I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Blood Bowl [official site] until I got my hands on a preview build of the sequel to Cyanide's digital version. The concept is immediately appealing to me - a violent sport in the Warhammer Fantasy universe - and each match is a condensed tactical battle, short enough to burn through in a short lunchbreak but capable of plugging into a long-term season or tournament format. But does this sequel make the most of the robust ruleset and does it improve on the flaws of the previous attempt? Yes. Sort of. Mostly.
The few hours I've spent with Blood Bowl 2 have involved a bunch of matches against the AI, to familiarise myself with the eight races included, and a few forays into the online mode. I've learned that as much as love Skaven, they don't suit my playstyle at all, and that I am not as smart a coach as I thought I was. And I can't even blame a troublesome headset for my troubles, as I normally would when failing so dramatically in an online game.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the specific tactics for each race, which is the heart of the game, I need to clear up a misconception that I unwittingly nourished a couple of weeks ago. The current beta for those who've preordered provides access to four races and the initial relase will contain an additional four. I've been playing with all eight of the launch races - that's Humans, Skaven, Orcs, Dwarves, High Elves, Dark Elves, Chaos and Bretonnia.
However, preorder customers can also choose an extra race, either Lizardmen or Wood Elves. I thought these races were exclusive to preorders but they will be available as DLC after release, at exactly the same time they're given to those who preordered. It's a free piece of DLC rather than an exclusive.
That's important because it'd be a damn shame if any races were unavailable. Each of the eight available has a distinct set of tactics so that playing with High Elves, for example, is a completely differnet proposition to playing with Orcs. They look beautiful as well, with stadiums and players alike far more detailed and colourful than those in the previous game.
The graphical flourishes are important not only because they help to give character to individual players and stadiums, but in providing an easy read of strengths and weaknesses. Even with a human team, the difference between a Catcher encased in padded armour and a rough and ready Blitzer is obvious at a glance. That one of the blitzers in my West Hammers team has an enormous moustache while another has an eyepatch and bandana is also pleasing, although I'd like to see even more variation.
If Blood Bowl 2 were just a layer of visual improvement it might seem more like a downgrade than an upgrade though. The original game is cheaper and has 23 teams in its Chaos Edition. So what does the sequel bring to the digital tabletop other than prettier punch-ups?
There are two key improvements, one of which I have direct experience of - that's the AI. While I still find beating computer opponents remarkably easy in comparison to my online tribulations, it's pleasing to see the AI adapt to the strengths of its team. I've seen dwarves score a single touchdown and then huddle around the ball on their next possession, showing no interesting in moving it up the field at all. When they're turtled like that, protecting their lead, they're a bastard to deal with.
The tactic makes sense for the particular skills and traits of a dwarven team and there appears to be detailed custom scripting for each race, allowing them to use unique units and star players to their best advantage. They seem to react to my plays more effectively than in the original game as well.
Problems persist, however. The main issue, infuriatingly, relates to the turn limit for each half. Eight turns for each team make up a half and if you're in possession of the ball but nowhere near scoring a touchdown on your seventh turn, you'll most likely minimise risks. There's no point in putting important players in harm's way, or risking a turnover granting possession to the opponent, when there's little to be gained.
The AI doesn't seem to understand that. I had a Skaven team give away a point on the final turn of the first half by rushing my formidable line of black orcs and losing the ball. The ball-carrier could have stayed out of reach, his team-mates could have protected him, he could have scarpered back toward his own line - anything but bringing the ball closer to me when there was a clear path to the goal-line.
On the AI front, things are improved but imperfect then. But the second major boost in this sequel is much more convincing, even if it's not quite flashy enough to attract a great deal of attention. It's the interface, and not just in-match but in the wider structure of the game as well. There are Cyanide-managed multiplayer leagues to join and you can create multiple teams to drop into multiple leagues. In singleplayer, there's a substantial story mode but that's not available in the preview build. Nor are customised singleplayer leagues and tournaments, just exhibition matches, but it'll be possible to set up whatever sort of league system you fancy in the final release.
There's a transfer market to replace inferior or dead players, and a much greater sense of persistence about the teams you manage. Players age, not so quickly that they drop out of the game just as they're levelling up, but with an increasing chance of retirement after their 96th game. That'll prevent the transfer market from becoming overloaded with high level players and creates a need to refresh and change up your squad from time to time.
It's in the matches that the interface shines though. There's a better flow to the game, with available options clearly laid out and all manner of markers to identify who can move, where they can move, what it might cost, what the results of an action might be, and where the ball is at any particular time. It's easy to get an overview of the status of a match at a glance, and almost impossible to make a move without fully understanding what the consequences might be. While purists might be upset by the new percentages that flash up to communicate how much risk is involved in each move before you commit to it, I read the numbers far more quickly than the old dice rolls. The actual calculations haven't changed, the percentages are just a new way to display the information and Cyanide have made a far more legible game this time around.
I'm something of a lapsed player but I found myself back on form immediately and while the controls are certainly joypad-friendly, playing with a mouse still feels comfortable and there's no need to cycle through options to find the one you want - selections can be made with a cursor. The camera is also easy to adjust to your liking and the short cutscenes that play after certain moves can be switched off. Essentially, the game's great strength is that it is designed to be flexible and to fit the way you'd like to play.
I'd like more teams at release, of course I would, but I'm having a grand time learning the ones that I already have. There's decent breadth, from the puny but speedy Skaven to the weird specialisations of Dark Elves and murderous brutality of Chaos, there are tactics aplenty to master. I haven't even started to get to grips with the all-new Bretonnians yet - they seem a decent choice for a brawl against weaker teams but I have no idea how to beat a Dwarf or Chaos team with them.
The simple fact is that the actual game of Blood Bowl is so perfectly pitched to my sensibilities that I'm excited to play more. Every turn is a time-limited exercise in tactical shifts and second-guessing of the opponent, and there always comes a point when a risk must be taken if victory is to be seized. Luck always plays a part but this brutal sport is a brilliantly tuned exercise in creating the best possible odds, and then rolling with the consequences. I still haven't found a single line from the commentary funny though. Maybe next time.