David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-02-29 18:05:33
The Bigs - Rank A
Developer: Blue Castle Games
Publisher: 2K Sports
Also available for PlayStation 2, PSP, PlayStation 3, and Wii
We've had an endless parade of simulations that have attempted to realistically capture the sport of baseball. The Bigs instead translates baseball into the lexicon of videogaming, to tremendous success. Don't get me wrong, I love the hardcore-ness of baseball sims, with their reams of stat tracking, player assessment, and roster juggling, but that sort of stuff is driven by obsession, not necessarily fun. And The Bigs is fun. It's the best baseball experience on the current generation of consoles to date.
The gameplay is simple, and a stripped down version of other, more serious, baseballs games you may have played. The Bigs is fast paced and eliminates most of the waiting around that detractors of the sport loathe. It's extremely accessible, and a great way to get sports haters to play a game of baseball with you.
The arcade twist is implemented with two meters: the turbo meter and the big play meter. You build up turbo by taking balls on offense and throwing strikes on defense. This fundamentally alters the game of baseball to speed it up and make it more immediately confrontational. Typically, batters are supposed to work the count, taking a strike or two in order to wear down the pitcher, but The Bigs' turbo system encourages batters to swing away. If you take strikes, you're juicing up your opponent's turbo. Conversely, pitchers are forced to throw strikes instead of dancing around batters. This results in much quicker and concentratedly intense at bats.
You can activate any of your hard earned turbo at any time. It makes your next swing more wicked, your next pitch filthier, your base runners speedier, or turns your fielders' arms into laser cannons. This gives The Bigs a level of tactical play I hadn't anticipated. Do you trigger it to generate offense? Even then, do you apply it to your batter or use it to steal a base? Or do you use it defensively to shut your opponent down? You also have to keep an eye on how much turbo your opponent has built up, and take that into account. The turbo system also has the cool side effect of granting a home field advantage. It's easier to build turbo on defense, so the home player can take the initiative.
The big play meter is awesome and reminiscent of the "game breaker" in the excellent NBA Street series. It slowly builds up with every "big play" you make. These include hits, stolen bases, strikes, and impressive defensive plays like robbing home runs by wall climbing. Once full, activating it on offense results in towering, scorching (literally) home runs. You replicate Robert Redford's lightshow in The Natural if your batter so much as makes contact with the ball. Using it defensively turns your pitcher into a virtually unhittable monster, and you steal your opponent's "big play" points for every strike you throw. This too presents tactical choices, in a similar fashion as the turbo, but on a massively more impactful scale. This drama provides those amazing moments that cause baseball fans to follow 162 game seasons, in the hopes of witnessing just a handful of them. Just about every competitive game of The Bigs has several critical showdowns, like Kirk Gibson vs. Dennis Eckersley in the '88 World Series.
The multiplayer is the real draw (great online, but even better face to face), but it's a good single player experience as well. There's no franchise mode, which wouldn't fit the arcade style of play anyway. Instead, you create a rookie, and take him on a ride to a World Series championship. Along the way, you participate in training mini-games, challenges (like starting a game down a couple runs in the bottom of the 7th inning), and skill boss battles like running an obstacle course against Ichiro or a home run derby showdown with Albert Pujols. You're awarded points for each success, with which you improve your rookie. On top of that, you can steal players from other teams, and assembling an All-Star fantasy lineup on your favorite team is a joyfully guilty indulgence. It's a beefy mode; it'll take a significant amount of gaming to beat it, and the Achievement Point challenges encourage you to do it at least twice (once in each league).
I also like the way players are rated. Instead of a 100 point scale to rank players in a bazillion different categories, they're given 1 through 5 stars in each of baseball's five fundamental "tools": hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, fielding ability, and arm strength. This really appeals to me, as The Bigs keeps it simple and pure. It's the same sort of thing I'm trying to do with these reviews, as opposed to the nonsense of grading games on a 100 point numerical scale. Pitchers also don't have a fatigue bar. Instead, they have a confidence meter for each pitch. Every time they give up a hit with that pitch, it drops (more severely for extra base hits than singles). If it depletes entirely, you lose that pitch. Your pitcher will simply shake off the selection and refuse to throw it. This is a brilliantly simple mechanic.
The visuals are solid as well. In a way, they encapsulate the whole "sim vs. arcade" disparity. The player models in The Bigs are beefy and exaggerated, as if everyone was juicing. The look is highly stylized, but the funny thing is that The Bigs visually captures the essence of baseball better than many of the hyper-realistic graphics of the simulations. They tend to struggle with the issue of the Uncanny Valley.
The Xbox 360 version of The Bigs is slightly better than the PlayStation 3 edition. It runs a bit smoother, and the controller vibration is an important tool to sense the edge of the strike zone when pitching. The PlayStation 3 controller lacks this feature. If you own both consoles, you should definitely grab the 360 version.
The mainstream videogame media criticizes The Bigs for being shallow: not offering franchise modes or deriding the simplistic control scheme. As far as I'm concerned, these are non-issues in an arcade game about baseball. If you only want "real" baseball, you wouldn't buy this anyway. The Bigs is a blast, and criminally underrated.