The stands were full of parents. I cocked the bat over my 14-year-old shoulder, all aflutter at the plate and in fear of whiffing once more. This time, though, as the ball left the pitcher's hand, its trajectory and speed just right, my scrawny arms flexed at the perfect moment, the swinging bat leveled out over the plate just like my dad had shown me, and I heard the sweet crack of a hurtling baseball hitting dead-center on a solid chunk of rounded wood. It was the most beautiful sound my young ears had heard since the cute girl down the street had laughed, sunshine blowing through her hair, and called me "Robby." They tell me the crowd cheered. But all I can remember is that exquisite crack, a feeling of serene balance, and a slightly scuffed ball flying over the left field fence.
There's not a video game made that can give you that kind of feeling. You gotta get out there at the plate for that. But would any console baseballer be worth its infield dirt if it didn't at least remind you of playing the real thing? So let's see how The Bigs holds up.
The current steroids-in-baseball issue is a non-issue in The Bigs. Every player here is a barrel-chested natural who's ready to rumble the outfield. Players can jump right into a quick exhibition game, a home run derby (even a bonus pinball game) or take the wise path and build their ballplayer from scratch in the Rookie Challenge. After choosing your rookie's field position, distributing his attributes and adjusting his hulking good looks, you're ushered into a series of minigames that teach you how to pitch, bat and field. But with this baseball title it's soon apparent that play is less about button combos and complex machinations, and more about timing and strategy.
Gamers learn to hit the pitching meter button at just the right moment so they can light up a few fastballs and breaking pitches. They also learn to catch the rhythm of arcing out a base hit or power swinging for the fence. The toughest (and possibly, weakest) part of the game is the challenge of mastering control of your fielders when you're playing defense. If the opposing team connects with one of your pitches, the game automatically gives you control of the player in the best position to make a play. Things can move so quickly, though, that by the time you figure out which position you're controlling, the streaking ball is already past you.
Colossal Hits, Wicked Pitches
Out of training camp, Rookie Challenge has you travel to different parks and play through a season with your team. In each game you earn points for every solid play your players make, building up a super-powered turbo boost that can be used at the right moment to blast a bases-loaded home run through the outfield scoreboard or super-speed a single into a three-bagger or blaze in that wicked fastball to retire the side. The hits become colossal, the pitches nasty. And deciding where to strategically use them makes all the difference.
Those so inclined can also try their hand at managing a team's roster and trading for that desperately needed cleanup hitter or bullpen left-hander. There isn't a lot of depth to this section, but it adds a little more strategy fun.
Call in the Ump
The Bigs does bang out a few foul balls. Players are given the ability to bean a batter at the plate (the AI can do it, too). But you don't gain anything from the action. In fact, you actually lose out since the opposing team earns turbo points from your bad play. A few of the character customizations (snake tattoos, nicknames such as "Diamond Devil" and skulls drawn on your bat) are a little irksome. And the music track features some questionably hard rock. (Fortunately there's no profanity, and individual songs can be turned off.)
No video game should ever keep you from getting out on the field and wrapping your own fists around a hunk of white ash. But if your game is rained out or the snow is too deep to run the bases (or the memories of bat-swinging glory feel a little dusty), The Bigs is just good enough to fill in the gap—between the shortstop and second base.