Thanks to Focus Home for the review copy!
Blood Bowl 2 is the second electronic version of Games Workshop’s popular Blood Bowl tabletop game. Though it is no longer sold or supported by Games Workshop, it is still popular with tabletop gamers.
Essentially, Blood Bowl 2 is American Football with a few twists. The players can be from a variety of high fantasy races, such as orcs, elves and ogres as well as humans. The setting is the Old World, which is also the setting for Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battles game. As a typical high fantasy setting it features magic, monsters, and a roughly Renaissance-era technology level. Thematically, the feel of the game is like watching a television sports cast. The hosts sit at a table between games, providing commentary and background on “Cabal Vision,” a spoof of ESPN. This being a fantasy setting, the commentators are an ogre and a vampire. The commentary is amusing and if listened to closely, can provide hints on other teams and other useful tidbits.
In game, you take on the role of a coach, whose job it is to build the team, manage the players and win games.
Gameplay is turn-based, meaning each Player takes turns making their moves in an effort to score a touchdown, like in American Football. Each half is eight turns for a total of sixteen turns in a full game. On each turn, each of the players on the team can move, and depending on their position on the team, take certain actions like block or pass.
As with American Football, the game starts with a coin toss for possession of the ball. (The referee is a goblin, of course.) That team becomes the offense and the opposing team is the defense. Play begins with the defensive team kicking off to the offense. If the ball bounces out of the field then the offensive team can choose any player to have the ball. The offensive team then goes first and play is taken in turns until a touchdown is scored. Each touchdown is worth one point and triggers a new kickoff where the team that just scored is the defensive team. Getting the ball into the opponent’s end zone is the way to score. (Even though there are upright goalposts, there’s no kick for the extra point.) This can be accomplished by either having a player run into the end zone with the ball, or by being in the end zone and catching a pass.
Having at least a basic understanding of American Football is essential to learning the game quickly. Though it’s a very simplified version of the rules, the concepts are still the same. The key to victory is to keep as many of your opponents’ players down as possible. One way this is accomplished is by physically blitzing opposing players. That’s when one of your players runs up and smashes the opposing player as hard as he can. This is where players with good Strength are critical. The results of a blitz are generated randomly, with a 6 sided die appearing in the air over the player. If the one player is stronger than the other, additional dice are rolled and the coach who controls the stronger player can choose which outcome to apply. Outcomes can include being pushed back, being knocked down, stunned, etc.
A knocked down player can do nothing except get up and move in his next turn. A stunned player is down for a full turn before he can get back up. This is a good way to keep opposing players out of action by forcing them to spend their actions to get up rather than attack your players.
Players who run past opposing players can be tripped as they pass, so when clearing the way for a player to run down field to catch the ball it’s critical to have the path cleared of opponents. Players also have a finite distance they can run, though they can be pushed to go a little farther at the risk of possibly tripping and falling down, meaning all they can do is stand back up in the next turn. The point at which the runner's distance becomes a risk is clearly marked on the field when the coach is deciding how far to push the player.
Gameplay feels very smooth and intuitive, and can be played as quickly or as slowly as desired. The “camera” zooms in on hits as they happen and don’t linger long enough for it to be disrupting to the flow.
There is a campaign mode which, as with other games, is meant to gradually introduce new skills and game elements to the coach. The backstory is that the team, the Reikland Reavers, a team which has had several unsuccessful seasons, is now in the process of rebuilding with a brand new coach, you. You’re given a starting budget to hire players as well as support staff like cheerleaders, doctors, etc. By winning games you can get better and better sponsors, which is a big help in team income to get better staff and players.
For a more sandbox feel, there is league play as well. There’s a solo league and a multiplayer league. In both cases, the coach builds a team using a starting budget, hires support staff, chooses custom uniform, team name and emblem options and selects a home stadium. The customizing options are good, with plenty of options, even to the point of being able to set the individual faces and uniform details of the players. A team motto is also added at this time.
The multiplayer league offers access to official as well as coach-created leagues, so if a group of friends wanted to get together and create a league of their own, that’s perfectly fine. Being in a league allows for stat tracking and ladder matches. As players gain experience, they level up and can be upgraded, improving their performance on the field. Multiplayer leagues are all online, and there are official leagues in addition to the player generated ones.
The graphics are solid, and the backgrounds are beautiful. The ragged, Old World stadiums look very natural and fit the visual themes of the Warhammer world well. The players are each unique with variants of facial features and uniforms all rendered clearly. No graphic problems were observed, though it will take a quite beefy graphics card to keep the frame rate up. Even so, I tested this game on a laptop PC with an integrated graphics card and the framerate was acceptable. The only issue was that it took 3 different laptops to find one that worked, as the hardware needs to be able to support DirectX 11 or OpenGL 3.3. One of the ones I tried was actually an Alienware gaming rig, but it's about three years old. In this case it was more important to find a newer machine than an older powerhouse.
The quality of the sounds is good, with the crunching, grunting hits sounding quite believable. The sound of cheering crowds in the background really makes it feel like I’m watching an NFL game and the Cabalvision commentators aren’t distracting, although sometimes their comments on the action on the field don’t quite match what’s going on. For instance, at one point one of my players was running down the field but not so far as to endanger himself, yet one of the commentators spoke as if he were. No popping or distortions were encountered.
No crashes or game stopping issues were encountered on the Windows PC version, and everything runs smoothly. The loading times are reasonably short and navigating between the various game modes is smooth if not always intuitive.
The game controls are reasonably simple with plenty of visual cues to help the coach know what a player can do on his turn. Things like which squares would confer Strength bonuses, how far he can run before risking a fall, what squares would trigger an attack of opportunity from an opposing player, etc are all displayed on the field. Even with all that visual information it doesn’t seem overly crowded or difficult to understand. There is supposed to be a drop down menu when each player is clicked that doesn’t display when the player is out of options, but it would still be nice to have something pop up just as a way to give feedback to the coach that the player, in fact, has no actions left and it isn’t just a glitch. Also, Blitzing as an option appears on the menu for certain players even when they’re down, and when a player is down the only thing they can do is stand up.
When players are selected, their stat card is displayed to remind the coach of their attributes but their special abilities like blitz and block do not display, which can be frustrating. Players with block, for example, are immune to certain kinds of knockdown and knowing for sure whether a player has it would make it easier to decide what to do with an orc you’ve just hit. (Yes, that’s determined by the player’s position on the team, which DOES display, but there’s plenty of space on that card, guys.) If a player is selected and the coach mouses over an opposing player, that player’s stat card appears as well so the two can be compared. That’s incredibly useful when trying to decide whether my blitzing player can take that orc or whether he's likely to wind up flat on his back.
Occasionally I’d accidentally order a player to do something when I thought I had already de-selected him, because the game uses the “left-click to deselect” mechanic and I’d forget to do so. That isn’t really the game’s fault, as there are visual cues to remind the coach which player is currently selected, but sometimes in the heat of the moment it’s easy to forget.
Some of the buttons in the team or league management screens could be a little clearer, where the back button can cancel or complete an action, depending upon context.
Overall the interface is very clean, especially in gameplay mode, and easy to understand. I found I was able to quickly understand the gameplay by using these visual cues.
As is the norm with Games Workshop properties, the main issue parents may have with this game is the level of violence. When players on the field block each other, a mist of blood is seen from the hit. Player fatalities are common. Generally, the level of gore isn’t nearly as much as Warhammer 40,000 themed games, but this is American Football taken to an extreme so an aggressive play style is rewarded.
I haven’t encountered any strong language in the Cabalvision commentary nor in any gameplay element. Your mileage may vary in terms of the quality of the humor used in the commentary though nothing inappropriate has stood out for me thus far.
The cheerleaders are scantily clad and sway somewhat more seductively than real life cheerleaders would, so there is a sexual element there, though generally they’re seen only after a touchdown is scored. Witch Elf players on the Dark Elves team are also similarly scantily clad.
In terms of occult, there really isn’t anything overt that one wouldn’t expect to see in a fantasy world. Mythical creatures like elves, orcs and goblins make up some of the teams and some special abilities may work by magic but it isn’t an aspect of gameplay as such.
There really isn’t much in the way of morality or ethics in terms of gameplay, beyond the fact that the game is meant to be played aggressively where causing as much damage to the opposing team as possible is advantageous. Still, since those are the rules of the game it isn’t really cheating.
So the bottom line is this game is a lot of fun. I really didn’t expect to like it much since I’m not a huge fan of football and had never played Blood Bowl in any form before. It feels like a game with a lot of replay value and can be played casually or in-depth, depending on your preference. With plenty of detail in the team management for league play, there's plenty to keep a coach busy. Keep an eye out for the Crimson Dragonmasters!