Monday, July 6, 2009

A Noob’s Impressions of Blood Bowl

Late last week I finally succumbed to Bill’s constant pestering and downloaded a copy of Blood Bowl. As much as he’d be talking the game up to me, despite some of its failings, I was expecting a bit of a let down. The curse of raised expectations and all that. But after playing about six games this weekend (five solo and one multiplayer) and starting an offline team (three games into my first tourney), I’m definitely starting to see what all the fuss is about. This is the perfect kind of game for those who are both sports geeks and fantasy geeks, which is pretty much what it says about me on my business cards. Seriously, does it get better than knocking the ever loving shit out of a bunch of dwarf linemen, pile driving the f$#& out of their ballcarrier with a menacing Rat Ogre, and then storming down the field with your little rat (Skaven) Gutter Runner for a touchdown? Go ahead, try and tell me that doesn’t make the NFL look like a league for abject pussies.

This is such a cool concept that I’m ashamed not to have ever played the board game. As a PC game it’s nearly as cool as the concept, but the problem is this is just not a polished product; not remotely close.

Bill has waxed on and on about the AI issues and even as a raw newb I can tell you that he’s pretty much spot on. I don’t think the AI is entirely bad. There are things that I think it does well and I do think it is capable of using different strategies based on what race you’re playing against. I see the Dwarves create a wall around their ballcarrier while Skaven get the ball to their thrower and try to heave it over half the field. Could be that’s the extent of it, but there is at least some variation. Take this for what it’s worth given how few games I’ve played, but it looks to me like the game is at least competent at exposing an overaggressive/reckless defense. If you leave open a gaping hole in the field, the AI can exploit that. But if you play just a little conservative, with just a little discipline, keep guys in front of your linemen, then it’s not hard to stop the AI in its tracks.

My first two games I lost 2-1 and 2-0, with my one goal coming on the last play of my first game. My second game I won 2-1. My third game, which was the first played with a custom built team (Skaven) played in a tournament, ended in a 1-1 tie (against Humans). My fourth game was a 1-0 win over a dwarf team that never crossed midfield. My fifth game I won 5-2 against another Skaven team, but I was up 3-0 and then 5-1, so it’s not like it was ever close. Also, the two scores they did get came on a pair of passes that went more than half the length of the field; not exactly the most likely of scenarios when you consider both passes had to survive interception and drop die rolls.

True, it’s only a half dozen games, but if I already feel like –as a raw BB noob- I’ve got the AI’s number after just a handful of games, what’s it going to be like when I’m playing my 20th or 30th game when I really have learned to gum up the works and stall the AI at midfield?

The game also has issues that go beyond the AI. I get the sense playing it that the designers have a real love of the BB license, which is great. But I think they lacked either the time, resources or skill to put together a polished, responsive and informative interface and engine. It’s little things, like the inconsistent use of informative pop-ups when hovering the mouse pointer over a screen element. Or the fact that it’s too difficult to see what the AI is doing on its turn. (There is a log, but if you’re not familiar with BB terms and mechanics it’s impossible to follow and the commentary is 100% useless.) The online multiplayer lobby is, quite simply, awful. Welcome back to 1999; we’ve missed you. And then, last night, I had a player killed on the field. When the game was over he was simply gone from my roster. No note of who he was or his position. I couldn’t look up his stats. He was just gone. If you want me to purchase/create and name my players then there should be a lasting record of what they did when on my team and how his career ended. (Maybe I’ve just missed something here. If I have, call me on this point in the comments. I am still a noob here and prone to missing the obvious.) The game is littered with little bits like this that can make it frustrating to play, especially if you’re not familiar with Blood Bowl.

And yet I keep playing. In part because it’s just something new and shiny, but also because the core game is just a tremendous amount of fun. I really hope Cyanide continues to support it, first with a serious AI patch that ensures the single player game doesn’t become an afterthought and later with some work to improve the multiplayer lobby and to make the UI a bit more responsive and informative.

This game deserves to be great, but it’s not there yet.