What makes a football game fun? Is it the NFL license and careful attention to the details of said license? Is it realistic rules, pacing, and gameplay? Is it a deep franchise mode and 32 teams full of players you know and recognize? If Midway's latest entry in the Blitz franchise, Blitz: The League, is any indication, the answer is an emphatic no. Evidently, all you need is a way to scratch that primal, animalistic itch to slam some pretty-boy quarterback's face in to the turf, breaking his spine in the process and leaving behind little more than a wake of devastation and offensive drives that never were. In Blitz: The League, Midway has bid farewell to the NFL by creating its own brand of football with completely original teams and rosters. But at its core, The League returns to the familiar brand of arcade football that Blitz all but abandoned just a couple of short years ago. This is Blitz at its best, adding an even meaner, uglier spirit to the game that will have anyone with a strong stomach and a thirst for brutality jumping out of his or her seat in elation with every murderous tackle landed. Ladies and gentlemen, Blitz is back.
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, dammit.
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, as 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 actually 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 just 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 mostly works really well. It rarely seems like it 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 as hell. 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 or anything, 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-plus-game-long storyline telling the story of one team's rise from the dregs of the game's fictional league to its phoenix-esque rise 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 really 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 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 just 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. You basically 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 only interspersed 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. It also becomes a surprisingly addictive experience to build up your team as you do, 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. Online, the games we played on both the Xbox and PlayStation 2 were quite smooth on consumer-grade broadband Internet connections, and getting to use your custom team is just the icing on the cake.
The Blitz games have rarely been known for great visuals, but Blitz: The League delivers well on this front. Mainly it's the animation. 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 whole hell of a lot. And the special moves? They're not for the faint of heart. You'll see these great little moments where some poor receiver gets upended and lands right on his head, or where some recently beaten-up player gets up and spits blood that splatters on the camera lens. These are equal parts painful and hysterical, and you'd be surprised just how many different types of hits there are in the game. The player models also look a cut above anything that's ever been in a Blitz game before. They still don't look especially realistic, and in cutscenes they can sometimes just look bad. But on the field, the action looks excellent. The two versions of Blitz look entirely comparable. The Xbox version is obviously a little cleaner, and the load times on the PS2 are about twice as long as the Xbox version, but apart from those issues, they're about the same. So you're not missing out on anything too significant if you go with the PlayStation 2 version.
As mentioned before, Blitz: The League is a decidedly 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 come off pretty lousily. Apart from those uneven spots, it's good work, and the in-game commentary actually 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 ham-fisted 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 actually surprisingly good, with only a couple of off-kilter tracks here and there.
All told, this is the best that Blitz has been in years. The League reintroduces that classic style of arcade football with an edge that feels wholly appropriate, rather than forced simply for the sake of being edgy. The game also clearly doesn't take itself too seriously, which only adds to the entertainment value. The lack of an NFL license has let Midway effectively go crazy, and by doing so, it's made Blitz relevant again. Whether you're a staunch pigskin purist or arcade all the way, you really owe it to yourself to give Blitz: The League a look. It's easily the best football you'll play all year.