For those moments when the carnage of real football isn't enough to satisfy your sporting bloodlust, consider Chaos League. Cyanide's ultraviolent alternative sports game is a great strategy-flavored update of classic ancestors like Games Workshop's legendary Blood Bowl and EA's Mutant League Football for the Sega Genesis. It comes complete with loads of maniacal action unencumbered by niceties like rules and morality. And unlike in traditional sports games, there's a wonderful sense of anything-can-happen absurdity here that makes contests both refreshing and funny.
And when we say anything can happen, we mean it. Chaos League is a fantasy football game that goes far beyond the usual rotisserie-league meaning of the phrase. We're talking D&D-style fantasy here, not the stuff of office pools, where the likes of Curtis Martin and Tiki Barber line up in the same backfield. In this pro circuit, the teams consist of wood elves, dwarves, orcs, barbarians, undead, and other swords-and-sorcerers archetypes that Gary Gygax ripped off from J.R.R. Tolkien; the rules are made to be broken; and the murder of opponents is a legitimate tactic.
Even with this menagerie of players, the game is similar to smashmouth football, with the intensity cranked up a couple of notches. Tactics are far more important than arcade action, however, as you use a simple point-and-click interface to move players, set up formations, throw the ball, and beat the living hell out of the opposition. There are three ways to play the game--in real time, in real time with the option of pausing the action, and in a turn-based mode, where you have a set time limit to get your players in position and issue orders.
Players have health and breath bars to denote their overall hit points and stamina, which is used for special moves like casting spells and sprinting. They are also rated in savagery, dexterity, protection, and speed categories, so you can easily tell a slick human receiver from a tough dwarven linebacker. Experience points are earned during every game, too, so players can improve their stats and eventually earn up to eight special abilities. These skills are generally position-specific, so a quarterback might choose the ability to throw a perfect spiral, while a receiver might pick nifty suede gloves.
Brutality is far more important than talent, though. Instead of having you line up in formations to battle for field position in set plays, the game tosses the ball onto the field (courtesy of an exploding pig), and then players simply duke it out. A major component of moving the pigskin into the end zone is beating the opposing players unconscious by depleting their health ratings. Knocked-out foes can even be finished off with an additional attack when they're down for the count. Players can be sent off if the referee spots a deliberate assassination, but sometimes the cost is worth it if you can eliminate an opposing star.
There isn't a whole lot of subtlety to Chaos League, although there is an elegance to the violence. Trying to knock out the opposition usually results in all your players being dragged into melees, meaning you have to come up with some sort of tactical game plan. A quick right click can assign a blocker, and formations can be called on the fly with up to four players, allowing you to quickly whip up rushing plays. The only problem is that your blockers are typically engaged in brawls before they reach midfield, leaving your ball carrier exposed. Passes are a great option, especially if you have the likes of a swift dark elf to send downfield, but of course you have to take care of defenders who can stop him in mid-rush with a punch or kick to the face.
So while scoring looks simple, it is in reality anything but. Cunning artificial intelligence sees opponents defending their goal line like rabid dogs, and the overall game is one of those addictive easy-to-learn, hard-to-master designs with lots of choices. Knowing when to utilize a player's special abilities is key, as is picking the right moment to deplete a player's breath bar on a sprint downfield, or to increase strength with the master power skill in an attempt to open a hole for the ball carrier by knocking out a couple of enemies.
The only problem is that gambling is a little too necessary, especially in the unforgiving real-time mode of play. As you have just nine relatively slow players covering a huge field, you have to take chances. Start the wrong brawl at the wrong time, or even just throw an incomplete pass, and you can easily spring an enemy for a touchdown run in the clear. Proper positioning is extremely important, as computer opponents move smartly and swiftly at all difficulty settings. Expect to get blown out by considerable margins in early games.
A few options can level the playing surface, however. You can pay to dope up players (and pay to make sure the doped-up players aren't tested for drugs), bribe the referee, or even hire hooligans to get things going in the crowd. During matches, you can cast spells like "fireball" and "smoke screen," or take a moment to play to the crowd. The latter can actually be a huge factor in games, as riled-up fans tend to throw items like battle axes at the objects of their displeasure. Get the stands on your side and some of the yahoos up there are likely to knock out some of your opponents. They can also give you access to added spells and on-field traps. Whether you want to simply beat the tar out of your rivals or play it sneaky, there are a lot of options available, and consequently a lot of replay value.
Further longevity is provided by a championship mode of play. In this option, you get to choose a race, name your club, and sign free agents with a pool of start-up gold. Competition is styled after the UK soccer leagues, with teams playing in three divisions and a premier league. As sports-game career modes go, this isn't as deep as expected these days (Madden NFL 2005, for example, puts it to shame), but it is more involving than the exhibition matches and the relatively sparse one-on-one and ladder online multiplayer options (although the included GameCenter matching program makes it easy to find opponents). It also provides long-term goals, in that you start in the lowly third division with dreams of gaining promotion to the lofty heights of the premier league. Individual player stats are tracked right down to number of kills, and the truly murderous superstars wind up in the hall of fame.
High production values add more to the game's charm. All the players are caricatures of fantasy heroes and villains that are both impressive and campy at the same time. How else can you describe a goblin with a bloodthirsty grin and a couple of hoop earrings apparently swiped off a cartoon pirate? Or an goose-stepping ent lineman? The five playing fields are atmospheric fantasy settings, like the partially flooded floor of a sunken temple and an eerie forest illuminated by a full moon and flickering torches. Audio quality is equally first-rate, thanks in large part to snide broadcast-booth commentary that is more than a bit off-color. A few mild obscenities are tossed around, along with gleefully sadistic lines like, "They've set the goblin on fire! Nothing like those orcish fans, is there?"
Gimmicky or not, this is still one entertaining alternative sports game that requires just as much strategic planning as real football. Much like Blood Bowl and Mutant League Football, Chaos League has all the ingredients necessary to become a cult classic.