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Since being founded in 1975, Games Workshop has held a strong foothold on the tabletop gaming market. No doubt best known for “Warhammer” and its futuristic counterpart “Warhammer 40,000,” over the years, they’ve produced a number of smaller skirmish-style games, which varied greatly in quality from the great (Necromunda, Gorkamorka, Space Hulk) and the not so great, such as Inquisitor, with its oversized models, which of course didn’t work with the masses of terrain you made for your other games, and the “Lord of the Rings” tie in games, which essentially required you to remortgage your house so you could re-enact the Battle of Helms Deep on your kitchen table. Surprisingly, one of the most enduring of these small titles is “Blood Bowl,” which since its original release back in 1986 has managed to continually attract a dedicated fanbase with the game currently receiving a fifth edition.
For those not familiar with the game, it is essentially American football set within the fantasy world of Warhammer as teams representing the various races from the game such as Humans, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs and Skaven do battle on the pitch where players can regularly die as violence is not only allowed but actively encouraged, especially when the ref can be bribed and teams can even hire their own wizards to try and gain the winning edge over their opponents.
This of course isn’t the first time that American Football has been given a hyper-violent / fantastical overhaul as we previously had both “Brutal Sports Football” on the Amiga as well as “Mutant League Football” on the Genesis. Even this game had a release as an MS-Dos game back in 1995 prior to the first attempt by the French developers “Cyanide Studios” for the Xbox 360. Now with this sequel, they clearly are attempting to build on what they established with the first game while at the same time providing the player with an almost identical experience to playing the table top game.
Developed for the more powerful Xbox One and Playstation 4 as well as PC, here, the game has been given a visual overhaul, removing the flat overhead view of the previous game. There is a real stadium feel to games as during the cut scenes you can now take in the amassed crowds as well as the satirical brand slogans such as Bloodweiser, Orcidas and McMurty’s. At the same time the teams are all distinctive in their appearance from the brutish Orcs and diseased Nurgle through to the clean cut High Elves and Beer swilling Dwarfs (who actually play welding their tankards) as each team comes with its own distinctive character making it easy for you to find one of two teams to appeal visually.
For those who’ve never played either the previous game or its table top counterpart, here the game does a fantastic job of providing an introduction to the game via its campaign mode which see’s the player trying to turn around the fortunes of the disgraced human team the Reikland Reavers. Here the player works their way through a series of modified games which slowly introduce them to the rules which while complex on first appearance when presented this way makes them easy to pick up.
Once you have the rules down the game provides a number of options as the player can compete with a variety of leagues, cups and tournaments either against AI opponents or against human opponents either offline or online. The online aspect of the game is especially well supported with a number of online ladders / tournaments for players to join and its kind of refreshing to see a game providing so many options for play, rather than simply sticking to the popular model of being online exclusive. The downside however comes with the lack of a timeout option, leaving you committed to playing a game once you’ve started and with games usually taking around an hour and a half to play it does mean that you have to block out your gaming time to avoid forfeiting games due to real-life intruding on your fun.
For those not familiar with the game, it can, when first starting, seem overly strict and brutal, especially when one failed move can mean the end of your turn. However, this is a game where once you learn the rules, it gets a lot better, more so when you begin to learn the intricacies of the game and what tactics work best for which teams. For example, the Orcs are great at bashing their opponents but slow on speed, meaning that the player is best hitting their opponent first and hard while the Skaven are a fragile team in combat but at the same time one of the quickest making them ideal for the player who enjoys running rings around their opponents defences. Needless to say, you might find yourself spending a worrying amount of time reading up on tactics and plays for the various races, though the game does provide a handy summary of each teams strengths and weaknesses on the team selection page.
Team creation in the game is very much a double-edged sword with eight races available with the game and a further four available as DLC there is plenty of choice of who to play as, though chances are you will end up creating a team for each of the races depending on how loyal you are to any particular race. The customisation options however are more limited with a small number of changeable heads available which can lead to some player duplication and while there is a large selection of team colours including a lovely yellow polka dot (handy for anyone wanting to field a Dusty Rhodes tribute team) though there are no in depth options available for changing these colours. On the up side, you can individually name each player if you don’t want to stick with any of the generic names which is also great for themed teams.
When it comes to creating your team you begin with 1 million gold pieces in which you can purchase players aswell as perks such as Cheerleaders / Extra team training / Apothecaries and extra dice rolls and with each race coming with its own selection of player types from Big guys (Ogres, Treemen, Mummies) to hard hitters (Black Orcs, Witch Elves, Troll Slayers) and the trick is figuring out the best way to spend your gold to produce a balanced team. Of course, if the stats are overwhelming, there is the option available to just have the computer put together a team for you.
With each game your team plays they earn gold with the amount varying depending on if they win or loose and which can be spent on improving the team via perks, purchasing additional players or hiring one of the numerous star players willing to offer their service to teams which can afford them. At the same time players level up as they gain experience points earned by killing opponents and scoring touchdowns which opens skills to improve your players performance on the pitch. It should equally be noted that “Blood Bowl” is a game is not about winning every match but about slowly growing your team into an unstoppable force over a series of games, with a good result often coming from not having players killed or injured to severely than winning every game and there is a real pleasure in seeing your team grow from a bunch of underdogs to powerful team of skilled players.
While the pace of this game might be more strategic than your usual sports simulation with its turn based movement, the colourful and amusing commentary as well as cut scenes of players performing their attacks on rival players or just celebrating touchdowns keeps it from getting stale, much like the more fantastical abilities such as having your troll throw your Goblin halfway across the pitch. Yes the game can be frustrating at times, especially to the newcomer and with one mistake leading to the end of your turn, it can feel at time like a steep learning curve. However, once you have played a few games you soon learn when to make the more risky moves as well as how to best priorities your moves to cover for the potentially fatal dice roll.
For the established fans of the game this is an almost perfect adaptation of the table top game, while for those drawn in by the idea of a fantasy version of American Football this game certainly doesn’t disappoint either especially for those willing to stick with the learning curve. For those who prefer their games a little more fast paced they might be best looking elsewhere.
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac