Backyard Sports: Sandlot Sluggers Review (Wii)
There are plenty of baseball games on the Wii, but the console has really only produced two quality titles: Wii Sports Baseball and MLB Power Pros. All of the other Wii baseball games, even those in the "sim" category, have ranged from disappointing to nearly unplayable.
The Backyard Baseball series is just one of many that has failed to impress on the Wii. There was a time when the Backyard Baseball games, mostly on the PC/Mac, were charming and stylistic, capturing baseball at a basic level while incorporating real-life pros as kids. This concept, along with a diverse group of original kid "characters," made Backyard Baseball incredibly appealing for adults and children alike. However, this game did not transition well to the current generation of consoles because clunky gameplay and basic 3-D graphics stripped the series of its charm and luster.
This year's version, Backyard Sports Sandlot Sluggers, takes a different approach. Nevertheless, it fits right in with the more recent versions of the Backyard sports games and Wii baseball titles: plenty of potential, lackluster graphics and terrible controls. In all, not much fun.
First things first, the young MLB stars have been removed from the game -- this was probably my favorite part about previous games in the series. This is not detrimental to the gameplay, but it certainly does eliminate a good deal of fun and character from the experience. Beyond the typical Backyard personalities, you will now get random and generic kids.
Speaking of these personalities (like Pablo Sanchez), they are back, but they have kind of grown up. In fact, the whole game features a design that is less cartoon-like than in past editions. For example, the original characters no longer look like cute elementary kids. Instead, they look like tweens who have been freshly plucked from the Disney channel. I am guessing that this was a marketing-driven decision, but it is one with little consequence. The original charm of this series has been rapidly declining over the past few years. So, it seems like the developers of the game have acknowledged this by taking a much different direction.
Modes and Means
The game features four main modes: Pick-up, Season, Story and Multiplayer. Pick-up is essentially the exhibition game mode, but it is confusingly missing a true "pick-up" feature -- the teams are premade, with each featuring one of the Backyard characters. Season mode has also done away with the standard create-a-team aspect that used to be a staple of the series.
Story mode is interesting. It is sort of a career mode that is based on a story involving a bully and playing baseball the "right way." There are cut scenes, but they are poorly animated and very low-res. The mode is narrated by two "old-timers," which gives it a quirky, but pleasant atmosphere. Ironically, the story also paints playing video games in a negative light.
This mode has the potential to be fun because you play the other teams while teaching those bullies a lesson. It is a watered-down career mode that we have seen a thousand times by now, but it is a welcome change and a long-overdue addition to the Backyard series.
Each of the modes is hampered by maddening controls. The control layouts are not the worst in the business, and in most cases, they make a fair amount of sense. The problem is the responsiveness of the controls.
Each phase of the game, but especially fielding and hitting, seems to play slightly behind the actual controls. In other words, you are forced to swing early on every pitch, which results in a ton of strikeouts or weakly hit balls until you master the timing intricacies. This was frustrating to me as an adult, so I can only imagine the reactions of the game's intended audience. Who knows, maybe kids adjust better than me.
Throwing is equally painful, with timing being critical to defensive actions like turning double plays. I thought the problem might be the controller, but even using the horizontal, two-button approach did not make the game feel any more natural. While MotionPlus is supported, it is not apparent.
The more I played, however, the more I was able to get the results I wanted. Still, the game is not intuitive. Add on the crazy boosts, and you have a very quirky game of baseball.
Overall, this game is a good example of one that took one step forward, one step back and one step sideways. This game is superior to last year's versions in both visuals and modes. It drops creative options (like create-a-team) and "little pros." And the new atmosphere and look of the characters does little to bring back the charm of Backyard's past.
Throughout all of this stepping, the game fails to break into that small but elite tier of Wii baseball games.
On the Diamond: What I said for Backyard Baseball '10 applies here, word for word: "Plays a functional game of baseball, but not a very enjoyable one. Wii motion controls aren’t horrible, but not as smooth or solid as other options. There are some fun fields/stadiums to play in."
Graphics: The game looks much better than past versions, but we are still dealing with basic and low-res textures. The fields are as imaginative as ever, and while the player models are an abrupt change, they work.
Sound Design: Repetitive commentary that is not quite as annoying as it could be.
Entertainment Value: There are a good deal of modes to explore, including your standard Wii party games. None of them are standouts, but if they are taken as a whole, they create a nice package for a game that retails for less than $50.
Learning Curve: Not much of a learning curve except for the funky timing issues. Everything is nicely explained on-screen.
Score: 5.5 (Slightly Above Average)