Once upon a time, in a decade far far away, a game existed that allowed you to pit two teams of upgradable, armoured, gridiron-inspired and generally badass players against each other in order to throw a metallic orb around a futuristic, industrial arena.
The orb would hit various strategically placed multipliers for additional points. It would briefly glow red and annihilate opposing team members. You'd receive points for knocking people out, and if you listened very closely, you could even hear the ice cream vendors during a break in the action. Leagues were held, championships contested, joysticks broken - of all the Bitmap Brothers games, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe was, without a doubt, one of the best.
Blood Bowl? Oh sorry, no, it's nothing like Speedball 2. Apologies, I just kind of drifted away there thinking about what a cool game that was.
If you're not familiar with the Warhammer table-top gaming franchise, then there's every chance you have a girlfriend. It's fair to say that creators Games Workshop have pumped out a fair bit of merchandise related to everything Warhammer, and the Blood Bowl series is closely related to the perpetual fantasy world most people associate with the Warhammer brand. It's a type of fantasy football that features your now-compulsory menagerie of dwarves, elves, orcs and goblins, and it's designed to resemble some kind of rugby/gridiron/ultimate fighting champion hybrid.
While Games Workshop may be the official muscle behind this particular attempt to turn the otherwise popular Blood Bowl board game into a piece of video game art, the application has been left to Cyanide Studios, who were presumably the lowest bidder. The last time we had anything to do with Cyanide, we got landed with the utterly awful Loki, which left us hiding behind the sofa whenever we spotted a courier outside. For two weeks. Blood Bowl had already been installed before the Cyanide logo was spotted, so in the interest of journalistic integrity we plodded on.
There are two ways to play Blood Bowl - either in real-time as a kind of action sports title that won't make EA lose any sleep, or as a turn-by-turn, dice-rolling emulation of the original board game. The former is a relatively clumsy affair that will remind you of so many other ill-fated attempts to create football titles that inevitability turn out to be slightly less fun than actually playing real football, however the latter does show promise and will certainly appeal to anyone who is looking for a faithful copy of the board game in electronic form.
Blood Bowl isn't the easiest of games to figure out, and the tutorials don't really make it any less confusing. The winning conditions are easy to comprehend - move the ball to the other end of the field by using your player to either avoid, attack or kill the enemy. Each player you own has varying strengths and occupations, and the allocation of these specialist skills makes a pretty big difference to your odds of winning. As does luck, seemingly, because every action your players take are weighed against their chance to succeed compared to the actions and abilities of the enemy. Want to step around a goblin and move two paces? The game will calculate the odds of success, and should you lose, it's the other players turn. Ditto for passing a ball or tackling another player. In the early stages, you're going to get awfully familiar with the large "turnover" banner at the top of the screen.
Strategy abounds, as you would expect, so after you've devised solid enough foundations to actually get the ball into the opposition half and use your eight turns to claw it closer to the line, you'd assume the AI would react appropriately and sensibly to stop you. Unfortunately this isn't always the case, as the AI seems extraordinarily determined to push the bounds of credulity by setting up the most unlikely of passes or tackles. The real problem here is that they usually succeed, leaving you with that same sinking feeling you get when you go to retrieve your car from a parking building and realise that you forgot to check the daytime rates.
After a while, I began to suspect that the real problem here isn't the game itself, which to be fair does appear to adhere to the rules and regulations stipulated by the official Games Workshop canon. I don't think I can even really blame Cyanide Studios, although the visual presentation is average, the commentary somewhat repetitive, and I really hated Loki. No, I think the real problem here is me - I'm not a part of this particular world, I have no real understanding of the history behind the Blood Bowl series, so to spend time setting up a team and treating it as if the outcome would be based on my own prowess, managerial ability and tactical flair rather than just rolling a dice was probably unwise. In saying that, the game does precious little to encourage you to stick with it either.
Bottom line, this is for the purists, the people who have played the Blood Bowl board game and want something about as close to that as you can get. You'll love it. In fact, you've probably already bought it. So if you're not sure what this Warhammer spin-off entails, you're not the target demographic, and consequently you'll have a hard time justifying your purchase.
Our thanks to The Bitmap Brothers and Amiga Corporation for making Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe possible.