By Matt Carey
When I was at school, I, like many others wondered what all those nerds sat in the corner of a classroom during breaks were doing. Soon it became apparent that they had in their possession dice; not normal six sided dice either. These had anything up to 12 sides. And sometimes, they didn’t have numbers on them. There the nerds sat, scribbling away on scraps of paper, rolling their die, and groaning something about ‘protection spells’.
It became apparent that they be-spectacled youths were playing Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy based role-playing game.
Where Dungeons and Dragons involved the player controlling an individual, and his subsequent interactions, combat, and experiences with other lone characters, there were those that were more interested in the conflict aspect and yearned for a different approach. Warhammer emerged, a concept rooted in the original D&D, but giving the player control over vast armies rather than solo protagonists. However, realising that a few dice and a couple scraps of paper were not going to be sufficient in mapping out the all out war that was about to ensue, Warhammer became a game played with small, yet detailed figures, enabling the player to have a physical form of the troops under their control.
Whilst Joe Public takes no apparent notice of the phenomena, it is a thriving industry, with thousands of avid supporters and participants. Indeed, over the years, the concept has moved in different directions whilst still incorporating the initial concept. One of these variants was Blood Bowl.
Blood Bowl is based on two things; American Football and Warhammer / Dungeons and Dragons methodology. What this gives you is a sports game that looks like an existing sport, but littered with elves, dwarves and assorted die. These die are then used to dictate the action and plays during the game. Seems ripe, then, for a console version, allowing players to participate without spending the time and money on figures that need to be built and painted.
The first big problem we encounter is that this is not a game that throws open its arms and welcomes you in. For many, myself included, this fantasy realm is completely alien. Unfortunately, the game is built entirely on the basis that you know what Warhammer is, what Blood Bowl is, and how it all works. The tutorial is based more around teaching those with prior knowledge of the real game how to play the console iteration of their beloved franchise. If you have no prior understanding, then you are going to take a long time to get to grips with what exactly is going on.
So what is going on? At first appearance, this is American Football. Most adult males will know the sport and have a modicum of understanding of how the game is played. However, only the slightest knowledge of the sport is required; you know there are two teams and they compete to score more touchdowns and points than each other? Great. That’s all you need to know in that respect. However, the actual playing of the game is a very different affair indeed. This is a sports game that is as concerned with the strategy as it is with the sport.
The player must build himself a team, choosing from humans, elves, dwarves and other such fantasy creatures. Each different ‘species’ has their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Dwarves, for example, are brutish and tough, ideal for those wanting to play a hard defensive game. Once the team is built, then it’s time to take them out onto the pitch and compete.
The matches are controlled by way of, yes, you guessed it, the throw of a die. Now, whilst I don’t doubt for one second that this is true to its real life counterpart, it does mean that there is little or no skill involved in the matches. Instead, events during the competitions are dictated by chance, and, as this is a video-game iteration, you cannot even say that. The chance here is pre-programmed, giving you even less feeling control than a physical dice would. The ultimate effect of this is that any well thought out plays and strategies go out of the window.
Matches go on for a total of 16 turns. During the course of the game, experience points are doled out to the individuals in your team based on passes, interceptions, killing opponents, and so on. These are used to improve the attributes of said competitors. However, only touchdowns will score you points and win you the game, irrespective of how many of the opposition you have maimed. The plays themselves are a strange mix of strategy and hoping that the game/chance will screw everything up for you. During a play, you can move every single one of your team. So, do you play safe and work your way gradually up the pitch, or do you go for one big Hail Mary, that is harder to pull off. To coin a phrase, the choice is as broad as it is long. Yes, you run a high chance of a turnover by playing the ‘long-shot’ play, but as games are determined by the roll of a die, if just one of your team falter in an easier play, then the play is still turned over. It all becomes hit and miss and you get the feeling you may as well just go for the big plays all the time as the outcome is still out of your hands.
There are some good points though. Graphically, the game is solid, if not spectacular, and represents its chosen subject matter in a bright and detailed manner. The audio for the most part is pretty much spot on too, although I now have developed a hatred for hearing the sound of a rolling dice. The game engine ran smoothly, but for some reason the load times seemed un-necessarily long. Odd considering that this isn’t the most detailed game in the world. In terms of the controls, things do get a little fiddly here and there. You do get used to them, but once in a while they feel more complicated than they needed to be.
All in all, this is just a bizarre game. As someone that hasn’t played the real Blood Bowl, I can only guess as to whether the video game adaptation is an accurate depiction. I would guess it is; how hard can it be to translate all the rules for example. However, surely the whole point of a video game tie in is to try and attract new fans. Blood Bowl, and other things like it, is a niche market, so this philosophy makes sense. Unfortunately, the game does little to molly-coddle new players and bring them into the fold. As I mentioned earlier, the tutorial only really sees fit to let those who have prior knowledge know how to control things rather than take people by the hand and explain what is going on. For people like me, this makes the game exclusive rather than inclusive.
Perseverance doesn’t help, and for a while every turn delivers a new “What on earth is going on?” moment as you struggle to understand things by yourself. The matches are short and intense, and probably an accurate reflection of how it should be. However, strategy seems to take a back seat as you spend your time hoping for the best.
I cannot really criticize Cyanide, the developers in question at all. Their track record consists of a great many games of this ilk, and they, probably more than most, know what they are doing when it comes to creating sports-rpg-rts hybrids. The job they have done is admirable, with their only fault not including a “newcomer” mode to the game. They have created a good looking game that handles well and represents Blood Bowl as it should be. The true problem with the game is the subject matter itself. Blood Bowl, Warhammer, and all games of the ilk have a strict set of rules, and these must be adhered to. If the subject matter itself is niche, then how is a video game version to be anything but?
Fairly well executed, but for enthusiasts only.