Disclosure: the author was given a copy of the game by Evolve PR for the purpose of this review
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (review platform)
Six turns into the first half. Four fouls, two players knocked out, three dead. It was going to be a good match…
Blood Bowl 2 is less a video game, more a 1-to-1 digital recreation of Games Workshop’s fantasy football tabletop game. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a matter of personal taste, and in large part will depend on your personal tolerance for dice rolls. BB2 boils down to a turn & dice based action sports game, with a number of different teams, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and even playstyles. There are eight playable races, all of which are fairly standard for a fantasy setting, with the exception of the Skaven, or Rat-men. Besides them, you have your Humans, Orcs, Dwarves, High Elves, Dark Elves, Bretonnians, and Chaos Demons. There are a few others available as DLC, but we’ll discuss that later. The game plays like a turn-based version of American football, with the goal being to get the ball to the other side of the field and score a touchdown, albeit with a much more frequent rate of crippling injury and outright murder.
The first question a lot of people ask when faced with a sequel to a game is “what did they change?” In the case of Blood Bowl 2, the answer is a resounding “Not much.” The majority of changes from the 2009 Blood Bowl are graphical – ranging from better models and textures, to a significantly improved user interface. Admittedly, this is understandable since they are adapting a board game with a very specific ruleset, which means sweeping changes to the game’s formula are generally not going to be welcome. This “sidelining” (heh) of gameplay changes has given Cyanide Studios the chance to redesign the cluttered UI and systems of the original Blood Bowl and make the game much more user-friendly. In general there is just a lot more information on how things work, from team strengths and weaknesses to success percentages being displayed on tooltips for certain actions, a feature that was desperately needed. The game is much easier to follow and understand, however it still requires players to learn some of its more unique systems inside and out. There is also a wonderfully irreverent sense of humor throughout, punctuated perfectly by the two amusingly sardonic commentators, Bob and Jim, who will have a play-by-play discussion as the player makes their moves. In addition, the online matchmaking and game stability has been greatly improved from the original, which lends itself to a much more enjoyable experience.
League modes, whether the single player campaign or multiplayer leagues, are the game’s strongest point. They allow the player to follow the seasons of their chosen team, managing the players, their skills and their stadium. Putting your team together and watching them grow from scrappy rookies to hardened veterans is extremely satisfying and effective, as is the sting of watching one of your favorite players die at the hands of a particularly brutal foul, or if they’re lucky, retire due to age. The campaign is absolutely massive, and puts the player in the shoes of the new head coach of the Reikland Reavers, the most famous human team and a fan favorite. Sadly the team has fallen on hard times, and it’s up to the player to rebuild it and reclaim their earlier glory. Essentially, it functions as its own game mode and a tutorial for higher level online league play simultaneously. A major new feature this time around is the addition of a customizable “Home Stadium”, which you can upgrade and tailor to your personal preferences. For the sake of balance, most of these upgrades apply to your opponents as well, but a smart player can pick the proper upgrades for their team and end up with a significant advantage. For instance, Astrogranite, which makes it much easier to injure players, is a boon to a Chaos team, while being a massive hinderance to a more fragile team like Humans or Elves. Sadly one feature from the first game that is conspicuously absent is race-specific cheerleaders. It’s not really a big deal overall, but it was a nice detail that added to the world, and it can be jarring to see a group of humans cheering on a Chaos or Orc team.
Something I feel will prove an issue for people who are new to board/dice games is the fact that there is always some tiny element of luck involved in playing the game. You could have the biggest, baddest Orc veteran around go up against an unskilled Skaven rookie and still end up with a dead Orc. Of course, it isn’t at all likely, but there is still a slight chance, and that dissonance may be somewhat off-putting to new players. I played locally with a friend who was unfamiliar with board games and he ended up quite frustrated after a few consecutive unlucky rolls. The “random chance” element is something many gamers don’t really care for, with common arguments usually saying it takes away from the skill of the game. While there is certainly some merit to that argument, personally I’d say it doesn’t so much take away that skill as it does replace it with a more strategic one. For instance, if the game required players to dodge by completing a quick time event or something similar rather than a simple dice roll, it would increase the mechanical skill required, but reduce the overall strategic skill involved with making decisions such as the proper positioning and risk management. Regardless of how you choose to play, the random chance element is intrinsic to Blood Bowl, so don’t expect to win every single game, even if you’re making all the right choices.
While the graphics are a marked improvement over the original release of BB, Blood Bowl 2 suffers from a number of technical issues that can affect the overall level of enjoyment. The load times are massive, although thankfully you don’t have to deal with them once you get a match up and running. There are noticeable frame drops during most cutscenes, and this issue is exacerbated on specific stadiums. Specifically the Skaven stadium contains a gaseous particle effect that seems to hammer the framerate quite hard. The animations are all well crafted, however they could have done with a bit more variety, especially for the “kill cam” style scenes which play in slow motion after a particularly hard hit. Also absent is any kind of option to speed the game up on an AI opponent’s turn, or to skip/accelerate the rather plodding run animations. These two issues result in turns taking a lot longer than it feels they should, given the relatively low number of actions available to a player at any given time. The camera is bad. There’s not really a nicer way to put it. You can pan, zoom in and out, and switch between two viewing angles. But these two angles only have about a 60° difference between them, which means that they are not enough to give you a full view of the field. In practice this can can result in squares, and even players being hidden behind others. While this is usually only a problem when some of the larger characters, such as Trolls or Ogres, are on the field, it is definitely not an issue that needed to exist, and could have easily been fixed with just a slightly more flexible camera.
As mentioned previously, Blood Bowl 2 arrives with a decent line up of 8 races, equal in number to the initial release of the first game. However, rather than go with the expansion pack style system they used for the last game, Cyanide has opted to instead release individual races for a specific price. Right now the Lizardmen and Wood Elves are available, but they come with a rather hefty price tag of $7 each. Presumably other races will be added at some point (personally I am holding out hope for my beloved Amazons from the original game) however if Cyanide insists on sticking with the $7 per race bundle I’ll most likely wait to see if some kind of value pack is eventually released. As it stands now, purchasing the races individually just doesn’t seem like a good deal.
Blood Bowl 2 makes for a much smoother and more polished introduction to the world of Blood Bowl than its predecessor. After you get used to its more esoteric systems, which can take a bit of time, it delivers a fun and engaging single player, online, and local multiplayer experience. Here’s hoping Cyanide doesn’t get too foul with the DLC. Oh stop groaning.