Gear up and get ready to put your gauntlet in an ork’s face for a sporting touchdown in Blood Bowl II!
I have to admit that this is going to be a very strange review for me. Frank knew that I had extensive knowledge of the Warhammer universes when he sent over Blood Bowl II for review, but what he didn’t know…
I haven’t a clue about football!
The good news is that it doesn’t matter! Can you interpret the result of special dice rolls? Can you count to six (mostly)? Do you like watching teams of fantasy inspired races slaughtering each other over a dried pig’s bladder, then inflated and covered with iron spikes?
If the answer is yes, then come with me to the stadium. We’ll get you acquainted with Blood Bowl.
A Humble (Yet Awesome) Beginning
In 1987, Games Workshop was just starting to get its feet under them as a game manufacturer with a solid line of games, with a focus on their core Warhammer Fantasy setting. While they mainly focused on their tactical miniature and roleplaying features, they also started to make specialty games. One of these was the first edition of Blood Bowl, a very tongue in cheek Warhammer title which focused around a very different version of football. In this game, players could start teams they could hand pick, with great miniatures and specialized dice which resolved scrums on the field, determine in juries or deaths to players (blood bowl was not for the weak), and featured a lot of randomized things that could happen on field (like the current weather, or a riot from the crowd interrupting the game).
The game was popular and has seen a couple of reprints since its first edition, and it also has a far-reaching, if somewhat troubled, digital pedigree of it’s own. It released exclusively for PC in 1995 to lackluster reviews, and then received a second chance release in 2009. This didn’t particularly open to rave reviews either and quickly found itself in the bargain bins outside of Game Stops everywhere – which made me very surprised to hear that a sequel was on docket this year from Focus Home Interactive and Cyanide Studios . The good news is that they seem to have learned from some mistakes in their last entry of the franchise.
Warhammer’s Fantasy universe is just as brutal and violent as any of their other settings, and are filled to the brim with all sorts of races, magics, and terrors. One of those terrors is Blood Bowl: a bloodsport where just about everything goes. It resembles American Football on the front of it (sorry folks living outside of the US – for the rest of this article, we’ll just be calling it football) except it’s played by the fantastical races of the setting and players get killed pretty regularly from things that aren’t repetitive brain injuries post-retirement. You play over the course of sixteen two-sided turns, going back and forth between each side. Like football, the goal is to get the ball into the end zone for a touchdown. Each touchdown is a single point. There’s no downs, there’s rarely penalties, and forget tackling – players straight up brawl to get at the ball. Blood soaks the grass, bodies litter the field, and sometimes even the crowd gets in on the murder. Or the Refs.
The game’s primary campaign mode chronicles the human team of the Reikland Reavers, a down and out team that’s been on the decline for the past ten years or so. The game’s broadcasters, Bob (an Ogre) and Jim (a Vampire Lord), chronicle your team’s history and games via Cabal Vision. They’ll keep you updated with game commentary, as well as rumors and background flavor from unsocial media outlets like Twerper and FaceTome.
All in all, it gives a very tongue-in-cheek presentation of their standard fantasy world where anything can happen on the field and usually does. In as bloody a fashion as Orcishly possible.
The game, first ands foremost, retains all of the flavor that players of Warhammer Games have come to love. All of their races have their unique touches and flairs, and they more or less fall right into the specialities you’d expect. Standard Reikland humans are diverse and cheap, but tend to go through the grinder. Dwarves are stout and great at defense but don’t run fast. Skaven are incredibly fast and agile, but break if you look at them wrong. The animations of the gameplay give you everything you’d expect from the folks at Games Workshop. They’ve really kept the meat of the look, feel, and ethos of their game line (which is harder than it looks – take Shadowrun’s port to XBox 360).
Additionally, for those who are fans of the old table top games, you’ll find everything very comfortable in terms of game mechanics. The game uses all of the specialty dice you remember, and there’s even a fully transparent log of dice rolls and outcomes that you can check on to get play-by-play information on why your Ogre is on the ground with a concussion. You’ll really get the feel that you’re playing the actual table top game – or at least they match what I remember from playing the original game. So there’s definitely something here for the old grognards who wanted a straight port of the tabletop rules into the video game.
The game has a lot of neat features and mechanics, and the game actually introduces them to you slowly over a series of six games. Each match gives you a new layer. The first lays down fundamentals, the second introduces agility and the chance of failure when blocking, blitzing, or performing actions. As you progress through these levels you get more of an idea of the flavor of how the game is played and pick up basic strategy. Eventually in games four, five, and six, you start to develop your staff in order to get rerolls on calls that didn’t go your way, apothecaries to tend to (many) wounded players, and eventually cheerleaders, facilities, and fan factors to keep the fans on your side. Eventually, you can pick up players with better and more specialized statistics and skills. I very much liked this approach since the first Blood Bowl port to console seemed to throw you into the deep end all at once with all the rules. It was extremely frustrating to want to get into the action only to have turnovers slap you in the face for the smallest rookie moves. This time around, they found a way to ease you into the mechanics to get you playing more strategically.
For people who are not of the football persuasion such as myself, the commentary can also fill you in on strategies in case you’re not quite picking them up through gameplay. One of my greatest issues in following Football is that there’s so much going on that I don’t see the strategy. Since Blood Bowl is turn based, it let’s me see more accurately what’s going on and lets me adapt my playstyle.
You can also go in for league play – which is something Games Workshop stores themselves encourage when you come into their stores to try your hand at a round. League play is capable either versus the AI or online multiplayer. For single player play and you can elect to set up league play by League, Regional, Old World, and custom options, providing everything from knockout style play to round robin affairs. For those who prefer online multiplayer matches, you can opt for Ladder, Round Robin or Knockout style play there as well.
Lastly, this is a game with a lot of stuff in it, and not all of it is wholly accessible in-game during play – which is why there’s an official guide for it at http://guide.bloodbowl-game.com/en/game. Doesn’t matter your platform – so long as you have the internet, you can get at that data via your console or PC’s browser.
While on the whole the game is a faithful port… this is also kind of a bad thing sometimes. Like any game that heavily relies on dice rolling, you’re going to hate the dice after a while. I lay this at the feet of using six-sided dice as your baseline for probability. With results ranging from one to six, gameplay feels a little more random than it should, particularly since you’re able to build up skills and stats. It sometimes feels like even with great skills and a lot of team developments, the game provides what feels like a lot of cheap shots using the mechanics in place. I had to put it down out of frustration more than a couple of times when it seemed I had everything going in my favor, but a 67% dodge chance felt a lot like way lower odds after it seemed to happen again and again and again every turn. Either that or humans in the Warhammer universe have a real case of butter fingers and spend a lot of time tripping over their own feet.
Additionally, what seems like fun game visuals turn sour. Cheerleaders will do the same dance into infinity. Every time you see a takedown, or a knock-out, or a death, you find yourself hitting the options button to move past it. It gets repetitive very quickly, and sooner or later you eventually find your way to the options screen for a way to make them stop so you can get on with a game that feels less like you’re watching it and more like you’re playing it.
There’s also a weird oversight in online play. The game is playable with anyone you so choose – but only if you want league play. Friendly matches absolutely require you to know who you’re playing. It’s either someone on your friend list or the AI – there’s no lobby to wait in or a match up system. So you can play a full-on, intensive league process with a pick-up group, but restricts your options for a quick one-off game if you’re tired of playing the AI. It seems a little counter intuitive. I did find a way around it – invite a friend lets you search for people online. Pop in some information (even a single letter) and it’ll bring up thousands of players meeting those criteria. Maybe 420lulzorsbrodude69 will want to play – which I’m told people do. They just usually do it in lobbies.
Lastly, there seem to be stability problems. I gather this both from Steam reviewers and personal experience. I fired up my PS4 this morning to play the game only to find my save game irreparably corrupted. I had to delete everything and start again. I’m told this is not an uncommon experience on multiple platforms which is somewhat disheartening.
I have mixed feelings about the game. I absolutely love the mythos of the Warhammer world and it gets weirder when you apply it to football. It’s a fantastic idea that I’ve always loved. It actually captures my interest, completely unlike actual football (American or otherwise). Sometimes it’s real fun to play – and then you seem to run into what feel like the cheapest of shots on a chain going into infinity. The first time I saw a ref holding a grudge against the Reavers come up and kick a catcher in the face with his cleats I wanted to rage quit. But, this is a part of the game. The original is like that – so it’s not a flaw. It’s the game playing as it was intended.
For folks who love the edge of your seat tension of a sports game but wanted to have more crazy stuff in it like dark Elven magicks, beastmen, and a field strewn with corpses, take a look. It’s a definite win for old school and die-hard players who’ve loved the game from its inception in the eighties. Personally, I rank it at three out of five sticks. It’s a must for die-hard Blood Bowl fans, but other folks might not find it their cup of tea.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), XBox One, and PC (Steam); Publisher: Focus Home Interactive ; Developer: Cyanide Studios ; Players: 1-2 local, multiple league players; Released: September 22nd, 2015; Genre: Sports/Strategy ; MSRP: $44.95 (Steam), $29.99 (PS4, XBox One)
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Focus Home Interactive.