The Bigs 2 (Xbox 360) review
"TB2 is all spectacle, but it’s well done. Gargantuan sluggers take powerful rips at incoming pitches, practically jumping out of their cleats; pitchers throw fastballs almost exclusively in the triple digits and curveballs with such acute breaks that head-high tosses end up low and outside. Line drives scream from the batter’s box to the wall; retrieving fielders send missiles back to the infield. An alarming percentage of balls hit are homeruns (and more are doubles). Many that otherwise would be big hits are snared by outfielders exhibiting the “legendary catch,” enabling them to leap 20 feet into the air or dive 30 yards to snag line drives headed for the gap."
The Bigs 2 is a series of vignettes which attempt to raise the pitcher-batter dynamic to the level of a mythic clash between Greek gods. Even the smallest players are hulking athletes, and the stadiums which play host, although not true-to-life accurate to the last detail, are the stuff of a dream--expansive, colorful, under stark, dramatic lighting. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a brain in its pretty little head, and as with its predecessors--MLB Slugfest, NFL Blitz and NBA Jam--TB2 cannot harness, with all its highlight-reel gameplay, that most magical quality: longevity. That being said, it also possesses the same positive qualities as those other arcade sports titles: it’s fast, straightforward, often gorgeous to look at, and stays fresh for its limited shelf-life. From another company, this would be a more measured success; for 2K sports, coming off the repugnant simulation entry MLB 2K9 three months ago, this is a comparative triumph.
Like Slugfest and its basketball uncle NBA Jam, this is a caricature of the sport. Although well-intentioned, the bigger-stronger-faster, superhero-like abilities of the major leaguers here is likely to call to mind, for the more cynical fan, the steroids scandal that has swallowed the sport up for the last decade. TB2 is all spectacle, but it’s well done. Gargantuan sluggers take powerful rips at incoming pitches, practically jumping out of their cleats; pitchers throw fastballs almost exclusively in the triple digits and curveballs with such acute breaks that head-high tosses end up low and outside. Line drives scream from the batter’s box to the wall; retrieving fielders send missiles back to the infield. An alarming percentage of balls hit are homeruns (and more are doubles). Many that otherwise would be big hits are snared by outfielders exhibiting the “legendary catch,” enabling them to leap 20 feet into the air or dive 30 yards to snag line drives headed for the gap. Your first few games, packed with these types of offensive and defensive highlights, will be impressive to see and exciting to experience.
Unfortunately, the abundance of mammoth homeruns and defensive wizardry, enthralling in the short-term, serves to dull your amazement in the long-term: we appreciate incredible plays in sports at least partially because they are incredible and not easily repeated. I was growing tired of the frequency with which fielders made their “legendary catches,” sometimes multiple times in a single inning, subjecting me to a glossy freeze-frame of Vernon Wells or Grady Sizemore leaping 15 feet above the wall to catch the ball between his legs each and every time. These legendary catches in particular are entirely too frequent, but they also serve as the only antidote to the offensive surge; if it weren’t for all the dazzling grabs in the field I would be complaining about the endless string of homeruns.
Perhaps if the vehicle delivering the sensory-smashing presentation had been more sophisticated, one would have the inclination to stick around longer. What’s here is the advanced version of the simple turbo-boosting from NBA Jam or NFL Blitz. Throw strikes and ring batters up while pitching, or, much less occasionally, be disciplined and don’t swing at outside pitches while at the plate, and your turbo meter will begin to fill up. Use this turbo to turn fastballs into flameballs and strong swings into, well, stronger swings. This turbo will help you get hits and strikeouts and great catches, which in turn earn you points. After you earn enough points, which essentially is just the second iteration of the turbo concept, you’ll gain the capability to unleash “Big Heat” on the mound, or a “Big Blast” or “Big Slam” while batting. Big Heat is essentially an entire at-bat’s worth of turbo-fueled pitches; saving up your points for a Big Blast guarantees your batter a dramatic homerun--as long as you have the timing to make contact with one of the pitches of the at-bat. Finally, Big Slam is an extension of the Big Blast concept, giving you the opportunity to load the bases and then re-empty them with a grand slam in one theatrical sequence. Things get most interesting when a batter enters Big Blast mode and faces a pitcher bringing Big Heat.
There are some small details that add a modicum of strategy to the whole thing. Each hitter has a “wheelhouse”--an area of the strikezone where they are particularly effective in hitting pitches. Some hitters have larger wheelhouses than others--cover boy Prince Fielder is particularly deadly at the plate. Dare to throw pitches in a batter’s wheelhouse and succeed, and you’re rewarded with a larger chunk of turbo. Get too reckless and you’ll eventually pay the price. Throwing quality pitches--a button press initiates a meter, and releasing when the meter is full results in a stronger toss--is the key. Many of the more widely-known players also come with particular upgrades, such as increasing the abilities of their teammates in attributes like fielding or running speed. This could be a consideration in play modes involving the acquisition of players from other teams.
Really, though, there’s very little nuance, not just from game to game, but from showdown to showdown between pitcher and batter. The batter typically makes contact, and the ball typically goes far; entirely too typically, fielders jump or dive not just a distance which is inhuman, but one which does not even make physical sense given the rules of this universe and what was on the screen. Balls that appeared to be out of the reach of anyone are snagged by superfielders lunging from off-screen. When facing teams with a deep cache of “legendary” fielders capable of making homerun-stealing plays repeatedly, you’re forced to deliberately slap singles or attempt to hit it to parts of the field where there isn’t such a gifted athlete (which can be a hard spot to find). When the player is himself initiating legendary catches, the live action is interrupted by a quick-time sequence which will determine whether the ball is successfully caught; for example, a player may be required to correctly enter a four-button sequence, or hold a particular button and release at the correct time (when the screen flashes the word “RELEASE!” is a good cue). Needless to say, you’re usually going to be successful with your supposedly legendary catches. Besides those, the fielding is clunky, and running the bases on offense is devoid of not just strategy, but of interaction at all; tap a button to attempt to steal with your fastest players, and hope for the best.
For a game of this type, there is a respectable variety of game modes, which will help to mask, however temporarily, the lack of variety and depth of the underlying mechanics. Aside from the typical single games, returning from The Bigs is the pinball mode, in which a batter stands at particularly colorful and packed urban locations such as Times Square and Las Vegas, and attempts to hit neon signs, buildings, cars, and whatever else populates the screen. The Become a Legend Mode is a revamped career mode in which a created player journeys from the depressing Mexican League and up to the majors and through other career stops, the goal of which is to end up in the Hall of Fame. Along the way you’ll have to achieve particular goals in games, such as hitting a homerun or making a legendary catch (which is harder to do on purpose than spontaneously). There’s also an anemic season mode (that this option is hidden in a menu titled "Other Modes" gives you an idea of what these types of games think of in-depth customization). You can take some modes of play online, but what you’ll find is sometimes laggy (given the flashiness of the presentation, this is not surprising), and often frustrating in terms of your peers--quitters are frequent, and there is no system in place which either penalizes those disconnecting when on the brink of losing, or at least gives you credit for the win. A simple fix would have went miles in that department.
There is nothing really here to appeal to the simulation sports fan, in content or presentation. The season mode is only a season mode to a certain extent: you play many games on a schedule, wins and losses are recorded, and a running tab is kept on the most rudimentary statistics (average, homeruns, RBI, strikeouts). If the musclebound meatslabs masquerading as ballplayers weren’t enough, the play-by-play is provided by a solo broadcaster who apparently graduated with honors from the Vince McMahon WWF Over-The-Top School of Commentary. A replication of a television broadcast, this ain’t.
Nor should one have been expected, I suppose. In the same way that NBA Jam and NFL Blitz meshed contemporary professional sports and their stars with physically impossible arcade action, The Bigs 2 may be that rare portal connecting non-sports fans (the number of which is vast among videogamers) with the sports themselves. Sports fans likely will not be satiated for the long haul, but may nonetheless find themselves entertained by a flashy, very superficially accomplished experience between games of the more nuanced simulation brands.
Freelance review by K T (July 26, 2009)
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