Ah, Blood Bowl, the classic ultra-violent sport set in the world of Warhammer. A bloody cross between rugby and football, Blood Bowl has had a devoted following among tabletop gamers for over two decades now. With Blood Bowl 2, Cyanide Studio have slapped a fresh set of paint on their previous videogame version of Blood Bowl. While there are some notable new features, as with many sequels, gone is much of the breadth of the previous entry in the series. Loading up Blood Bowl 2 for the first time, the better production value is immediately apparent. Higher quality visuals all around, even to the point of models for the announcers, Jim Johnson and Bob Bifford. In addition to reprising their role of providing play-by-play and color commentary, these two also provide the framework for the new single-player campaign. Character models and animations are more detailed now as well, of course.
The aforementioned new single-player campaign in Blood Bowl 2 is a brilliant addition, particularly for new players. Blood Bowl is a game with a lot going on: dozens of abilities to learn, numerous characters with varying strengths and weaknesses, several ways to upgrade your team before matches, and even one-time bonuses to purchase. It's a lot to take in if you're not already familiar with the game. The campaign serves as a long tutorial to ease beginners into the world of Blood Bowl.
You take the role of the new coach for the Reichland Reavers, a down on their luck team with the odds stacked against them. As humans, the Reichland Reavers are rather generic, a "jack-of-all-trades, master of none" team that allows new players to sample the different playstyles available in Blood Bowl. Humans can play a passing game, but not as good as the Skaven. They can try to run the ball more, but the Dwarves outshine them there. Or, they can simply try to injure and kill their opponents, but let's face it, Orcs are a bit better at that too.
Even the team management aspects are slowly doled out over the course of the campaign, where a lot of the "missions" in-between matches are "spend the money you just earned on this upgrade (because it's more useful than those other upgrades, trust us)." While this prevents new players from getting overwhelmed, or by upgrading their team suboptimally, experienced players may find the hand-holding tedious.
Outside of the campaign, the bulk of the single player content of Blood Bowl 2 revolves around joining a league and participating in the competitions. There's a good bit of customization available here, as you can modify the formats however you wish. As you progress, you'll earn gold you can use to recruit new players, purchase team and stadium upgrades, and any players who made big plays will gain "Star Player Points" and gain new skills as the level up. At the same time, players can suffer debilitating injuries (and even death), which can be quite the setback if it's one of your better players who gets harmed. Of course, you're free to start up a new team and begin anew any time you wish, so that helps ease the sting of seeing your hard work go up in flames due to some bad dice rolls.
Unfortunately, once you get past the superior graphics, the campaign mode, and the stadium customization, Blood Bowl 2 isn't really an upgrade to the previous game. First, the improved visuals come at a cost, as in their quest to make Blood Bowl 2 look fancier than in previous versions, the UI is less intuitive. Most notably, rather than always being visible in the bottom right corner, the block dice now hover above the player's head. It's a neat touch, but UI elements or a lower camera angle can make them impossible to see at times. The placement of the "End Turn" button is aggravating as well, as it tends to overlap the field a bit, making it easy to select accidentally. Even things like cheerleaders are a step back. They are certainly more detailed, but now every team has the human cheerleaders? I find the lack of Skaven representation amongst the cheerleaders to be problematic. The same stock footage is used every time fans tackle a player knocked out of bounds. It looks good, but gets old very quickly.
More importantly, Blood Bowl 2 suffers from the same thing many sequels suffer from: loss of variety. Like a fighting game whose sequel only has half the cast of the previous title, or a 4X game where half of the races are absent along with a host of customization options, Blood Bowl 2 just doesn't offer as much variety as its predecessor, with only 8 playable races compared to the 23 available in Blood Bowl: Chaos Edition. While in the past sequels suffering from similar limitations could get by providing substantial graphic upgrades, these days better graphics only offer diminishing returns. And while other games may offer new mechanics or other depths to make up for a smaller roster, Blood Bowl can't quite offer that. At the end of the day, it still has to be true to the source material. They can't overhaul the ruleset, or incorporate wildly different mechanics without running the risk of alienating long-time fans.
Speaking of the source material, my most enjoyable matches of Blood Bowl 2 were in the first few games of the Campaign mode, before the implemented the "your turn is over as soon as a player fails an action" rule. I was so excited to see they had changed that, only to be told at the start of the next match that "now, real Blood Bowl begins." Real Blood Bowl is too dicey for me. While I only played the tabletop version a handful of times in my youth, I'm no stranger to highly luck-dependent games. I would love to hear what the reasoning behind that rule is from a veteran player or one of the designers. Is it a balance thing, where it was discovered that without it turnovers were too rare? While it sounds like it should provide for a meaningful choice between "do I attempt my most important actions first (even though they only have a 67% chance of success), or do I attempt my less important actions first since they are less likely to fail?" In my experience it more often means that half my team will end up doing nothing because my thrower couldn't pick up the ball or a runner ended up failing both dodge rolls somehow.
Surely there could be some sort of middle ground here, where a turnover happens after more than one failed action, or only a set number of actions can be attempted each turn. As someone who has spent countless hours playing another Games Workshop game (Necromunda), I have full faith in them to make the much needed refinements should they ever make a new Blood Bowl. My griping aside, if that rule has never bothered you, you'll be glad to know that Blood Bowl 2 is still faithful to the game you know and love. On the other hand, if you tend to rage whenever something with a 95% chance of success doesn't happen, Blood Bowl will make your blood boil.[caption id="attachment_56466" align="aligncenter" width="587"] Kickoff event: Random players on both teams got stunned. Seems good.[/caption]
Blood Bowl 2 does feel like it has better AI than the previous title, but there were a few times where the AI seemed to glitch out. I didn't notice any in the final build of the game, so it might just have been in the review copy. Nonetheless, I won one match because an Orc stood on the 5 yard line with the ball rather than scoring. I thought he might have been trying to run out the clock (not a bad strategy), but even on the last turn he moved his other players instead of scoring (and then one of them tripped so his turn ended...). Another time the AI kept 3 players guarding one of my downed players near the sidelines, like they decided it was more important to guard him than to actually focus on the ball carrier. Maybe they were just really looking forward to pushing him into the violent fans?[caption id="attachment_56465" align="aligncenter" width="587"] "We've been watching this Gutter Runner for 3 turns now, just in case he decided to get up"[/caption]
In the end, Blood Bowl 2 is enjoyable, it just feels a bit lacking in content compared to the previous game. I'm sure I'll spend some more time with it, but likely not until an expansion adds more teams.
Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of Blood Bowl 2 for the purpose of this review.