Have you ever thought that American football could use even more primal energy and a bit of fantasy violence? Have you ever thought, "This sport is fine, but what it really needs is a couple of rat ogres clawing at each other?" This adaptation of the Warhammer-themed Blood Bowl tabletop game delivers just such a concoction: it lets you pit your team of spike-armored warriors against a squad of slavering beasts and encourages you to digitally pound one another into a pulp. It can be fun and addictive because the board game is fun and addictive, so expect to spend some hours glued to your TV, cheering and cursing. However, an unfriendly interface, problematic AI, and a few other issues tackle Blood Bowl short of the end zone, and the inexcusable omission of league play and deficient team customization make this version far too stripped to make it outright recommendable.
If you've never heard of the Blood Bowl tabletop game, the idea of turn-based football within the Warhammer universe may sound a bit bizarre. Nevertheless, it's a surprisingly compelling formula--maybe because the raucous violence of Warhammer and the testosterone-fueled swagger of the signature American sport make such compatible bedfellows. In any case, you choose a team from a variety of Warhammer races--dwarf, skaven, wood elf, and so on--and go up against the AI or another player to prove your dominance. If you're an American football fan, you will need to make some mental adjustments before you can wrap your head around the terms and rules. What constitutes a turnover in your head isn't a Blood Bowl turnover (here, it means that your turn is over, not that you have relinquished ball possession); there are no downs, field goals, or two-point conversions; and touchdowns are worth a single point. If you're a newcomer, don't expect the inadequate tutorials to be any help--just play a bunch of matches until you get used to the intricacies of dice rolls, how cheerleaders affect gameplay, and all sorts of other small but important details.
There are a number of ways to play, though the classic turn-based rules provide the best experience. The Campaign mode is the most enjoyable of the offline modes: you guide your team through a series of matches and level up your players, which in turn lets you choose special abilities for them. Early play sticks to the essentials. You get limited time to perform your turn, during which you maneuver your players about the field in individual turns of their own. The basic flow is similar to American football and starts with a kickoff, at which point the receiving team attempts to score a touchdown while the defenders try to gain possession, or at least hold the opposition off until the half. Individual players can knock each other down, push each other back on the grid, and cause injuries, all while you try to run and pass the ball down the field.
Even in the early hours of a campaign or a competition, Blood Bowl is exciting. Dice rolls occur almost every time two players interact, making even the smallest acts, like running past a defender or tackling the ball carrier, tense moments. The gong that resonates dramatically when you relinquish your turn during a risky play will start to make your stomach drop, but pulling off a dicey move may cause you to cheer, or at least breathe a sigh of relief. As your characters level up, the tension continues to mount, and players will benefit from their improved skills and attributes. With the right skills, you can pick up a teammate and throw him down the field, strip the ball from the carrier, or receive dodge bonuses. The more elaborate the possibilities become, the more engaging the matches are--and the more obvious the differences between each playable race become. Leveling up players is a slow process, but it provides a distinct sense of progression that adds to the "just one more game" compulsion.
This addictive, nerve-racking gameplay is what makes the board game such a cult hit and, in turn, what makes matches in this adaptation so much fun. But when you look at Blood Bowl as a video game, it's less impressive. The menus are confusing and obtuse. Simple actions such as progressing to the next screen and distributing funds aren't player-friendly, because of cluttered screens and unintuitive organization. The poor tutorial and jumbled interface deliver a poor first impression, and even once you get used to them, they feel like dead weight designed to keep out newcomers. You will be able to get past these issues, even if you're new to Blood Bowl, but it'll take a bit of time to get accustomed.
Blood Bowl's AI is all over the place. Your CPU opponent may clump players together and give your ball carrier a chance to run through an opening unscathed. Other times, dice rolls feel stacked in the AI's favor, as if to make up for its deficiencies. If you want to escape the inconsistent AI, you can take your team online, where you can play one-off matches with friends or ranked games with strangers. (Oddly, there is no unranked matchmaking.) Expect real-life challengers to use a greater variety of formations than the AI and to deftly position each player on the field. And accordingly, expect anxiety every time a player moves and joy every time a gamble pays off, because the risk-to-reward ratio in Blood Bowl is handled well and makes online matches demanding and exciting. You should not, however, expect to find the addictive league play that graces the PC version of the game. It's shocking that such a central feature would be so unceremoniously lopped off, and it severely hampers the game's lasting appeal. If you have any interest in online competition, you should be playing the PC version.
If you want to explore the game outside of the classic turn-based play, you can mess around with other customizable rules and options, the most intriguing of which, at least initially, is real-time play. Sadly, what sounds like a great idea is in reality a chaotic, unsatisfying mess. You can set various AI behaviors for your players, but matches feel out of control, and it becomes quickly obvious that attributes that make sense on a turn-by-turn basis don't translate well to a real-time environment. For example, the movement attribute is an important aspect of turn-based play that affects how far a player can travel in a single turn. In real-time play, you'd think this would translate to speed, but there is little difference in speed between players you'd think should be quick and those that shouldn't. The resulting disruptions to race balances, and the overall sense of disorder, keep real-time rules from being anything more than a quick diversion, and you'll probably be done with real-time play after one or two muddled matches.
Blood Bowl offers an authentic Warhammer experience, thanks to colorful representations of the board game miniatures and some cool-looking stadiums. The animations are simple, but some of them are still charming, such as the acrobatics the wood elves pull off when dodging a tackle. However, the visuals are technically unimpressive, even more so on the Xbox 360 than they were on the PC. Low-detail player models, sharp edges, and dull textures can make the game a chore to look at. One important aspect of the authentic Warhammer experience that could have made the game look more appealing was completely jettisoned in this version: player personalization. You cannot change uniform colors or add war paint, and while you can choose a team logo, it does not appear on your uniforms. That these options existed in the PC version makes their exclusion even more outrageous. Sadly, one element of the PC version that did make the cut is the blatantly awful commentary. The actors' voices are annoying, and they deliver the same cringe-worthy quips over and over again. There was a huge opportunity here to explore the violent wit that characterizes the Warhammer brand, but it was left unexplored.
Some board game faithful will tackle Blood Bowl simply because the core turn-based strategizing is so enthralling. Matches can be tense, tactical standoffs, and the game will keep you up past your bedtime because it's so hard to pull yourself away. However, the aspects that weren't culled from the board game--the interface, the commentary, and the bizarre real-time matches--feel messy and improvised, and the lack of league play and lack of team customization are inexcusable omissions. The fun you have with Blood Bowl comes from the core tabletop mechanics, not from the flimsy trappings developer Cyanide constructed around them.