Blitz: The League REVIEW

Blitz: The League Review (Xbox)

As the wailing and gnashing of teeth resounded though message boards everywhere last winter, I have this vision of the Blitz: The League developers breathing a sigh of relief as EA announced its exclusive deal with the NFL: "Thank God we don't have to deal with them anymore." As the NFL has continually tried to clean up its image over the past few years, Blitz' late hits, dirty hits, and violent hits became more and more of an issue. With the NFL out of the picture, Midway was free to let the series run wild, and Blitz: The League is the result. Free from the restrictions of the "No Fun League", it's a view of pro football as filtered through the lenses of Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday and ESPN's Playmakers. It's about the only sports game I can recall getting a "M" rating, and it goes out of it's way to earn it with enough sex, drugs, gambling, language and violence to make an HBO executive blush.

There's no doubt Blitz brings the attitude, and buckets of it. What's more interesting, to me, is they way they're going about it: this is like no other sports game I've played. It breaks free not only from NFL restrictions, but also from sports gaming conventions and delivers a fresh, new experience. It's trying to hit a sweet spot that lies somewhere in a mix of the traditional "Franchise" mode, an arcade-style ladder, and a console role-playing game. There are some missteps along the way, but I like the idea, and the fact they are taking risks in a genre that's become a bit fossilized over the past few years. Blitz' "Campaign" Mode puts you in charge of a humiliated team whose owner has cleared the decks and brought you in to lead the team to greatness. You'll choose the team name and city, design a new uniform, and select a few new players. Your owner is trying to work out a new stadium deal to squeeze some taxpayer money into his pockets, and needs a winner to do it. The fictional league in Blitz is composed of three divisions, and you're in the lowest. In each division, you'll need a set number of wins in your schedule to advance to the Division Championship game, and from there you'll proceed to the next higher division. There's a healthy mix of cutscenes that set up the stories, and you'll find a few different subplots being developed, from your coach trying to cheat his ex-wife out of alimony, to a cheerleader hooking up with the team’s star rookie.

Since Blitz has taken this new story-based approach, it opens itself up to new areas of criticism. In an officially licensed NFL game, it's assumed that most of the people playing will have at least a passing familiarity with the league being represented, and know many of the players and their histories. Blitz can't rely on that, however, and needs to tell it's story just as thoroughly and completely as Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto. There's a lot of storyline floating out there for The League, as the development team has been very effective getting their message out through message boards and custom websites with full league details. Even the loading screens are packed with historical details of “The League”. But even with all that history and character, the game does a pretty poor job of setting up the world. After winning my first game, I was emailed by the owner and told we needed six more wins. Unfortunately, there's no indication of how long the season is. Do I have to go 6-0, or can I go 6-30? What happens after that: playoffs or do I go to another Division instantly? Is there any way to get new players, since there doesn't seem to be any free agency in-season? I understand that since this is a story-based experience, secrets need to be kept. But the very rules and structure of the league shouldn't be one of those secrets. I didn’t even realize that pass interference was legal until an online opponent did it to me. It's just bad storytelling that leaves the player confused about how to proceed. There are often decisions to be made about how long to train a player or how long to let an injury heal, and those are impossible to make when you have no clue about what’s coming next.

Setting up a new league to replace the NFL is no easy task: just ask the USFL or the XFL. Though the amount of history they've built is impressive, Blitz really misses the mark by making things so one-note. Top to bottom, both your team and the league as a whole is full of self-serving criminals a hair's breadth away from serving hard time. To borrow a wrestling term, it's all "heels". The NFL has "faces", though, and that variety is the key to its appeal. For every Lawrence Taylor, there's a Merlin Olsen. For every Kyle Turley, there's a Kurt Warner. For every Raiders, there's a Niners. There's violence and finesse, selfishness and generosity, and both incredible cruelty and incredible goodness. I understand that Blitz is trying to stick with one vision of the NFL that isn't intending to be fair or balanced, but it all just ends up feeling flat. Without "faces", your "heels" don't mean anything. My created team, the Salt Lake City Saints, are anything but heroes. In fact, they're not likable at all. They’re no different from any other team, except that they’re mine. I don’t expect the guys in white hats, but good games steeped in seediness like Grand Theft Auto know that even amongst a sea of criminals, there are good guys and bad guys.

Once you hit the gridiron, it's classic Blitz-style arcade football: 8-on-8, first and 30, lots of big hits. All the over-the-top play that's been the series' hallmark is there in spades. It's incredibly fast and fluid, and the controls are perfect. As you gain yards, you'll fill the "Clash Meter" that then can be used to activate a kind of "Bullet Time" where you can pull off special moves. You'll accumulate icons as you pull off these moves, and that all adds up to "Unleash Mode", which will activate even more powerful abilities. It's the same classic risk/reward gaming that underlies successes like Burnout, SSX, or the various Street games, and lends itself to big plays and dazzling moves. You'll get rewarded for juking defenders and avoiding sacks and making big hits. Offensively, I think there's a bit of imbalance in that you are almost punished for outmaneuvering your opponent. Whereas you'll get credit for narrowly avoiding tackles, there's no equal reward for being wide open downfield without a defender in sight. If you have the twitch skills, you're always better off running into the teeth of the defense because you'll get more bonuses that way. It limits the kind of football you can play with success, and overvalues a power running game. The games move quickly, and are entertaining, but there's not much variety, and it all starts to feel a bit repetitive. There just isn't enough depth in the mechanics or strategy to hold my interest long-term.

Unfortunately, all this risk-taking in both design and gameplay is wrapped up in a pretty dull package. There's a nice style to the interface, and some background music that sets the right "Thug Life" mood, but the cutscenes look a few years old and so do the player models. They animate well, but are blocky, and have pretty flat textures. The cartoony models of past editions fit the game well, but this grittier take on football needs more realistic people. All the speed and control comes at the cost of the physics, and the players don't feel weighty enough to make all the big hits feel as satisfying as they should be. Interesting special effects try to make the violence seem substantial, but it grows old quickly. It’s odd, but this violence-drenched game just doesn’t feel violent enough. There's also a real missed opportunity in the presentation of the games: it seems like an over-the top league would feature some over-the-top television, but Blitz: The League has a strangely subdued one-man booth, and little else to convince you that these games are on TV.

In a game full of innovations, one of the best is found in the main menu under "Xbox Live". Since you'll invest a lot of energy into creating and building your "Campaign" Mode team, it's a great idea to have them available for online matches. Running online to duel with the pre-made teams the league offers doesn't hold much appeal, but there's more of a thrill using a team I have a connection to. Due to Microsoft requirements, this requires that you always be logged in to Xbox Live when saving your team's progress. In general, the game handles it seamlessly, but beware any interruption in Live service: saving even once without being logged in means your created team will no longer be available for online play. Whether you use your created team or not, online is smooth and fast and delivers much the same gaming experience as the offline portion. It's a game that works wonderfully online, because it does a nice end-around of "cheese": in a game where you can legally tackle receivers before they can catch the ball, "cheese" ceases to become an issue. Dirty play is the name of the game, and makes the online play-style that ruins many a sim game and turns it into a strength. It's online, though, that one of the interface flaws really comes up: on the playcalling screen, you get no clue as to what your opponent's doing. Against the CPU, this is mildly annoying, but you can often guess. Against a human, it's madly frustrating when you have no clue if they are lining up to punt on fourth and long, or are going for it. I am not expecting detailed information, but I shouldn't need to guess if they are sending on the kicker.

Blitz: The League has the potential to become the Burnout of football, a game that takes big risks and blazes a path for a legion of imitators. It's got an interesting mix of genres, a deep universe with lots of history, and gameplay mechanics that are easy to pick up for a new player. As many a first-round draft pick has proven, though, potential doesn’t equal performance. From storytelling to graphics, there's a lot of polishing that needs to be done before this franchise can become anything other than a change-of-pace game that’s an enjoyable break, but nothing more.

Blitz: The League Score
out of 10