While developing Blitz: The League II, Midway asked itself a very simple question: "What would NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell do?" Then Midway did the exact opposite. Though the gameplay is strikingly similar to previous Blitz games, with many of the same flaws, The League II is also a biting parody of professional football and, thanks to several cringe-worthy moments on the field, a sadistic and guilty pleasure.
Without the No Fun League in the way to soften the hits, tone down the language, and brush off-the-field indiscretions under the carpet, Midway was free to develop the foulest and most indecent sports video game on the planet. Among the gruesome injuries presented in slow-motion high definition: broken collarbone; skull fracture; ruptured spleen; broken spine; and the granddaddy of them all, the ruptured scrotum. Thankfully, Blitz 2 is more than the sum of this pile of body parts, and the over-the-top story of the single-player campaign will keep you engaged far more than the typical arcade sports game.
You play as a hotshot all-around athlete poised to go professional in any number of sports. You choose instead to play for The League, but under one condition: You only suit for your hometown team (which you will create and customize later). In a fun twist, you select your offensive and defensive position (you're a phenom, remember?) and improve player attributes in a postdraft press conference. Reporters pepper you with questions such as what you did for fun as a kid. Answering that you liked to wrestle with your brothers will improve your tackling rating, while casually joking that you spent most of your youth running from the police will give you a speed boost. Actor Jay Mohr, in a similar role to the fast-talking sports agent from Jerry Maguire, guides you through the interview and later helps set up sponsorship and marketing opportunities. Finally, you choose your hometown, team name, colors, logo, and uniforms. The customization options are fairly deep here, but it's too bad you can't select or design your own stadium--your default home turf is generic in comparison to the giant pyramids of the Mexico City Aztecs or the gritty industry of the Cleveland Steamers' stadium.
Money earned from salary and in-game bonuses can be spent on a number of upgrades, including training facilities, as well as on juice. These fictitious performance-enhancing drugs will give you a statistical boost come Sunday, but at the risk of getting caught by the league. You can juice up to three players a week with a laundry list of supplements that vary in price and legality. If caught, your team will come under close scrutiny from league officials and you'll lose access to these valuable drugs. And yes, they are valuable. Success in Blitz is dependent on balancing your juice usage and team risk. Keeping your star players on the field with an injury-reducing drug (or taking out opposing team captains with a strength boost to your defense) is key to winning ballgames. Assigning juice to your players at the risk of getting caught by the league adds another level of depth not typically seen in this genre of sports game. BALCO would be proud.
You also receive upgrades in a few other ways. Your agent will frequently call with sponsorship opportunities, but you'll have to impress on the field to earn your spot on a Wheaties box. To cash in, you must complete an in-game challenge, like scoring more touchdowns or recording more sacks than an opposing team captain. Sponsors will get you access to better equipments--the Azimuth shoe company will give you top-of-the-line cleats that add several points to your speed rating, for example.
Because you're the face of the franchise, you're also a hit with the ladies. You'll meet a handful of girlfriends during cutscenes, and if you impress them on the field by completing a personal challenge (like injuring an ex-boyfriend, for example), you'll be rewarded with marketing deals, bargain-priced juice, and even a new team medical facility. In addition, you get to see a saucy bedroom cutscene with your flame of the week. Sometimes she'll even have a friend... While pleasing a girlfriend is awesome, it would have been a better system if you could pick and choose your ladies instead of being assigned them as part of scripted cutscene. But oh, what a custscene it is.
The overall story is fraught with sex, drugs, scandal, and betrayal, a not so subtle blend of ESPN's pro football parody Playmakers (the inspiration for the original Blitz: The League, and penned by the same writer), and The Longest Yard. Lawrence Taylor returns as bad-boy linebacker Quentin Sands and is assigned by the corrupt commissioner to join you on your squad. The overall story is somewhat predictable, but it's a shame most sports games don't have this much personality, even if that personality is sadistic and profane. With fictional teams, Blitz still manages to get you emotionally involved in the star players of the league. The cutscenes that introduce opposing teams and their alpha-dog captains are far more engaging than the simple ratings comparison menu screen of other games. Imagine if a franchise game in Madden against the Patriots opened with an NFL Films scouting report of Tom Brady picking apart a defense, but then getting shut down by the Giants pass rush in the Super Bowl. While that kind of personal touch has long been lacking in traditional sports simulations, you feel it here.
Finally, you take to the field. Much of the eight-on-eight over-the-top arcade action that has defined the Blitz franchise returns. The original Blitz: The League introduced a clever clash and unleashed system. By tallying big plays, you fill a clash meter that, when employed, not only slows down time, but every player around you. You easily burst past would-be tacklers into the secondary. Special moves, dirty hits, and touchdown celebrations will earn you clash icons. When you earn six icons, you unlock unleashed; Midway's answer to the gamebreaker in NFL Street. On the offensive side of the ball, you either sprint in slow-motion to the end zone, or perform a canned move like an ankle-breaking (literally) juke, or a stiff arm that is liable to break a cornerback's vertebrae. By no means are you invincible. Only by timing the move perfectly will you execute it, a great way to ensure in multiplayer games that the defense still has a chance. And on defense, an unleashed tackle will either reduce a ball carrier's stamina severely, force a fumble, or break a bone. Or all three.
Both clash and unleashed are very fun to use, but they're just too overpowering. The game becomes less about quick reflexes and any football strategy and more about keeping and maintaining clash. Once you have clash, you can easily break off another big play, refilling your clash in the process. The rich get richer. Conversely, if you haven't earned any clash, an offense can run all over you. Is Blitz still fun to play? Absolutely. But this particular design choice will put off football purists. Of course, Blitz has never been for purists. They wouldn't stand the late hits system, a simple button-mashing mechanic that lets you take the helmet off of a tackled ball carrier and beat him with it, draining his stamina in the process. Nor would a purist care for the precision tackles, huge hits in which you select the target area and are rewarded with an injury cutscene that makes Joe Theisman's broken leg look like shin splints in comparison. But if the sanctity of football isn't an issue for you, or your name is Bill Romanowski, you won't be able to get enough.
Gimmicks aside, the basic gameplay is still eerily similar to Blitz titles from five years ago, and comes with the same annoying flaws. Tackles are mostly magnetic, and putting pressure on the quarterback is simply a matter of moving a linebacker to the line of scrimmage, holding down turbo, and then hitting the dive button at the snap. If you are picked up by a blocker, the quarterback will still be pressured to throw short and early, not very effective when first downs are awarded after gaining 30 yards. If you aren't picked up, you'll likely get a sack. And while pass interference is a hallowed tradition in the Blitz universe, it's just too easy to tackle a wide receiver before he has a chance to make a catch. As a receiver, it would have been a vast improvement to have some sort of way to avoid this traditionally legal hit, be it via a jostling system or simply hurdling the offending player. In the end, Blitz: The League II, like most other arcade sports games before it, does not have enough to overcome its repetitious gameplay.
When you're finished up with the campaign, you can take that created team and your star player online. Though created teams start out the same, you make several key personnel decisions that will most likely differ from your online opponents. The offense and defense will both surely run though your created superstar and the competitive game will change drastically depending on if that player is a quarterback/safety or a running back/defensive end. There's also a separate set of specialty games that are fun with a friend, such as prison ball on maximum security exercise grounds, and a no helmets and pads game with twice the brutal injuries.
If Blitz: The League II looks more like a PlayStation 2 game, it's most likely because the art style hasn't changed much since the original game was released on that platform. The canned animations are awesome, from diving catches to jolting stiff arms, but the in-game movement is twitchy, jerky, and downright inhuman. Because there are little to no physics involved in changing direction, juking is only possible with canned animations as a result of Clash. The commentary fares better, and is often laugh-out-loud funny for fans of comedian Frank Caliendo and his tongue-in-cheek John Madden impression. The lines and lines of recorded profanity are also spot on--not a kids' game, if you haven't caught on by now. The effects are equally visceral--the sound of a burst spleen will make you cower.
Blitz: The League II has succeeded where almost all other arcade sports titles have failed: It's an engaging single-player experience. Though the gameplay still shows some of the flaws and repetition of earlier Blitz titles, the over-the-top presentation will keep you thoroughly entertained or, at the very least, offended. If you're a sports fan looking for more than a cut-and-dry simulation experience, and you're not put off by sex, drugs, and profanity, it's time to learn the power of the dark side of football.