Developer: Cyanide / Publisher: SouthPeak Games / ESRB: Teen (Blood, Drug Reference, Mild Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $39.99
With a tradition over two decades strong, Blood Bowl for the Xbox 360 presents gamers with the ultimate definition of “fantasy football.” Uniting classic American pigskin with the Warhammer Fantasy universe, this board game adaptation offers a combination of turn-based strategy and sports sim, with a little humorous, down-and-dirty combat heaped on for good measure. In the wake of related titles like Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, fans of this cherished Games Workshop franchise have long clamored for a next-gen treatment of the cult classic in which virtual teams of Elves, Dwarves and old world Humans vie for the Blood Bowl Cup with equally motley crews of Orcs, Lizardmen and the Chaos horde (to name a few).
Blood Bowl has historically been a game of tone over tactics. The old axiom “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” holds true. Touchdowns are often much less important than tackling an opponent – especially if you manage to gouge an eye or crack a skull while you’re at it. Fiendish behavior is rewarded on the astrogranite gridiron, and Blood Bowl offers a rated “T” for “Teen” adrenaline rush, one turn at a time. Blood Bowl has been missing from the electronic scene since the 1995 MS-DOS endeavor by MicroLeague. But does this modern translation from French development studio Cyanide live up to fanboy expectations? And will new players find satisfaction with what amounts to a no-holds-barred chess match flavored with the denizens of Middle Earth?
The game takes its core mechanics from the classic board game of the same name. For players familiar with the game’s oddly rewarding feats of frustration, it takes merely a match or two to get back in the saddle. For the uninitiated, this means a rather arduous assimilation of a lengthy set of rules, and unfortunately the game’s tutorial does very little in terms of making this easy for the player.
Following the obligatory formation and kick-off selection, players will navigate 11 fantasy players across the Blood Bowl pitch, attempting to destroy their opponent’s fantasy team along the way. The turn-based strategic play encourages would-be Bowl champions to skirt their players around the game grid with finesse. And though it’s helpful to have a solid strategy, it’s much more important to roll with the punches and be prepared to take advantage of the game’s many modified situations. The original tabletop game has been around since 1987, and since that fabled time it’s seen numerous revisions and rules updates. It would be far too lengthy to present all of the nuances of the current rules system here, but the core mechanic basically utilizes 4 ability scores for each virtual player – Strength, Agility, Movement Allowance and Armor Value – which determine success and failure probabilities. And as a board game adaptation, Blood Bowl operates on dice-based outcomes. In addition to the traditional six-sided dice used for movement, damage and other results, special “Block Dice” from the original game are represented classically in a virtual format. Their results represent the random acts of violence on the field – whether or not your tackle is a triumphant success or a dismal failure. There is appropriately no attempt to obscure this traditional aspect of the game. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
There are eight different teams of fantasy races available for players with which they can battle head-to-head in a One Off Match, Campaign or Competition. The most rewarding aspect of Blood Bowl is the ability to increase your virtual players’ stats and special abilities during the Campaign or Competition matches. Star Player Points are rewarded for special feats, such as completing a pass or killing the opposition, and can be spent on any number of game-changing skills. Two game modes – “Classic” and “Blitz” – allow players to either experience the game’s original format or take advantage of slightly greater customization of gameplay (emphasis on slight). The “Blitz” mode also enables the ability to toggle between standard turn-based gameplay and a Real Time mode. While noble in attempt, the Real Time mode merely convolutes an already complicated and delicate series of actions. The result is a jumbled, indecipherable mess that will have players begging to return to “Classic” mode.
For all of the satisfying challenge classic Blood Bowl has to offer, Cyanide and publishers Focus and SouthPeak have managed to bury a great game beneath a slipshod presentation. As mentioned earlier, the tutorial will present its own challenge for new players. Much of the game text is loaded with bad grammar or is outright confusing for an English audience. Load screens are long and uninspired. And the lack of customization such as character names or team colors strip away some rather simple pleasures from the game. The graphics, sound and game control also have their individual shortcomings that, when combined, may very well overshadow the game’s finer points for some players.
Most importantly, the roster of team races is incomplete, lacking such genre standards as High Elves, Undead and Halflings – well, maybe we can do without the hobbits, but a once-healthy list of teams showcasing the Warhammer Fantasy setting is now decidedly thin. This is obviously a strategy for DLC support, with the potential for more teams and Star Players down the road. Hopefully Blood Bowl has the shelf life to see that supplement come to fruition.
Visually, Blood Bowl upholds the conceptual aesthetics of its tabletop counterpart. But a lackluster interface results in something more akin to an Xbox LIVE Arcade release. The presentation simply feels rushed, uninspired, and over-simplified. A huge disappointment is the lack of cinematics beyond the game’s opening titles. Considering Blood Bowl‘s traditional propensity for merry mayhem and campy carnage, this was fertile ground for an injection of next-generation flash and jive that would have tremendously elevated the game’s appeal and entertainment value.
Character animations are adequate but repetitive. Each fantasy team is comprised of an array of unique character avatars constituting the players on the field, virtual representations of miniatures on the tabletop gridiron. Games Workshop has a hallowed tradition as the leader in the field of miniatures gaming, to such an extent that hobbyists have long since elevated their games and components to the level of art (think of them as tiny sculptures). With this in mind, there is a tall order to fill in respect to how the denizens of the Warhammer Fantasy setting are represented. Blood Bowl manages to distinguish itself from its electronic predecessor, but doesn’t fully take advantage of next-generation aesthetics. Since the title relies so much on concept art to color menus and load screens, perhaps Blood Bowl could have benefited from modern eye-catching techniques such as cel-shaded animation à la Borderlands.
The game’s audio falls in line with its lack of visual innovation. Faceless commentators rattle off a repetitive list of non sequiturs during gameplay. And though the concept at work is noble, the performances are spiritless and the dialogue is sub-par. Ambience on the game field is crudely overpowered by the cascading sound of virtual dice. The occasional onomatopoeia of a fouled player surfaces above the white noise walla meant to represent a crowd of medieval spectators. Some elements, including sidelined cheerleaders, on-field referees, and individual team players lack voicing of any kind. So a potentially satisfying sound design aesthetic was seemingly jettisoned in favor of a stripped-down soundscape.
The most satisfying sound element in Blood Bowl is the use of an appropriately epic theme during the game’s title screen. The anthem is an obvious ode to the modern music of the NFL, and is likewise recognizable as a blatant cribbing of Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean theme. The clever humor of the Games Workshop brand manages to surface briefly before drowning in a sea of misplaced sound bites during gameplay. Thankfully, the game’s sound options allow players to toggle these settings to their preference. So feel free to feed in your own soundtrack via hard drive or external device.
Once the nuances of gameplay have been taken to task, players will find little to complain about in terms of controllability. As a turn-based strategy game, Blood Bowl operates one team at a time, one virtual player at a time, one game square at a time. You’ll be getting very friendly with the left & right analog sticks, the left & right triggers and good ol’ A and B buttons as you highlight player-to-player. The conversion from board game to video game is readily apparent and must ultimately be embraced to appreciate what rewarding play the game has to offer.
Despite the relative simplicity of gameplay controls, the functionality of camera operation can be frustrating. With slow panning, fast tilting, and a “follow camera” mode loaded with lag time, it can be difficult at times to follow off-screen action. Before you know it, you’ve lost a few teammates to concussions and your AI opponent has pushed the ball to the end zone. The result is a cumbersome flow of events in an otherwise steady stream of gameplay. And, as mentioned earlier, the Real Time mode should be avoided in favor of the classic turn-based control of the game. Unless you enjoy punishment at the hands of a virtual taskmaster, you’re in for a proper flogging that misplaces the game’s inherent charms.
Long-term fans of the Blood Bowl franchise will no doubt find enjoyment in this new edition of the classic game. However, the original “Game of Fantasy Football” may have a hard time attracting new followers with this outing. A rules set that has been time-tested and mother-approved must now shine through the diminished standards of its production value. This same pitfall seems to claim the life of so many board-to-video game adaptations. Nevertheless, after a few hours of assimilating the sluggish and uninspired interface, I found myself playing a new version of the same game I’ve loved for over 15 years. I only wish the project was handled with a greater sense of passion and artistic poise. Given the game’s deficiency of style, lack of polish and $50 price point, I predict dismal sales and diminished support for the Blood Bowl franchise in the near future. Blood Bowl will no doubt find a second life as a more modestly priced title, shining as a diamond in the rough among bargain bins in days to come. For now, I’ll dust off the old box of lead minis and wait for the title to hit platinum status.