Blood Bowl, Xbox 360 – Review

Blood Bowl, Xbox 360 – £17.73

Review by – Mr Chris

Blood Bowl was a Games Workshop board game first released some time back in the, oooh, 80s or 90s or something. A while ago, anyway. Basically (for those of you who don’t know) it’s an American football style sports game played by the various denizens of the Warhammer fantasy universe. Your little plastic or lead team of Orcs, Goblins, Humans, Undead or whatever played a turn-based game of Extreme Rugby against each other on a big gridded board. Many dice would be thrown. People would get injured, or killed (and that’s just the argumentative teenagers disputing a dice roll). Touchdowns might be scored. Girls would likely be absent.

Blood Bowl is one of the few GW games I have never owned or played so I was quite looking forward to this game, not least as I’d be able to have a bash at it without going to the mortgage-stretching expense of buying the GW miniatures.

The first thing you notice when loading the game up is that the menu graphics are a little, well, shoddy. The second thing you notice is that navigating the menus is an exercise in random frustration – it’s never obvious which way you have to press the D-pad to get the correct menu button to highlight. For instance, to move right it can be either down, right, or up depending on the menu and, presumably, how the coding goblins felt at the time. But hey, that’s just the menus, what matters is the actual game.

The classic mode is basically a direct port of the Blood Bowl boardgame, using the current version 5 of the rules published by Games Workshop. I didn’t receive a manual with the review copy, so I’ll give the publishers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they attempt to explain the rather lengthy rules in full in it. However, playing without the manual I had no chuffing clue what was going on or why, and I nearly chucked the game in the bin within the first two games (both lost by my Orcish team, the Particular Thistles, by a large margin in both touchdowns and fatalities).

I tried the tutorial (and no real man resorts to that first, do they?) but not only is it entirely uninformative, it also puts a huge greyed-out box explaining each move over the top of the screen! The box has to be there because you have to read it because the tutorial’s not explained in speech, so you can’t see what you’re trying to do due to this bloody great greyed out section of screen. If you turn it off, you can see what you’re trying to do but you don’t actually, in fact, know what it is you’re supposed to be doing. It’s the dullest illustration of Catch-22 ever. It is, in summary, teeth-gnashingly irritating and hateful. So, the tutorial completed, I duly learned nothing and again nearly chucked the game in the bin. Good start so far, eh?

However, I really did want to play the thing (and more importantly I promised Lewie I’d review it) so I downloaded the boardgame rules. Yes, to play this game on even the most basic level you need to download a 63 page boardgame rulebook. Even if this is all set out in the manual, you’re still having to learn the rules to a flipping boardgame to play a game on the 360. Intuitive this is not.

I don’t think that this is something that is a necessary evil for all boardgame or RPG ports, either. For instance, the Baldur’s Gate games managed to run the pretty colossally spoddy 3rd Edition AD&D rules in a very accessible and understandable way (and in a way that didn’t make you feel like you were breaking out in spots and social maladjustment just by looking at it), and THQ have singularly failed to manage the same here with what is in comparison a very basic game. Soo boo-urns, THQ, boo-urns.

So, once I’d read the rules, I had another crack at it. In single player, you have the option of a campaign or a one off competition. The campaign mode is basically a string of competitions, each competition being like a qualifying group in the World Cup, only with more crying and less diving.

Your first job is to pick your race from the 8 you have to choose from (apparently more are promised as DLC. Oh joy), and then buy players. You can choose between various player classes, each having particular skillsets (e.g. bogstandard linemen, throwers, catchers, “blitzers”, Big Chuffing Trolls, Psycho Goblins With Chainsaws etc). You can then buy team goodies such as cheerleaders (they affect something or other. Try page 17 of the rulebook), apothecaries (they can patch up injured players during the game, or prevent deaths) and team rerolls (the ability to choose to reroll a diceroll that doesn’t go your way). You can buy more of all of these later when you earn more money through either winning, drawing or, as it happens, losing. How money is awarded post-match isn’t entirely clear, as with many things in this game.

Over the course of the campaign your players earn “star player points” which lead to them levelling up and then earning new skills. These skills are fairly vital to your progress – the initial competition with your vanilla team is quite disheartening as you’ll probably be continually stomped on by everyone else. However, some of this will be down to the matchup between your race and the opponents – some races are geared towards bowling through the opposition and jumping on them (dwarfs) and others for prancing around like a ballet dancer and falling over in a stiff breeze (wood elves). It’s just the luck of the draw, and you do have to modify your tactics to not only play to your own strengths, but to bear in mind the enemy’s strengths and capitalise on their weaknesses. But it does have shades of “rock paper scissors”, but costing £40 more and with a bit of interactivity.

However, more importantly, that word “luck” there epitomises to me what’s most wrong with this game. Every action (tackles, passing, running a bit further than your normal movement allowance, even picking up the ball. Off the ground. A stationary ball.) relies on dicerolls. This almost entire reliance on chance is fairly aggravating. I’ve had a thrower (who you would have thought would have some reasonable if basic ball skills) failed to pick the ball up on several consecutive attempts, leading to him chasing the ball around my half, while my defensive line desperately tried to prevent the fast moving goblins running through, picking it up, blowing a raspberry at my hapless thrower and legging it down the pitch and scoring. Which they duly did. The game may as well have had Yakkaty Sax playing as the in-game music.

To make matters worse, every failed action results in your turn ending, and you only get 8 turns per half. So my thrower’s English fielder level skills ran me through to half time with just enough time for the other side to score.

This is all partially mitigated by being able to buy rerolls for your team, and you can plan your more “risky” moves for the end of the turn, but the fact you can go for a fair stretch of a game with every single roll going against you (and everything requires a roll of some sort other than moving a short distance) is frustrating in the extreme. Yes, I know it’s a port of a boardgame, but for goodness’ sake.

All that said – once I did finally score my first touchdown, I was beaming. I had defeated the evil Dice Gods. So I kept going and have taken the Particular Thistles on to bigger and better things. Well, some of them. A number are corpses or invalids. I’ve had a few other teams of other races on the go as well, for variety, and the same pattern of having a rough first competition and then improving has repeated itself – so hang in there after the first round and you’ll start to actually achieve things, and enjoy playing the game.

On the nuts and bolts of things, I’ve already mentioned the fairly poor interface graphics, and the in-game graphics are only marginally better. It’s bright, colourful and a bit cartoony, which is nice, and the character models are detailed. However, the “miniatures” are all identical for each player class. They’re not even given different numbers, and they don’t change to reflect upgrades and mutations – so it’s impossible to tell at a glance who’s who. Given that the original boardgame placed a huge amount of emphasis (or so it seems from the rules) on customising your players, leaving out such a minor thing seems either criminal or lazy.

Also, the in-game graphics only look good when you’re zoomed right in on the action. To actually play the game you need to be zoomed well out and above the pitch, and from there the graphics look like something from the PS2.

Sound-wise the music and the effects are fine but the commentary, although partially amusing, repeats itself quite quickly, and you’ll soon want them to shut up. Much like watching football on ITV.

I tried to play the multiplayer mode, but there have been no available games any time I’ve tried to play. I can imagine, as with most games, the PC version may work for this better with clans and leagues and things. The lucky chaps.

A chum was round the other day and we thought we’d give the versus mode a go – however that was immediately scuppered because despite this being a turn-based game you need two controllers. Gah, and indeed bah.

So. It’s ok. I’ll play it for a little while longer, but I can’t see me picking this up too many times again in the future. The multiplayer version may open up wonderful horizons of fun, but that door has been closed to me, for some reason. All in all, though, this is a game that will only be loved, or even really liked, by fans of the original boardgame.

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