Midway's Blitz series of football games has had its ups and downs--often rather extreme ups and downs. But with the debut of Blitz: The League late last year, Midway proved that it still knew how to make a fast, violent, completely over-the-top game of football. By forgoing the NFL license in favor of a fake football league, Midway had free rein to do all the dirty stuff that the NFL won't talk about--namely, juicing players, gambling addictions, off-the-field trysts with cheerleaders, and hilariously horrible injuries. It was a great game of football that didn't take itself the least bit seriously, and now, one year later, Blitz has made its Xbox 360 debut. However, this isn't a sequel to Blitz: The League. It's actually Blitz: The League. Seemingly ported from the Xbox version of the game, this new version of Blitz sports an additional cover athlete in tight-end-punching ex-linebacker and all around psychopath Bill Romanowski, and a few minor graphical upgrades. But beyond that, this is the same game you already played a year ago, and it's not at a discounted price, either.
To be fair, that's not necessarily a terrible thing, especially if you never got around to playing this game on other platforms, because Blitz is still a lot of fun. If you ever played Blitz in its arcade heyday, the core mechanics of The League will be immediately familiar to you. This is eight-on-eight football with an incredibly quick pace, 30-yard downs, and the kinds of barbarous hits that would snap a typical human being in half. But really, anyone with a basic understanding of football ought to be able to pick up The League's simplistic mechanics quite easily. You still call plays as you would in any football game, and you can run, pass, and tackle at the press of single buttons. Just don't expect any fancy audibles or defensive scheme shifts to be available. You'll call a play, and that's the play you'll run.
The League does futz with the Blitz formula a bit, however, and in quite satisfying ways. As you earn yards and touchdowns on offense, and as you stuff your opponents on defense, you'll build up your team's clash meter. Clash is basically the gamebreaker concept from EA's arcade sports games, but it's done better here. Any time you have any clash built up, you can simply press the left trigger on the controller to slow down time for everyone on offense except the player you're in control of. Passing the ball while in clash mode will let you take control of the wide receiver, tight end, or whoever else you choose while he's in midroute, letting you shift him to the position he needs to be in to manually catch the ball. Runners can use this mode to shift and juke around would-be tacklers with relative ease. Defenders use clash differently than offensive players, because it doesn't slow down time for them. Essentially, clash lets them lay down the dirtiest, foulest, meanest hits you'll ever see.
These defensive cheap shots will often lead to injuries, which are the best part of the game. Any time you injure an opposing player, the game shifts to an X-ray camera mode, highlighting the portion of the poor schmuck's anatomy you just snapped in two. If it isn't a season-ending injury, you're even given the option of treating it as normal, perhaps leading to the player being out for the entire length of the game. However, if you're the gambling type, you can "juice" that player up, bringing him back in to the game after just a short time. Just pray to whatever you believe in that the player doesn't get hit really hard again, because if he does, you can kiss him good-bye for a good long time.
The clash functionality usually works really well. It rarely unbalances the game, since both player- and computer-controlled teams use it the same way. The only weird thing about it is when you max it out to then go in to unleashed mode. You earn unleashed status by repeated dirty hits, touchdowns, and things of that nature. When in unleashed mode, you're basically unstoppable the second you lay your hands either on the ball or the ball carrier. It's nice to have at least one point where you can practically be guaranteed a long completion or run, and on defense, some of the hits you lay down while in unleashed mode are absolutely hysterical (such as the Waterboy-style Captain Insano power bomb and the move where you literally pull the ball carrier's helmet off his head and then start beating him with it). But once you're out of that state, your meter is completely drained. Until you're highly experienced at the game, trying to make plays (especially on defense) without even an ounce of clash is tough. On offense you can at least build it up quickly with a short completion or two, but on defense, you need an interception, a sack, or a fumble before you get anything. Still, it's not a broken system; it just requires a little more forethought and care than you might expect from such a fast and loose game.
There are a couple of things about the way The League plays that might also irritate longtime football-game players. For one, the artificial intelligence, while generally smart, occasionally loses its mind and forgets that going for an extra point instead of a two-point conversion will keep it behind by, say, four points instead of the three it would be losing by after a two-pointer. The kicking game, in general, seems to be a little all over the place, too. From a player's standpoint, the rhythm-game-based kick meter is awesome, but the computer opponents seem to whiff a few too many easy kicks. Also, don't be surprised if you catch wind of the computer opponent magically grabbing interceptions and forcing fumbles late in the game when it's down. Blitz games have always kind of flirted with catch-up AI, and it's not horrible here. Just be careful toward the end of a game, and don't start throwing unnecessary long bombs--no matter how tempted you might be--because the AI will take advantage.
Blitz: The League contains no franchise mode to speak of. Instead, you get the campaign mode, a 30-game-plus storyline telling the story of one team's rise from the dregs of the game's fictional league to the top. You begin the mode by creating a team of your own, complete with city name, uniform style, and logo. Then you get to choose a rookie offensive player and a veteran defensive player. These are the two players that will come under the most focus during the storyline. The story itself was apparently penned by some of the writers from ESPN's now-defunct gridiron soap opera Playmakers, and it shows. After a particularly humiliating defeat against Quentin Sands (voiced to perfection by the dirtiest player in the game: Lawrence Taylor) and his New York Nightmare, your team is sent to Division 3. The league in this story is broken up into three divisions, with the top dogs competing in Division 1 and the bargain-basement, Houston Texans-like squads rounding out the bottom of the barrel in Division 3. The game never explains how this whole thing works, beyond the fact that you need to win the championship in each division to move up.
After the humiliating defeat, team owner Lyman Strang (best villain name ever) clears house, pulls together an entirely new roster and coaching staff, and makes a bet with the city's mayor that the team will win the Division 1 championship. What's at stake? A lucrative bond issue for the city's voters that would call for the building of a new state-of-the-art stadium for the team. From there, things get crazy. Sexual escapades with team cheerleaders occur, gambling debts pile up on your veteran player, and more than a few heated rivalries get started against opposing teams. Oh, and everybody swears a lot. A lot.
Each division plays 10 games and a championship game, and you have to win seven games in each division to get to the championship. That shouldn't be an issue through the first couple of divisions, provided you're smart about how you build your team up. With no free agents to sign or rookies to draft, the only way to improve your squad is through training and illicit substances. You earn cash for said improvements by winning games, delivering big hits, and even gambling on your own games. Once you've got some cash, you can buy equipment and trainer upgrades to build up the stats of your players the good old-fashioned way, or you can give them "supplements" of varying degrees of legality. Some offer mostly harmless boosts to a couple of stats, but some also juice you up to 'roid-rage-like levels. The more dangerous drugs can be useful, but they'll usually also diminish things like a player's field awareness or injury resistance. So start thinking about just how much you really need that strength and speed boost in contrast to the risk of having a top player's spine cracked into a million pieces. Also, you'll want to avoid juicing up a player too far, as random drug tests will rear their ugly heads from time to time.
The storyline is interspersed only periodically into the flow of the action, and at times it comes across as pretty inconsequential. The few scenes you do get, despite a seemingly intentional level of cheesiness, can be quite entertaining. Of course, this is the same story you might have already played through before, but Midway did add one twist by tossing Bill Romanowski in there as the voice of Bruno Battaglia, one of the main player characters in the story. Not that this changes anything, mind you, but hey, the more disgraced football players on hand, the better. Maybe next year Midway can get Maurice Clarett.
It also becomes a surprisingly addictive experience to build up your team throughout the campaign, especially since you can take your team in to the quick play and online modes. And multiplayer is where Blitz: The League really shines. All the little AI quirks of the offline games go immediately away, and what you're left with is a highly entertaining and often unpredictable multiplayer experience. On Xbox Live, the game played just about as well as we remembered it playing on the PS2 and Xbox, with minimal lag and plenty of head-to-head fun.
Speaking of addictive, the 360 version of Blitz does bring achievement points into the mix. There are 47 achievements to be found in the game, including several secret ones. There are some tough ones to be sure, but there are also plenty of easy points to be had just by playing through the campaign and online. We got a big chunk of points just by playing one game in the campaign mode.
As great as Blitz looked last year on older consoles, it's hard to be impressed by what the game looks like on the Xbox 360. The animation is still highly entertaining, of course. The basic movements of the players still have that exaggerated, gangly style to them, but the hits in the game are just ludicrous. Even the basic tackles look like they hurt a lot. And the special moves? They're not for the faint of heart. You'll see great moments, such as when some poor receiver gets upended and lands right on his head or when some recently beaten-up player gets up and spits blood that splatters on the camera lens. These are equal parts painful and hysterical, and it's surprising how many types of hits there are in the game. The player models also look a cut above anything that has ever been in a Blitz game before. They still don't look especially realistic, and in cutscenes they can sometimes look bad. The main problem is that nothing has been upgraded for the 360. Things look a bit shinier, and there's more muscle definition in some of the player models, but that's about it. In HD, you'll notice these few differences, but in SD, you might as well be playing last year's Xbox game.
As mentioned before, Blitz: The League is a foulmouthed game. The characters are cynically written and are gruffly voiced, and they drop an awful lot of "F" bombs. Most of the voice acting is pretty good, though a few characters sound lousy. Apart from those uneven spots, it's good work, and the in-game commentary turns out surprisingly well. There's just one play-by-play man, but he delivers the commentary well. In fact, he's probably the least hammy character in the entire game. On the field, everything is as it should be. Hits are booming in nature, bones snap in real raw fashions, and players jaw back and forth with one another using goofy insults that aren't nearly as bad as you might expect. The soundtrack is made up of a number of licensed bands, as is the trend these days. It mostly consists of a bunch of bands and hip-hop acts you've probably never heard of, but most of it is surprisingly good, with only a couple of off-kilter tracks here and there.
Last year, Blitz: The League seemed revelatory. This year, Blitz is still fun, but you can't help but wonder why Midway would shove out a port of a year-old game, tweak it slightly, and charge nearly full price for it. Actually, maybe it's not too hard to figure why a publisher would do that, but regardless, it makes Blitz on the 360 a tougher game to recommend. It's still great fun, but that same great fun can be had on the PS2 and Xbox for around the $20 mark at this point. If you missed out on the game last year and aren't some kind of obsessive-compulsive achievement-point nut, you're better off with one of those versions.