Review: Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition
November 29, 2010, Author: James Sheppard
Blood Bowl was originally released in 2009, by Cyanide studios. Based on the Games Workshop Warhammer board game of the same name, it made for a bizarre mixture of American football and turn-based strategy. This year however sees the release of Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition, a revamped version including a Story Mode, all new teams and arenas to play with.
I’m new to the franchise myself, and so this review will be primarily for those interested in experiencing the game for the first time, with the added bonus of the extras in the Legendary Edition. The question is, should you even bother, or will no amount of additions sweeten a helplessly bum deal?
How it all kicks off
There’s not a lot of storyline in Blood Bowl. In fact, if it wasn’t for the new story mode, there wouldn’t really be anything, full stop. This is communicated to you through text boxes before a match (exciting!) rife with spelling and grammar errors. The story goes that Orcs and Dwarves were fighting on the battlefield one day when they stumbled upon an ancient stadium. Upon reading an archaic text lying handily around, they decide to play some ‘Nuffle Amorical Football’ (geddit?) instead.
In all fairness, the story is quite charming considering that games of its genres (sport, strategy, board-game) don’t often have much narrative. It’s just the shoddy presentation of it that lets the side down. I’d have liked to have seen that opening scene in a short movie clip personally, to have really set the scene. Instead I was stuck reading text, that made it seem like the developers over at Cyanide in France just got themselves a French to English dictionary, and did their best.
As I said earlier, Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition is an unusual hybrid of turn-based strategy and American football. Ten points for originality there. However, just because something is different, doesn’t always mean it’s good. I will say right now, that I really wanted to like this game, and I tried my hardest to do so, but I honestly did not enjoy it in the slightest.
One of the main problems with Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition is that it really seems to try its damnedest to stop you from enjoying it. The first port of call for a game you are unfamiliar with is of course, the tutorial. It’s a disgrace. You deal with basic movements and tackles, but a lot of important aspects of the game are not even mentioned. The irony is, that you are still fed a huge amount of information, to the point of utter bewilderment in fact, but after sitting through the tutorial twice I still barely knew how to play the game.
The issue here is that it is very faithfully based on the board game. Remove any conceptions of ‘Mouse Trap!’ or ‘Snakes and Ladders’ from your mind this instant, however, because this is a whole other beast entirely. The rules of Blood Bowl to someone who has never played anything like it, are terrifyingly daunting and massively over complicated. The result is that to newbies, the game is no less than completely alienating, like going to college for a hairdressing class and accidentally ending up in an astrophysics lecture… taught in Swahili.
People whinge these days that games ‘hold your hand’ far too much, but here is an example that really needed to hold your hand from the off and never let go. Confusingly laid out menus are full of a multitude of badly explained options, and that’s before you’ve even gotten into the game itself. The AI is not technically very clever, but it is damn unforgiving of every mistake you make whilst you unsuccessfully try to work out what the hell is going on.
Of course, I eventually grasped how to play the game in the end, but was all that frustration worth it? No, not really. Both sides field up to 11 players each, arrange them into formation before it all starts, and then there is the kick-off. There are two modes of gameplay that make quite a big difference to the strategy and feel involved: Classic or Blitz. Classic, as you may expect, is turn-based and very close to the board game original. Blitz however introduces new rules and lets you have the option of playing in real-time. Kudos for the choice here, but I didn’t find either particularly enthralling.
The gameplay could be very loosely compared to chess, except that movement has a lot more freedom, there are more things to take into account and the goal is to make it with the ball to the other end of board and score touchdowns. Furthermore, you can make an action with every player in your turn, unless you do something that provokes a turnover, such as dropping the ball or getting knocked out. The irritating part, is that these kind of actions are essentially all based on chance.
The game certainly makes no attempt to hide its board game origins, even displaying the dice and going into great detail to explain complex statistics of die rolls. For me, this really hampered the fun and immersion, like riding through a horror house with the lights turned on, seeing all of the strings and a man behind a clear pane of glass making “woooo” noises. It also unnecessarily complicates and gets in the way of gameplay.
Example A: One of your players goes to tackle another, and you see that your strength is higher, so you expect to beat him. Except that the dice has to be rolled, and you get an unlucky throw, getting a ‘both down’ result. You then expect both of you to be knocked out. Turns out he has a ‘block’ skill though, which means that after another dice roll which he lucks out on, you go down and he stays standing. Huh, WHAT?
Obviously, this is a board game and so the reasons for including the dice rolls are obvious, but does this make a good video game? This is debatable. I have to question who this type of game would appeal to. Yes, it’s based on American Football, but the sport is so heavily bastardised that I can’t see many sports fans enjoying it. It’s a Warhammer strategy game, but it lacks the engaging battles of Dawn of War. As a turn-based game, it doesn’t come close to the addictive nature of Civilization or Advance Wars.
Arguably then, some of the only people who will probably appreciate Blood Bowl are those who enjoyed the board game original. I am sure fans will lap up the faithful recreation of its source, and all of the extra races, maps and modes included in the Legendary Edition. As for the average gamer though, I’m not so sure, Blood Bowl is so niche, it makes underground-hardcore-death-rap-trance-metal seem mainstream.
Cyanide have definitely made a reasonable effort in the visuals of Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition. They’re not really spectacular, but are reminiscent of something like World of Warcraft or Dawn of War; a bit blocky, some bland textures, but nice and colourful with an attractive fantasy-style art direction. The players look just like the board game originals, and everything is nicely detailed.
To achieve this, the game is perhaps a bit overly demanding when it comes to required system specs however, at least if you want to place it on a graphics setting any higher than ‘fugly’, or ‘grotesque’, anyway. One computer I tried, that has reasonable specs (it can play Bioshock 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum etc. on high/max settings, at least), took ages to load, stuttered regularly, had the shadows distractingly flickering all over the place and couldn’t even display the intro movie. Oh dear.
I’d have hoped that most bugs would have been squashed by now after several patches and an expansion pack. To be fair, it ran almost flawlessly on my other PC so it may have just been an unlucky one-off.
Commentators that make your blood bowl boil…
As well as the graphics, Cyanide have also done a loving job of the audio of Blood Bowl. The soundtrack is a mixture of sports (crowds cheering etc.) and of an epic battle score, very fitting for the game. Two announcers also chat and comment throughout the matches, something that is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, occasionally they come out with something funny, but they are also too prone to repeating jokes.
Here’s a sample, upon a player being killed on the field: “That player won’t be playing a match again… unless he plays for an undead team! … ”Oh I do love dead jokes, they kill me!” Ba-bum-bum-tish. As you can see, the humour is of a quality somewhere between that found within Christmas crackers, and the ‘<Scary/Epic/Superhero/insert adjective> Movie’ films.
Meet your match
Once you finally get to grips with the single player, you start to realise that the ‘artificial intelligence’ of this game is an oxymoron, actually possessing very little intelligence whatsoever. It’s predictable and repetitive, and therefore you’d be best spending most of your time on the online multiplayer if you managed to actually get interested in Blood Bowl.
Thankfully then, this is well implemented with different leagues for players’ skill levels and options such as matchmaking. Down to lazy programming or conniving business tactics however, players in the Legendary Edition will not be able to play with those on the original, despite it essentially being the same game. Besides this, multiplayer is probably one of the highlights of the game, and of course is one of the big advantages that it has over the physical board game.
A Legendary edition?
In all honesty, I found Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition an absolute chore to play and review. Never have I seen a game so inaccessible, at least in the last decade or so, before which old-school computer games could come packaged with manuals thicker than your arm. Even when I finally got to grips with it, I still found the gameplay lacklustre and frustrating. Maybe I still just don’t get it, but I’m not sure I really want to either.
I cannot finish this review without giving the game two completely different ratings. If you are a big fan of the Blood Bowl board game, then by all means, please buy Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition, because there is a lot of content and enjoyment to be had for you in this title. There is even the option of painting your players with custom colours and logos. The loyalty to its board game source is astounding and will no doubt suit enthusiasts down to the ground.
That said, for anyone else who is not willing to spend hours meticulously learning the rules, it’s really not worth it. Even when you’ve mastered the gameplay, it has such a kitsch style that few are likely to really love it. For that reason, I hate to do it but I have to tell the average gamer to:
Platforms: PC | Tagged 40K, American Football, Beat em up, Blood Bowl, Board Game, Cyanide, fantasy, I love reading manuals, Legendary Edition, Multiplayer, NFL, PC, Real-time, review, RTS, Sports, Strategy, Tabletop, thq, Turn Based, Warhammer