose to characterize The Bigs with adjectives like “arcade” and “over the top”, I’ll pick a noun like “highlights”. The Bigs captures the colossal home runs, Spider-Man like wall scaling catches, and incredible diving stabs, but it does so while retaining the integrity of the sport. Remember Sportscenter a decade or two ago – back when they showed several dramatic highlights of every game complete with a recap, rather than just scattered home runs and trivial entertainment that takes the viewer’s attention away from the field? This game follows that original formula by adding drama to the product on the field without ignoring the core elements that made it enjoyable to play and watch in the first place. The Bigs takes a proven product and makes a few tweaks that – rather than damaging its integrity – add more strategy to an already strategic game. I’m talking, of course, about the new turbo and power up systems.
The Bigs boasts a turbo system that affects every aspect of the game – hitting, pitching, base running, and fielding. Each team has a meter that consists of five turbo bars, which you fill by dominating the most important aspect of any good baseball game: the batter-pitcher duel. Pitchers amass turbo by throwing strikes or making hitters chase pitches, while batters build turbo by laying off balls out of the zone. The mechanics don’t necessarily benefit the more selective hitters, however, so you’ll find that most of your turbo will come from pitching rather than taking pitches at the plate. The system rewards continued success, as consecutive gains within an at-bat result in greater increases. Using a bar of turbo on the mound makes pitches more difficult to hit, leading to sizzling fastballs and devastating breaking balls. At the plate, turbo gives hitters some extra oomph behind their swings, as even the best infielders will have their hands full trying to grab these scorching ground balls and line drives. Base runners can use turbo for a helpful speed boost to help counter fielders who elect to use theirs to throw the ball harder. Defenders also have the option of using turbo to cover more ground, aiding greatly in the sprint to get to the wall in time to rob home runs. Scaling the wall and pulling back a four-bagger plays a large role in the game’s power up meter as well.
The power up meter functions separately from the turbo bar, as teams achieve big plays to accumulate points. You gather points through strikeouts, impressive defensive plays, and getting on base – points vary depending on the type of hit. Teams accruing enough points to fill their power up meter completely will gain a big play power up usable on the mound or at the plate for a full at-bat. Power Blast results in an automatic home run to one of several locations in the upper reaches of the ballpark, provided the hitter can make contact; Big Heat powers up a pitcher’s arsenal, making him nearly unhittable, and steals points from the other team. Pitchers and hitters using power ups in opposition trigger a Duel, guaranteeing an at-bat to end in either a home run or strikeout. This type of burning competition – particularly when you’re playing against a human opponent - serves as the backbone of the drama in The Bigs, but the excitement doesn’t end there.
The Bigs also features a pair of mini-games to make the action on the field more intense. Let’s say a runner rounding third tries to beat a throw to the plate, indicating a certain collision at home; the runner crashing into the catcher will either overwhelm him and score, or suffer as the catcher knocks him down for the out. The mini-game itself involves rapid button tapping, but the degree of difficulty for each side relies on the size of the players and the proximity of the incoming throw to the plate. In the other mini-game, an outfielder who hopes to pull back a home run ball must quickly retreat to the wall and jump, triggering the mini-game in which you have to press correctly a sequence of buttons to rob the homer. Successful button presses will allow the player to make the catch, but enter the wrong sequence and watch helplessly as your fielder pulls the ball back onto the outfield grass or worse, knocks it over the fence. Making the wall catch rewards you with an abundance of power up points in addition to the obvious benefit of not having surrendered a home run.
The game continues its focus on the pitcher-batter duel by employing an intuitive control scheme for this matchup. Each pitch in a hurler’s arsenal corresponds to a face button on the controller. Aim with the analog stick and hold the button of your choice to start the meter; failure to release the button when the meter’s progress reaches a point above a mark on the meter will reveal the location of the pitch to the hitter. Surrender too many hits and you’ll watch your pitch ratings plummet, eventually leading to the loss of pitches. In developing the hitting, 2K took a note from EA’s MVP Baseball series by employing a simple timing-based system. You have separate buttons available for contact swings and power swings, and also have the option of using the left analog stick to aim your hit. The aforementioned controls provide you with a straightforward way of hitting and pitching, but the ease of use unfortunately doesn’t carry over to the base running and fielding. You select a runner by pressing one of the face buttons and then control the runner by moving the analog stick in the direction of the next base. While this sounds fine in theory, in practice it leads to guys running into outs and causing traffic jams on the base paths, as all too frequently runners will screech to a stop yards short of the base or simply not respond to your command when rounding the bag. Fielding thankfully has a substantially more intuitive control scheme, but it has quirks of its own, with the switch player dynamic often failing to give you control of the best positioned defender. One tap of the switch player button cures this problem in the outfield, but balls in the infield – especially those deflected off a fielder’s glove or body – sometimes require several button presses before a defender near the ball takes control, allowing the batter to reach first base easily.
In keeping with the highlight reel idea, players and ballparks bulge with a distinctive larger-than-life feel. The players boast sharp recognizable faces and enormous muscled bodies, and the brilliantly reproduced stadiums host enhanced landmarks, such as an even more giant glove in
Damon Bruce handles play-by-play duties in The Bigs, and his penchant for drama meshes well with the game’s objectives. He delivers calls as if each play compares favorably to a World Series’ final out. He doesn’t scream and raise his voice, but he speaks with the same drama and finality that you would expect from such a monumental moment, without becoming intrusive. By no means does he measure up to the best announcers in the genre, but the commentary in the game holds its own despite occasional mistakes involving miscalls or repeated phrases. The sound effects fill their role by bringing additional excitement to the game, also without annoyance.
While The Bigs has a noticeable lack of game modes – including the absence of a real season mode – those modes that it does possess still offer plenty of fun. It holds a fairly standard home run derby in which you attempt to hit ten home runs before your opponent, but The Bigs truly shines in home run pinball. This addictive mode puts you in
If you prefer modes with more longevity, you have the option of creating a player of your own and taking on the rest of the league in the Rookie Challenge. After customizing your player and choosing a team, you begin your tour of duty in spring training and then travel across the country to major league cities, playing games and taking on challenges in each location. Like the other major leaguers in the game, your rookie has ratings in five categories – contact, power, speed, fielding, and arm – out of a potential five stars. Winning games – and your player’s performance in wins – allow you to unlock new cities, challenges, and training games to boost your player’s ratings. Challenges can consist of simple scenarios, such as coming back from a narrow deficit in the ninth inning, to more complicated trials like hitting a certain number of home runs. You can also enhance your own team’s talent by stealing players from teams who you defeat, but you can only add up to ten new players so you must choose wisely. You play out an entire season, including the World Series, but the Rookie Challenge lacks the depth that you hope for from a season mode. The different challenges begin to run together after awhile and without any options to explore the league and manage your team other than tweaking lineups and stealing players, the mode starts to lose its luster. The Bigs does an outstanding job bringing drama and emotion to the field, but those qualities fail to carry over to the Rookie Challenge, leaving you unable to immerse yourself fully in the mode and character. Users who play out a full season of the Rookie Challenge will do so because of the redeeming quality of the gameplay and not because of any particular innovations or emotional attachments to the mode itself.
The Bigs derives its replay value by delivering an enjoyable game of baseball that puts you right down on the field in the middle of all the drama. The turbo and power up systems contribute in shining the bright lights of the cameras on the biggest moments, but they also deserve credit because they do so without compromising the game’s balance. You can still hit turbo pitches, strike out turbo hitters and induce outs, and throw out turbo runners, even without turbo of your own. The turbo and power up systems provide teams with an earned edge without totally jeopardizing the other team’s ability to compete. They also help to bring about an incredible variety in terms of games and results; just like watching a night of baseball highlights, you’ll see games ranging the full spectrum of possible outcomes, from 15-11 slugfests to 2-1 pitchers’ duels to occasional blowouts. Multiplayer and Xbox Live extend The Bigs’ life and the game’s atmosphere creates the perfect setting for such competition.
While The Bigs probably won’t hold your attention alone for a lengthy time period, it absolutely deserves at least a rental and if you purchase it, it will have you coming back to it to pick up and play months down the line. Few sports games – let alone baseball games - compare to The Bigs when it comes to delivering a fun exciting experience.
Score: 8 of 10
OPERATION SPORTS INSTANT REPLAY
We are proud to present a new feature to Operation Sports called the INSTANT REPLAY. From time to time, an Operation Sports review will be followed immediately by a second review from a completely different writer and perspective.
For this addition, longtime friend to OS, Dale Erickson, jumps in with his take on The Bigs.
It has been interesting to watch the history of sports gaming. Company after company continually tries to make a sports game that can appeal to the masses. Each company, for one reason or another continually falls short of this goal. Oh sure you have the success of Electronic Arts and their EA Sports brand, but even they have had their struggles with appealing to the masses. There is always a segment of the industry that criticizes each and every sports game that is released.
The thing that always is openly criticized however is when one of these companies takes this appealing segment and then tries to tweak it to change the thought processes of the masses. Midway Games has been doing this for years with their off the wall arcade style twists of the mainstream sports, both on consoles and in the arcades. Now we have a new attempt at trying to take one of the sports that really is not received well being modified to a more general crowd instead of specific gamers. The twist takes on the sport of baseball. Before the era of trying to tackle the simulation side of baseball, the early days of the Triple Play series from EA Sports successfully brought a tweaked version of baseball to the masses. However once the turn was made to go towards realism and stat tracking there have not been too many arcade style baseball games that have been overly successful, both with critics and with the gaming public itself.
I stepped away from writing reviews a while back and, while I was never the greatest at doing so, when I wrote a review it was because I was an avid gamer who enjoyed playing video games and liked to tell others what I saw from what I hoped was a different perspective than the mainstream gaming sites. Operation Sports gave me that outlet to voice an opinion, speak a little of my mind, and even rant and rave in the various reviews I wrote. I’ve tried the blogging thing, but I am so inconsistent in availability that it became hard to keep up with anything. However, I came across a video game that I have put a lot of time into, and have really enjoyed. So, I decided to break out my opinion and see if Operation Sports wanted to allow me, out of the blue, to share this review with their readers. If you are reading this now, then I was at least successful on one part. Hopefully the rest of what I write is also as successful in entertaining or even educating you, the reader. Thank you Operation Sports for the out of the blue opportunity, and thank you the reader for at least making it this far!
Recently 2K Sports released their version of arcade baseball called simply The Bigs. I am a traditionalist and I absolutely love a solid baseball game, which has been hard to come by over the past few years. From what I have followed and read on various message boards, I am also in a smaller segment that really enjoys 2K Sports MLB 2k7. I still have that in my regular rotation and have played more games of that this season than I have the last 3 years for all the other games released combined. Before I get off track let’s get back to The Bigs, developed by Blue Castle Games and Visual Concepts. The Bigs takes a perennial favorite and offers up a twist in the gameplay and some of the expected mechanics in an attempt to get away from the norm and get into an entirely different realm of sports gaming. Interestingly enough, this is one of the most successful implementations of arcade style gaming to have come forward in quite some time.
Out of the box the intro movie comes right out and highlights the twists it will give you for the baseball gamer. You get to see a powerful hit with a ball trail highlight blasting to the outfield stands and eventually it crashes into the scoreboard which creates pieces of the scoreboards to explode into a mini fireworks show. That movie introduces you quickly and directly to the point of what to expect going forward. There are a lot of visual effects and un-human like gameplay.
After the intro has finished you are introduced to the options available. Play Now and Exhibition are your standard fair. Choose any team and play against the AI or another user. There also is an option to take your game to Xbox Live and play one of your friends or any random gamer. There is not a whole lot at stake playing on Xbox Live other then overall record. This is one of the few Xbox Live Sports games that does not have a single achievement that can only be awarded while playing on Xbox Live. Setting up a game against a friend is extremely simple, in the list while setting up the game there is an option called friends, just click and choose someone on your friends list. The only downside to this is, it shows who is online and who is not, but it does not show you what game they are in. You will have to do the additional step of using your XBL Guide button to see if any of your friends are already playing The Bigs or if you will have to break them away from
their current game.
Other options on the main menu include Home Run Derby and Home Run Pinball. Home Run Derby allows you to choose a player and the opposing player and compete to see who can hit 10 home runs first. The game is played on a split screen, regardless of whether or not you’re playing the AI or another user. This option is also only available offline, as you cannot play anyone over Xbox Live, nor is there any tracking of stats that can be shared or compared to others using Xbox Live.
Home Run Pinball, on the other hand, has much more involvement than Home Run Derby, albeit only for one player at a time. After choosing your player you then go to a setting that is setup to look like New York’s Times Square. You have a plethora of neon signs, some flashing and some static. There also is the moving news ticker displayed, crowd control barriers, and even some New York City taxi cabs placed in a nice line. The premise is easy; hit as many targets as possible while also building up your score as high as possible. The twist is each time you miss a pitch you lose a ball. Things start up easy with only the pitcher throwing a fastball, you can aim and have a much easier time attempting to select and hit certain targets. These targets range in value from 5,000 points for the easy to hit, up to 20,000 points for the more difficult ones, as well as a special target that you will have to find that is worth a lot more points. Certain targets also give you the ability to unlock special scoring modes. These targets take multiple hits and the trajectory changes each type you head towards the particular target. Once it is completed the special scoring mode target appears and then once that is hit you briefly are in a bonus scoring mode. As you progress and more pitches are thrown, you will eventually see different types of pitches, as well as see the targets you hit also become less available. What I mean by that is as you hit the targets they do not become readily available to be hit again for quite some time, this includes your special mode targets, so while you keep hitting the ball you may not actually be obtaining points. Ricochets also get you small points each time you ricochet to another target, but typically you only get full points for a target when you directly hit it. You gain extra balls by constantly making contact and hitting targets, but you lose the available balls each time you miss a pitch. Once your ball count runs out your game is over, and your highest score is posted to Xbox Live if connected and you can then see where you rank. A lot of explanation for a sub-mode but I actually found this to be a pretty entertaining mode of play, so I wanted to ensure I highlighted this.
The last mode that also has the most involvement as well as long term gameplay is Rookie Challenge. You start by creating your player; you do not have a whole lot of options outside of the expected choices: name, position, left or right handed, and a few minor facial tweaks to start giving your player some attitude. The skill level for your player is determined by the number of stars he has in his contact and power hitting, speed, arm strength and fielding capabilities. There is a maximum five stars that can be obtained in each of the categories. You are given an amount of points that can be used to increase the star for the particular category. Of course the cost for the next star is much larger in point value, so you will only be able to get so many stars in your first attempt of increases.
Once you have assigned your available stars to each of the categories you are off to your first challenge. There is no conventional schedule in The Bigs. The entire game is linear in style with a few branches, meaning you have a fairly assigned path that you must follow to proceed through the Rookie Challenge mode. While at first thought this may sound very poor in implementation, I felt it was a perfect direction giving what it looked like was being attempted, which was fast and exciting gaming without all the intricacies of a typical team sports video game. Starting out you must get through Spring Training in either the Cactus or Grapefruit Leagues, which is the way Major League Baseball divides up their teams for their spring training season. If you don’t know which teams are in each of the Spring Training Leagues, you will be left to guess, as there is no indication where each team plays until after you have created and assigned your rookie player. Spring training consists of a quick game which shows you how to play the game, and then you have a couple of ability boost challenges, and then finally a true spring training game.
Once you have finished Spring Training you are off to your first official opponent. The progresses where you must defeat your opponent with the challenges listed usually in three to four different segments, with all of them being played in your opponents home stadium. One segment may consist of just beating your opponent in a five inning match-up. The next segment may be a stat challenge where you not only must beat the opponent, but also accomplish a stat goal. This could be having your team strike out 10 opposing batters, or your rookie player hitting a home run during the game. The last of the typical segments is steal a player mode. Beat the team, and you get to take a player off of their team and place it on your roster. In doing so you will have to de-activate one of your current players, but after you get this new player, you more than likely will not be using the low man on the roster anyways. There also is a couple of surprise segments that appear later in the rookie challenge mode. Once you have completed the segments sometimes just a couple, sometimes all that are listed, you will then be given more teams with their own segments to play against. You will also see different segments appear on your own home teams location, which these also will include games, but they will also give you training segments to allow your rookie player to boost their abilities, and become that key player for your team.
I was about forty percent of the way through my first rookie challenge mode of play when I reached the Yankees as an opponent and they were very tough initially. That is when I found out you can restart your game at any time to retry the mode. Sometimes this is very handy, but in the 9 inning games, you can sacrifice a lot of time trying to win a game, but lose the mode and replay the game because you did not meet the secondary challenge for that game. That is the linear part of the game, as you must complete so many of the segments before new ones are unlocks. There are also segments related to your own home team that helps increase the attributes of your personal player. The linearity of the gameplay of Rookie Challenge may not be every gamers favorite mode, but I thought it was well done and yet difficult enough to challenge the gamer to stick with it until you finish. For the achievement addict you will need to finish the Rookie Challenge twice, once for each league to have a shot at unlocking all the badges.
The gameplay of The Bigs is very basic. When hitting you do not have to line up the cursor on the ball to make contact, you just need to aim and swing to hit the ball. You can of course use the left stick to hit high flies, bouncing grounders, and attempt to hit down both lines, just my holding the direction you want to go, and with the proper contact most the time it will go where you wanted it to. Pitching is also simplistic, but with an added twist. You pick your pitch from one of the four available and then hold the corresponding button, once you have done that your meter rises. If you fill the meter completely up then you are shown you had a perfect pitch, with an excellent trajectory and also right where you were aiming. You can miss getting perfect and as long as you are above the line on your meter it will still go where you expected, but a little easier to see and hit for your opponent. Below the line and a green circle or a red circle with an x appears that lets the batter see exactly where the pitch is going, which makes a base hit much easier to obtain.
There are two bars at the top of each side of the screen for each team. One has points counting up in it. The points are rewarded for the defense by getting strike outs, great catches, and also for double plays. The batter is rewarded with these points by getting hits and stealing bases. The bigger the hit the more points the team obtains. Once the points get to a certain level, designated by a bar that rises within the score, the team then will get a temporary boost to the player of their choosing by pressing both triggers, hinted by the icons on the screen. With a pitcher you can boost them up for the next batter and they will throw major heat the entire at bat, critical if you are about to lose the game. The batter can use this boost and they will have extra hitting abilities that when they make contact they will hit an automatic home run. The other bar below your current score fills up by throwing strikes with your pitcher and for the batter by letting bad pitches go by for a ball. Once this bar turns green you can then use the power modifier for a temporary boost of your players attributes. At bat the player will be more likely to get a hit. The pitcher will throw a much faster pitch that is harder to hit. A runner or fielder can increase their respective speed to get to the next base or chase down that line drive headed for the gap in the outfield. The fielder also can use the boost to increase their throwing ability and attempt to stop that runner from advancing on the base paths. The gameplay as I said earlier is definitely off the wall; you will see some basics of baseball being played, but with a lot of fancy tweaks, throws, and wild instances happening during the game. The fact that the games you play are not always nine inning games, keeps things interesting, especially since some of the challenges are not easy to get in the shorter inning games. I found at about forty percent completion of the mode for the difficulty to turn up a notch by having to play a couple of the challenges a couple of times before I could get past it and on to the next set.
The most challenging aspect of playing The Bigs is base running. Running the bases is probably the most cumbersome effort I have seen in a baseball games since the debacle when the only option of a past baseball game to field was auto fielding. Once you hit the ball you must remember to hold the thumbstick in the direction of first base. If you do not the batter just casually strolls to the base. This is fine if you have no intention of going to second, or you just do not want to get a hit, but trying to remember to hold the stick took some time to get the hang of. That is not the only issue, to get the same runner to go to second base you must push the direction of that base, but not at any time, but when the runner should be about ready to make the turn. Do this late and the runner pulls up, do it early and the runner still pulls up at the base he is going to. It definitely takes some timing, and the running to each of the other bases is done the same way. It is a lot more difficult to accomplish when other runners are on base as well, because you only control one of the runners, and the AI that controls the others is extremely aggressive when trailing your controlled runner, but very passive, when ahead of the controlled runner. The system can be useable after some time playing, and luckily the early part of the game is the easiest, so hopefully it does not cost too much replay time when that base running mistake happens, but it will more definitely be very frustrating initially.
The visuals of The Bigs are very impressive. The detail of the player’s faces is very accurately done. You will recognize certain players very easily. Their bodies are more fantasy like, but there is a difference in size of the player when you look at David Ortiz who shows the large size versus Ichiro who is a thin player. Also with the visuals are the mechanics of the game itself. The ball bounces where it should bounce, with some added twists for boost induced hits and pitches, and the close ups of the home run shots are some of the best I have seen in a long time. I was intrigued while playing the other night after an updated roster was downloaded and noticed different advertisements up in the stadiums. I can not completely say this was the case, as it was one of the stadiums I hadnt been in, but I know my home stadium I hadn’t seen the ads before, but then all of a sudden I saw them there too. Sure you are saying great they are giving me different advertisements and trying to continually market to me, but I think the real ads give a realistic atmosphere. I also like the fake advertisements, which are some of the best since the Ski Nebraska advertisements that were in the Triple Play series ages ago.
The sounds are probably the weakest area of The Bigs. There are various music tracks that you can have playing, with some famous artists, White Zombie just being one in particular. However the sounds of the game are nothing spectacular, typical whoosh of a fastball, the ball popping the catcher’s mitt, and the crack of the bat. Baseball has never been a major audio sport, sure there is the walk up music, that is rehashes of the soundtrack, and some heckling going on, but they are very low key in execution for a game that is large on wild and in your face style baseball.
Another glaring omission from The Bigs is no statistics are kept for anything. This really is not set up for statistics in the normal sense, but I guess I would have liked to see how my rookie is progressing stat wise throughout his challenges. You get to see stats at the end of the game, but those go by the wayside once the game is over. Trust me once your player gets good it gets kind of interesting to see what kind of difference your rookie makes, it just would be very nice to have had a way to track it.
Overall, The Bigs is a well executed attempt at your unconventional take on the baseball video game market. I noticed that this was Blue Castle Games first effort and they did a mighty fine job with the support of the crew at Visual Concepts who have been involved with 2K Sports for quite some time. The visuals and presentation are top notch and the game is fun to play. The sound was a little lacking in really getting the user immersed into the game, but that and the lack of any track-able stats were very small disappointments in a very fine video game. The game is fun to play solo, as well as against another. Home Run Pinball brought back some flashbacks of out of the norm game modes, and the visuals have been presented in a quality manner. If you are looking for something that is not your typical game, you cannot go wrong here, as well as if you are looking for a break from the realism side of your favorite real-life replica of baseball, this will be a very solid choice.
Thanks again for first getting this far, and also to Operation Sports for letting me share my thoughts with you.