Good Morning Games Workshopers!
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There’s a strange mixture of sensations that crop up in most gamers at the mention of Games Workshop titles. Conversions of the popular tabletop games have been around since the days of the Commodore 64, with varying degrees of success. Aside from being a good way to part middle-class Britons from their pocket-money and provide a healthy amount of peer mocking, GW has also given rise to many universes that have provided the basis for some very novel concepts. One of which is Blood Bowl.
In essence it’s quite a simple idea, a sports game, modelled on American Football. With the slight exception that the object is not only to score goals but to annihilate the opposing team if at all possible. All of which is constructed in a fashion where the players are invariably made up from the fantasy races of the Warhammer universe. As teams of ferocious Orcs battle against lithe Elves and doughty Dwarves. Victory lying in the swap of the dice rolls and the clever manoeuvring of the players. Naturally a huge amount of skill and perseverance need go into the playing of the game as players refine techniques, tailor them to their races, amass collections of players and strategically use them to maximize their chances of winning against each opposing team. The question that immediately springs to mind is how can this be converted from a tabletop turn-based boardgame into a vibrant videogame? In this case rather literally.
To their credit, Cyanide Studio have created a game that is so close to the original in scope and playability that it’s likely any hardened Blood Bowler will be instantly at ease and amazed by the level of customisable options and possibilities at hand. Having previously released a remarkably similar title in the form of Chaos League some years ago, they evidently have the necessary understanding of the mechanics to ensure that the conversion has retained the flavour of the original game. However, that’s all good and well for fans of the game. The real question is whether or not the game holds up under the scrutiny of someone who doesn’t know one end of a blood Bowl pitch from the other.
What is immediately apparent with blood Bowl on the PSP is that it’s clearly a cut-down port of the PC version. Glaringly obvious in its omission is the real-time strategy mode, meaning that the game can only be played in the board-game’s turn-based style. So anyone approaching the game expecting a portable experience along the lines of a John Madden title or Speedball 2 will be disappointed as Blood Bowl is very much a reworking of the board game in every respect; dice-rolling and movement by squares only. Despite this there are precious few other detracting concessions which would hamper the enjoyment.
The basic game begins with selecting a race, of which there are several to choose from, each forming roughly equatable pairings which bear a unique variation of skills and abilities. The Humans are, as ever, the all rounders, fairly capable at everything but master of nothing. Similarly the Lizard men have a mixture of strength and speed which lets them play an all round game. There are the nimble but weak Skaven and Goblins contrasted with the strong Dwarves and Orcs. Rounding off the options are the Wood Elves, fragile, expensive but acrobatic and fast and finally the hordes of Chaos, who are essentially a combat team. This is where the tactical side of play begins, as the choice of race will dictate your plays and overall team strategy. In a welcome addition of management, this begins before you even see the pitch.
Before you can go crack some heads, your team has to be built up out of appropriate classes of players. To this end you have a cash pool to buy them from, as well as perks such as cheerleaders and apothecary who increase the chance of in game bonuses. Out of this pool you can buy up to 16 players, with prices varying with their skills. This becomes a fairly essential part of later play as the brutal nature of the game ensures that you’ll have to replace dead players and have a healthy stable of reserves for when someone gets injured badly enough to keep them out of play for a few matches. During the length of the game the management section becomes at least as important as the matches as a poor manager will end up with a pitiful or mismatched team, and that spells defeat.
Which brings us to the game itself. As previously stated, the game is very much a dry adaptation of the boardgame. The plays run out in a turn-based order, with each side making plays and moving players or trying to score. Unfortunately this is also where the first problem comes into the game, the game is rigidly controlled by the dice-rolling, which isn’t at first very apparent in the display. There are also a whole host of mini-rules and techniques that you will only find if you download the full Blood Bowl manuals from the Games Workshop website. There is also a bizarre expectation that the player will know how to play the game from the outset; a short tutorial aside you’ve no real help so it’ll be a step into very deep water for an inexperienced first-time player.
Even if you do understand the concepts then there is the random turnaround factor to deal with. Whilst playing the game; a whole litany of errors can instantly swap the play over to the other side resulting often in you having accomplished barely half of what you hoped to in a shot. Now this does nicely give a sense of the random nature of the game, it also provides yet another wall-like learning curve that will probably see many a gamer fling the UMD out of the console in disgust. It’s one thing to lost possession to an interception, quite another to lose a match because your speedy lizardman Skink fumbles when trying to pick up a ball in a square adjacent to him; four attempts in a row, each time losing you a precious turn and the ability to move most of your players. Additionally, should you lose a tackle, slip and fall or fumble a throw and it’s instant turnaround. Admittedly this holds equally true for the other side but it can be sickening when you’re playing against the computer, on the easiest difficulty setting. Easy is a misnomer as well, as the CPU opponents ought to be called ‘Skilled’, ‘Incredible’ and ‘Just plain impossible’.
If you persevere against this, as fans of the game probably will, having already known about the myriad eccentricities of the boardgame, you will find a remarkably tactical and complex game. It’s easily one of the most strategic titles on the PSP, which is why it’s hard to even call it a sports game.
As far as the aesthetics of the game as concerned, it’s a bit of a let down. The menu screens are perfunctory and the occasional sequence is decent if a tad average but the in-game graphics leave a lot to be desired. The individual players are recognisably different from one another but not in a way that makes you sure what you’re actually looking at. Add to that some flatly dull sound effects and a repetitive musical barrage and you’ve got an experience that really isn’t up to scratch.
All of which underlines what is probably an obvious point but well served; if you’re a fan of Blood Bowl tabletop, then the game is all here. Each obscure rule, every tactical decision and the ability to customise your team to the nth degree are present and correct to a degree that will make tabletop aficionados grin with glee. The game will let the experienced player build a unique team and lead them to glory in the league or against like-minded PSP owning friends. But it’s a game that a huge portion of the playing public simply won’t enjoy due to the lack of actual sport in what looks on the surface to essentially be an American Football game.