For a sports title to stand tall, a few key elements need to shine: graphics, control, and official player/team licensing. But then there are the subtleties - the little things - that can send a game into a league of its own. Whether it's a shattering backboard, a hockey brawl, or a grassy football field turning to mud in a rain storm, sports games need nuances - details that can make even the most experienced gamer howl with delight. And while Acclaim's new Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball boasts the necessary qualities that make for a topnotch baseball contest, it lacks personality in the often overlooked "little things" department.
To be fair, Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball is loaded with the nifty options gameplay components a hard-core sports gamer expects: day or night play, stadium selecting, batting order change-ups, player substitutions, choice of camera angles (four to be exact - not exactly the "tons" claimed on the back of the box), manual or automatic fielding, and so on. On the field, players can pick off runners, shift the infield or outfield, depending on the batter, and dive/jump for out-of-reach balls; at bat they can pull or push the ball to the opposite field, bunt, lead, steal bases, and use pinch runners.
The graphics are passable, at best, with decent player animations and accurately rendered ballparks (though it's anyone's guess why Fenway's Green Monster is brown). Players in the field are small and rather unimpressive, but the batter is a marvel of size and detail. Filling up nearly three-quarters of the TV screen, from bottom to top, each photorealistic batter features uniform wrinkles, visible belt loops, dead-on skin tones, and sweatbands worthy of a Topps baseball card.
Gameplay mechanics are a mixed bag, with pitching and fielding responding well to the control, and batting registering as the game's worst element. As in the Majors, it's almost necessary to begin a swing as soon as the pitcher releases the ball - there's no time to determine if the pitch is even going to be near the plate. The lack of player control makes batting a rather boring affair, and that's a serious drawback for a baseball game.
Frank Thomas may be a first-rate baseball game with many positive features, but what it lacks is a unique personality or any sense of humor - base runners sliding in a cloud of dust or knocking the ball loose from the catcher's grasp, fielders colliding in confusion, or a batter writhing in agony after being beaned. Even an occasional crotch-grab would have been nice. Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball is like a big meal that has all the trimmings but somehow manages to leave you unsatisfied.