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Blood Sport

Tis Christmas time again (at least when I'm composing this article) so you know what that means - killing and maiming as a reactionism to the forced and wholly artificial cheer shoved down our throats by the truckload since holloween. Luckily, we can do this to fictional, computer generated characters and avoid all the paperwork that comes with actual killing and maiming. Also, there is a sale on Steam (the delivery platform, not the water vapor). Blood Bowl came down to a price where my raction became "sure, I'll give it a shot". In case you don't already know, Blood Bowl comes from those same fellows at Games Workshop who gave us Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. It uses the art deisgn and races from Warhammer in a rather spectacularly violent adaptation of American Football. Like the other two, it was (and still is) a tabletop game, but this is about the electronic adaptation of that.

My first problem came when the Steam integration proved to be sub-par compared with other games, and either left in the original DRM or replaced it with stub code which behaves very similarly from the legal user's perspective. But once I sorted out which code was which and entered them in the proper sequence (you can query Steam for you CD keys at any time) it was up and running with only minimal annoyance. That overcome, I finally got started with the game itself. As with any new game, I looked for the tutorial. Other than familiarizing you with the announcers' voices and the general control schema, the tutorial only served to leave me rather confused and befuddled. Too many rules dumped too quickly in an abbreviated fashion upon the player. So I wandered over to campaign mode fully convinced that I was going to lose, and lose badly.

In campaign mode, you don't start with a team, you start with the money to set up a team. So I had to pick a race from the gaggle of choices (20 if the sales blurb is to be believed) and start hiring players. Since I was convinced I was going to be losing a lot, and as such watching my own players get badly hurt, I decided to choose a race whose suffering would entertain me. Elves worked, I never did like Elves, but there were four different kinds. Since I was going to be seeing my own team most of the time, I picked the sub variety based on art design, what would least offend my eyes. I ended up picking Dark Elves and named my team the Veckland Sveltes. Why? Because it didn't imply any sense of self respect, strength or competence, and they're bloody elves. Where's Veckland? I have no idea, I pulled the name out of my ass. Lets assume it's the territory that ponied up the million gold pieces to finance this team.

I finally got to the campaign screen and told to pick a tournement. Next to the map of stadiums was the team rankings, and naturally the brand new Veckland Sveltes were dead last. Zero renown and no fan support. As such, a new team only qualifies for one tournement. The four teams competing were all at the bottom of the rankings, but the Sveltes were still dead last in both 'team value' and 'fan rating'. After all of this, I finally get to my first actual match. It was against a Chaos team, the Marauders, and I swear it was made up entirely of minotaurs. To sum up how the first half went, just picture this - an elf trying to block a minotaur linebacker making a break for the goal line. So, yeah, it went about as well as I originally expected, with many of my players ending up with hoofprints on them.

I gained possession in the second half only because the rules required the other team to kick to me at that point. Much to my surprise, one of my 'Blitzers' (a more heavily armored version of a generic line man) managed to take out one of their weaker players who was guarding the side line. I think it had less to do with the mass of impact and more with being impaled on the Spikes of Villany that dominate a Blitzer's shoulder pads. Any opening is a good opening, so I ran the ball through the hole it made. The Marauders naturally surged towards my runner and I discovered something very useful about Dark Evles. They are apparently very good at tripping. A leg sweep laid their first intercepter flat, and forced a turnover, letting me continue on to actually tie the game. I regarded it as a fantastic victory that I managed a draw.

Surprisingly, despite the goring they took, all eleven players on the Sveltes were actually still alive and able to continue on to the next match. My winnings were next to nothing (Blood Bowl fans do not like a draw) and I was up against the only AI team that won it's first day's match. The Vampire Coast Swashbucklers were, well, pirate themed vampires and their thralls. The first thing I found out was that Thralls are even weaker than Elves when not in large packs, and I was able to punch a hole through their line to make a goal within a few plays of the first kick. The second thing I discovered was that in large packs, thralls formed a nigh impenetrable line that I could not break through. Lastly, I found out that vampires are far stronger than elves and every attempt to dislodge the ball from their possession ended with a backhanded swipe that tossed my player like a rag doll. Eventually, however, his ball transport mass collected so many of my players around it, that he could no longer advance and we stalled halfway into my end of the field.

Luckily for me, vampires have to feed, and they feed on thralls. In order to keep from losing the player carrying the ball, they had to keep feeding other players to him which could have otherwise made an effort to break through my ring. This stalemate continued until halftime, when the game resets. As they'd last had possession, the vampires were forced to kick to me. It was a repeat of the start of the game - I quickly punched through the dispersed line of thralls and snagged a running goal. My kick to him started out as yet another repeat of the first half, only I managed to bog him down on his side of the field. As the time started to run out, the vampires became desperate and attempted a running play, only to fall victim to the same leg sweep that tripped up the Marauders. With the ball in the open, I scooped it up and tried to pass to one of my players in position to make for the goal. It turns out Dark Elf linemen can't throw for shit. Instead of a passing play, I had a wild ball bouncing around the field in the middle of the mass of Thralls and Elves that had formed around the vampire ball transporter. One of his Thralls made a dash for it, only to be clotheslined by the original intended reciever and end up dead. Being Blood Bowl, a mere fatality doesn't slow down the game. The ball ended up at the feet of one of my Blitzers - who was surrounded by the other team. The end zone was at the extreme limit of his movement, and the clock was more or less on its last seconds. So I told him to run for it. Lo and behold, the little bastard dodged every damn vampire and thrall on the field to make a goal just as the clock ran out. That crowd was pissed. Did I mention that this was a home game for the vampires?

Surprise, surprise, I had actually won, and a shutout no less. I was actually feeling pretty good going into the third game of the tournament. I'd had no serious injuries on my team and the worst I'd done was a draw. To top it off, the team I was up against had lost every match so far. So naturally, they tore me to shreds. Three players pounded into paste, two of them punted unto the spiked fense marking the sidelines where the fans promptly joined in beating them down. I was barely able to keep my players standing, let alone try to play the game. It was over so fast I didn't have time to register the course of events. The same norsemen who lost to both the vampires and the marauders had curbstomped me. While my prediction had come to pass, it had been oddly delayed to be delivered in the most embarassing fashion possible - by the losingist team in the tournament.

With the placement rounds over, the actual playoff began, and my first match was against the norse team again. It was a repeat of the placement match. I wandered away in shock, my initial elation gone. I didn't even have vitriol to spill here over the sudden shift in difficulty. I couldn't figure out how one could counter the moves he was making. Unable to sleep for unrelated reasons, I came back to the game. I'd quit without saving, so I reloaded my last save game - it was right before the first match against the norse team. Fearing a third repeat, I loaded up on medics and cautiously slipped into the match. It started out looking very much like a repeat when my star player (the Blitzer who'd made the goal at the end of the vampire match) was KOed by their defensive line while trying to screen for a runner. He was hit so hard that even after emergency medical treatment was a success he was going to be missing the next game. Despite the loss and the swarm of angry berzerkers, the runner made it to the end zone and scored - a first for me against the norsemen. I managed to pin him down until halftime, when he was forced to kick to me. In another shocking twist, my blitzer on the left managed to push his berzerker just far enough away from the sidelines for the runner to slip past. His entire back field converged on that runner - eight angry drunkards gone a viking against one particularly gracile elf unsuited to even line work. Fleeing in panic, the runner pissed himself all the way to the endzone. But it still counted as a goal.

I tried to bog him down after the kick, dear lord I tried. I sacked his runner three times, taking possession twice, but ended up being pummeled every time. With half my team lying stunned on the grass, he made his first goal of this match. That's when I realized - I was in the lead. When he botched the kick and dropped it right into the arms of one of my players, I bunched up, wrapping the entire back field around that guy like an ablative shield. At the same time, the line went on the offensive, trying to beat down his front ranks so they couldn't force a breakthrough. Only one of his guys got through, and he stumbled across an outstretched leg. Dark Elves are really good at tripping. I ran down the clock - it was the only way to get out of this match on top.

I don't normally play sports games, and I don't pay attention to any form of football, but this game was addicting. It was 3am when I finally had to tear myself away so I could get some sleep before work. Thanks to the accidental failure to save in my shock at being torn apart by the worst team in the tournament, the Veckland Sveltes are going into the playoffs tied for first with the Marauders (two wins one draw). This time I'm up against the vampires first, so hopefully the Marauders will knock out the norsemen and the tournament championship will be a rematch of my first game. We'll see.

As far as games go, I'm certainly giving it a recommendation. Lots of humor, decent graphics and the learning curve only looks steep, it's not as bad as the tutorial made it seem. Of course, people who aren't fans of gratuitous violence won't appreciate it, but come on, the game is titled "Blood Bowl" after all. That should give you some idea of what you're in for.

PS, I lied, the runner didn't actually wet himself, the game assumes a higher level of courage than I do for the players.

--Robert McCarroll