This is a Guest review by ShineDog
Hank Horrible. I've just been completely destroyed by an elf named Hank Horrible. He caught the ball his own team kicked when I was receiving, smashed through my team of angry dinosaurs, and blazed through my lines in a flurry of spiky knuckles and lucky dice, scoring a touchdown seconds into the game. Ouch.
That hurts. But I am already plotting my vengeance. My opponent is congratulating himself over chat. Soon he will be swearing, once I have taken Hank Horrible and made every one of my players jump up and down on his head.
Ah, Blood Bowl! The name says it all. This is American football meets rugby meets war zone. Teams of fantasy clichés line up and hit each other while trying to get a ball across a line. (If you want to ignore the ball and focus on the beating, that works too, and is a time honoured Blood Bowl technique)
For those unfamiliar, Blood Bowl has been around as a Games Workshop board game for 20 years now, and it's popularity is enduring. Players take turns to command players to run, pass, tackle, and bludgeon, and between games they get to direct the growth of the team with a simple management mode, choosing special abilities for players and hiring coaches and new players. The fast and simple rules are given an interesting twist through the Turnover rule, where any failed action leads to your turn ending prematurely. Fumble a pass? Turnover. Punch yourself and not the opponent? Turnover. While the game rules may seem complicated at first, the tutorial does a decent job of working you through the game, and as a nice bonus, the full rulebook for the board game is installed alongside the game. It wont help you when the dice turn up snake eyes and your player trips over his own feet and drops the ball, however.
A badly time turnover leaves your opponent in prime position to capitalize on your mistakes, so risk management is the key skill here, making sure you get your important moves in first while trying to force your opponent to make risks. It's a good mechanic and one that does a good job of bringing tension into the game.
Not that it would lack tension without it, of course. You spend a long time with each team, moulding players until they are tough, strong, and maybe even skilled enough to pick up a ball. You will get very attached to these little guys. At the same time injuries are common, broken legs, shattered skulls, and deaths, you are likely to see many in a single game, and when you see a player wander onto the pitch, chainsaw in hand, you may well be a little worried.
But it goes both ways. Blood Bowl is a great game for the vindictive. It thrives upon player conflict. Hank Horrible has shamed me and I will have my vengeance. Schadenfreude is in full effect here, but in the best way possible. You should expect good natured smack talking as casualties mount on both sides, and a sense of humour is required, because as with any dice driven game, luck is a factor and it can, on occasion, seem completely unfair. Laugh it off, because your opponent is suffering just as much.
Cyanide have done a good job converting the classic board game to the PC. Most of the rules are present and correct, with a handful of special rules and a few teams missing, presumably held back for a future expansion pack. Also included is a new mode called blitz, which offers an expanded campaign game with new equipment purchasing, team sponsors, and a wide variety of special missions. While this mode is fun in campaign mode it throws many new random and uncounterable elements into the game, and it thus shunned in online play, locked out from the open league and used in barely any of the player made leagues. Also included in the Blitz mode is the option to play in real time, but this is a novelty at best, playing out like a slow motion, unsatisfying football RTS. Those looking for a fantasy Madden are not going to find what they are looking for here.
Single player takes you through a decently sized campaign, where players take a team through a series of championships taking place at stadiums dotted across a large map, with different prizes and trophies on offer for each, and it is a good way for a new player to learn to ropes of the game. Unfortunately the AI, while competent, is less than stellar, and rather than improving the AI as you progress, you instead face off against high level teams with monstrously skilled players that can bludgeon your team aside without worry. It feels a little cheap.
But the single player was never going to offer a fraction of the kind of fun multiplayer could, dealing with the fairly passive AI was never going to be as exciting as facing down a , with players creating persistent online teams to take through either the open, public league, where players challenge each other to "friendly" exhibition matches, or best of all, organised leagues created by players. There are always leagues on the go, and it's a great way to add a little meaning to your games.
That said, the online game is far from technically perfect. For instance, a persistent (and seemingly random) connection error has plagued a large proportion of he games population for a long time now, (Blood Bowl has been available on international download sites for some time) and Cyanide seems to have made little progress correcting it. The league interface itself is poor, with an unwieldy chat system and an awkward matchmaking, occasionally games don't get recorded properly, and it has been known to crash when deleting teams and firing players.
Presentation is a mixed bag. Menus are poorly laid out and cluttered, while in game the graphics are attractive, with big, solid looking character models and well designed stadiums. An art design focusing on bright colours and bold exaggerated lines gives a good look that scales well to older machines. Animations are more varied, with certain players moving with character and fluidity, and others gliding around and looping strangely (Some of the cheerleader animations look particularly poor)
Sounds effects are fairly typical, with crunching impacts, a selection of grunts and roars, and a looping crowd effect, you'll have heard this sort of thing in any sports game.
You will never have heard anything like the commentary though, which is just shockingly, shockingly bad. I suspect this is a direct translation from French (Where Cyanide is based) with no rewriting to account for context or even just to make sense. At the end of the day you have 2 obnoxious character spouting terrible jokes that don't have a punch line over and over again, with such a small selection of lines that you will hear multiple repeated lines repeated multiple times within minutes. I challenge you to keep it on for more than 2 games. It's a shame too, particularly since Cyanides last pretend sports game, Chaos League, had excellent and witty commentary by award winning journo/comic author Kieron Gillen.
Issues like the commentary, the occasionally flaky multiplayer service, and a handful of other bugs are unlikely to utterly ruin the game for anyone. Blood Bowl has a long history as a well loved game and all Cyanide needed to do was not screw it up completely, and fortunately they haven't. Of course, this wont be a game for everyone. The idea of a sports board game is unlikely to appeal to madden fans. But anyone else interested in the concept is likely to have a good time.
Now if you will excuse me, one of my players just kicked Hanks head off, I need to go laugh at my opponent lots.