The Warhammer universe is beset by eternal war between the various fantasy races that vie for supremacy, but within an alternate version of this universe, the races that would otherwise be at each other’s throats find the time to pick up a ball and play sports. Two parts American Football, one part Rugby and three parts fantasy violence. This is Blood Bowl.
The cult classic board game has been translated into video game form on several occasions in the past, but Games Workshop seem to have found a happy partnership in this series with Cyanide Studios. Their first attempt at a Blood Bowl game came out in 2009, with a major expansion and tons of new races added in 2010, but this year will see the release of a full blooded sequel in the form of Blood Bowl 2. Though you might presume this would be a PC game first and foremost, it’s actually set to land on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One too.
Unlike many video game adaptations of Games Workshop properties, Cyanide are sticking very closely to the original rules and turn based gameplay of the board game. Each side takes turns to make all of their moves, whether it’s moving a player into a new position, bashing an enemy and knocking them to the ground or grabbing the ball and making a long throw for a touchdown. Then again, if the dice do not roll in your favour, you won’t be managing to do any of that.
Unlike in the real world, there’s no place for health and safety on the pitch; this is all out warfare with an egg-shaped ball thrown into the mix for good measure. Depending on the race you’re playing as, some of the preferred tactics will be smashing the other team into oblivion, rather than any real finesse with the ball. You can even use illegal players and do other things to cheat your way through a match or murder an opposition player that’s been knocked down, if you don’t mind your player getting sent off – though that’s hardly a punishment, when you think about it.
Thankfully, a lot has been done to demystify the gameplay for newcomers to the game and veterans alike. Though you’re still dealing with individual stats and elements of chance, it’s all presented in a nice, clean fashion. Your players are all represented by cards with their stats down one side, so you can see at a glance how far they can move or how good they are at throwing the ball. When it comes to actually taking an action that requires a dice roll, you’ll be able to see the likelihood of pulling it off and get a little action preview of what could occur, before being treated to the quite lovely and cinematic animations that now punctuate the game, in a fashion not too dissimilar to the recent XCOM games.
A great deal of care and attention has clearly been paid to the visual side of the game, so that it’s not a dull and staid affair as you play. There are stadiums for all of the different races, which can have special effects, like a beer stand leading to more hooliganism or a hard surface replacing grass meaning that you’re more likely to see players getting injured. The larger the stadium, the more fans that can pack in to support their team, with huge cauldrons of chanting fans – though their looping animations are quite obvious if you look too closely – but in truth, all of the action is out on the lush grass of the pitch, where all of the players are quite well detailed and nicely animated. A really very powerful camera zoom was also in action, so that you could either immerse yourself in the visuals and get close to the ground or pull right out to see the pitch from above, with players represented by icons.
The story-based campaign serves as an introduction to the gameplay for newcomers, without there being an overt tutorial for you to wade through. It follows the Reikland Reavers, a human team that was once at the top of the game but has fallen on hard times. It’s up to you to lead them back to glory, with the campaign starting with the relative basics and progressing through to more and more complex games and scenarios. With introductions from American Football style commentators Bob and Jim, each match will have a unique tweak and event that makes it different, whether it’s a Cabalcopter – a camera mounted onto a goblin powered pedal-bike helicopter – crashing into the ground and creating a flaming wreck that you can push players into. These kinds of events are scripted during the campaign but randomised events will also come into play in other matches.
You’ll face off against all of the different races through the story, each of which is playable in the other modes. There’s the Humans, Dwarves, rat-like Skaven, Orcs, Chaos, Dark Elves, High Elves and a brand new addition to the universe, the Bretonnians – a race of Humans that feature noble knights first and foremost. Each will play differently and have different strengths and weaknesses, so that the Dark Elves are sneaky, while the Orcs and Dwarves love to get into a bit of a fight on the pitch, and you’ll have to adapt to whichever race you pick for the Management mode, where you create your own team from the ground up. It’s here that the injuries and deaths that happen out on pitch will really come into play, as they persist from one match to another, meaning that the star players you’ve cultivated throughout can quickly and abruptly disappear from your team.
In a quite fascinating move to balance them, Cyanide are having the AI teams controlled server side, so that they can adjust and tweak their behaviours without having to develop and submit costly patches to Sony and Microsoft for the console versions of the game. You will be able to play offline as well, thanks to them shipping a baseline set of AIs within the game, but a push for online and remote AIs is a fascinating attempt to tackle the problem of balancing.
Of course, you can take the AI out of the equation completely with multiplayer, and this is set to feature both local play – with pass the pad support, no less – as well as a myriad of online options. Nothing is lost from PC to console, with the ability to create your own online leagues and cups to play in and more. Taking the emphasis on a more visually arresting style of presentation, as well as catering to the eSports crowd to a certain degree, there will be options and tools to allow others to spectate your game built in. Sadly, though Cyanide would love to have cross-platform play – and with it being turn based, there’s nothing to gain or lose from playing with a controller or a keyboard and mouse – they’ve not yet been able to see that happen.
That minor point aside – and it would have been surprising given how rare such a feature is, anyway – Blood Bowl 2 is really looking very good. It will naturally appeal most to fans of Games Workshop and the board game itself, but at the same time it offers something quite unique and different to the real world sporting games that we see. Naturally, a big part of that is the turn based gameplay, but it’s also stylistically and thematically a lot more bombastic and silly compared even to American Football’s overindulgence. With lovely and vibrant graphics, a much improved and a more polished user interface, Cyanide really seem to be delivering on their aims from when Blood Bowl 2 was first revealed.