Blitz: The League II Review (Xbox 360)
One of Madden 09’s selling points is the idea surrounding adaptability. In fact, your little daughter who doesn’t know what’s so special about special teams might beat you because of this adaptability factor. Madden attempts to be all things to all who play it; at once an in-depth simulation and an accessible arcade-like family game. Depending on who you are and who you talk to, it may or may not achieved that healthy balance.
But if Madden is the high school varsity quarterback who's loved by the most of the student body, Blitz: The League II is the weird kid who knows it and doesn’t give a damn. Blitz II isn’t a simulation. It isn't for your 8-year-old, and it won’t adapt to anything -- and that’s just fine by its creators. Actually, it’s just fine by me as well.
Blitz II carries on the traditions of previous Blitz football games. If you are unsure about what those traditions are, specifically, here’s a quick primer: Blitz is 8-on-8 arcade football. It takes 30 yards to earn a first down. Also, dirty and late hits are not only common, but expected.
Even more specifically, Blitz: The League II incorporates the innovations introduced two years ago in the first Blitz: The League: a story-rich campaign mode, a fleshed-out fictional league, injuries, juicing and training, the "Clash" system, and plenty of graphical violence and vulgarity.
But let’s start at the beginning. Upon throwing in the disc for the first time, you might want to check out the Training Camp mode. This set of linear exercises introduces you to the controls, which shouldn’t be foreign to anyone who has played a football game in the past 10 years. The Clash system might take some getting used to if you didn’t play the first iteration, but it isn’t that different from similar modes found in other arcade sports games.
Blitz: The League II is a very dark version of football.
Essentially, for each good play you make on either offense or defense, you earn "clash," which fills up a meter. While moving with the ball, you can spend clash by pressing the left trigger. This activates a bullet-time mode that lets you burn defenders, make spectacular catches, or evade the incoming rush. Earn enough clash and clash tokens (for great plays, late hits, touchdown celebrations, etc.), and you get the superior "Unleashed" activation. Triggering Unleashed usually produces a cut-scene of your player doing something extremely over-the-top. In fact, I was surprised how smoothly the game moves in and out of these Unleashed cut-scenes. For example, if you are being dogged by two defenders, expect a scene involving all three players. Turnovers aren’t automatic when using Unleashed though. Essentially, it’s a step above the old NFL Street clips where you sat back and watched the play unfold.
On defense, you spend your clash dealing out dirty hits. New to this version of the game is the ability to target an area of an opponent’s body you want to injure. Once the hit has been initiated, time slows down and you have a chance to pick a body part -- then mash A to increase the severity of the injury. This activates another cut-scene: a Fight Club-like internal view of the injury occurring. Some of these are actually very gruesome; the ruptured scrotum was especially cringe-worthy. However, these cut-scenes can actually become a little repetitive and you can't skip them.
An injury cues yet another mini-game and cut-scene combo: sideline treatment. For some injuries, an injection of painkillers will allow the player to come back. You have to center a target on a writhing athlete and perform the injection. Other injuries need some bones to be snapped back into place, using both thumb sticks. How well you do with each of these games changes the severity of the injury, and thus how many plays the player will miss. Although some of the injury movies look like they would kill a person (or at least require amputation), most injuries will only sideline a player for a few plays. That said, within the Campaign mode, you occasionally lose a player for multiple games or the season.
If all of these cut-scenes and mini-games sound tedious, it’s important to know that they fit well within the context of the game. I wish you could skip through some of the injury movies and post-treatment Hulk rages, but the mini-games themselves add a layer of depth to the proceedings that were not there in the first Blitz: The League.
Also adding to the depth is the stamina system. Each player begins the game with a stamina rating of 100. Each dirty hit removes a portion of that stamina, depending on the target’s injury resistance rating. The lower the stamina, the more susceptible to injury a player is; this is visually represented by the player’s name turning orange and then red. There is something very enticing about controlling a defensive end opposite a red-lettered quarterback. Also, some stamina can be restored via a well-targeted injection.
Once you’ve completed Training Camp and have a firm grasp on the Clash system and injury-related mini-games, it’s time to dive into the Campaign mode. The Campaign mode is the meat of this game, offering the most in-depth gameplay (probably more so than any previous Blitz) and a dynamic story.
The cut-scenes really needed to be more varied.
This mode unfolds by following the burgeoning career of a young star known as The Franchise. His story is told through relatively well-produced cut-scenes, featuring voice acting from Jay Mohr and Lawrence Taylor. While the cut-scenes are a little over-the-top and follow the "football drama" cliché, they fit perfectly within the overall context of the game.
There’s very little customization of The Franchise himself. Since he’s used extensively in story-driven cut-scenes, you can’t change his visual appearance. You can give him a unique name, but it’s used primarily for textual displays and on-field labels. His position(s) and initial stats are determined by you through a press conference, not unlike Madden’s Superstar mode. Later, using the roster screen, you can change his number and equipment, but that’s it. Because there is such a focus on this individual player’s development, it would have been nice to have more customization options. As it is, you can’t even change the somewhat ridiculous sounding nickname. Seriously, it sounds silly hearing everyone call him "The Franchise" all of the time -- even Ocho Cinco goes by Chad once in a while.
When The Franchise refuses to play for the team that drafts him (à la Eli Manning), it gives you the opportunity to customize his "hometown" team. The customization features aren’t as full-featured as All-Pro Football’s or even Madden’s, but you have enough choices to make the team wholly unique. There are a ton of logos to choose from, although some are strikingly similar (there are two octopus options and one squid -- do we really need three cephalopods in one football game?).
Once you have chosen a logo, city (again, enough choices for variety), and customized the uniform, it’s time to prepare your team for the first game.
Again, this is an over-the-top non-NFL game, so juicing is available in addition to a standard training regimen. The standard training option upgrades a player by one in a categor, while the more illicit options gives additional powers, such as regenerating stamina and quicker filling Clash meters. There aren’t as many drug choices as there were in the first game, and they don’t seem to lead to many negative consequences this time around -- other than getting caught.
The Franchise’s life is also filled with agents, girlfriends and sponsors -- each which gives special rewards or stat bonuses. You achieve each of these by completing tasks in-game, such as "sack the QB" or "gain 50 yards on a single play." It should be noted that The Franchise is the league’s first two-way player, so you may have goals related to both sides of the ball. Either way, these goals (and their rewards) offer additional replay value, as every game has a little different feel, depending on the objective at hand. One game I was tasked with recording a dirty hit on the other team’s QB. I kept calling blitzes to help my defensive end try to achieve this goal. As a result, I kept getting lit up by the opposing team's quick release passing game.
As a pseudo-GM of your team, you don’t have a lot of roster control. Some events unfold during the story that grant your team new stars, or force you to choose a new player. Beyond that, there’s very little roster control outside of the training and customization options available for each player. I understand that these are restricted for the sake of the story, and that this isn’t a management simulation; nevertheless, I would love to be able to deal my players and see stats beyond league leaders.
Thus far, I haven’t really mentioned the actual football side of things. Again, this game knows what it is, and does it pretty well. It’s clearly arcade football, so we aren’t necessarily looking for realistic stats, substitutions, or adjustable hot routes (although I miss those occasionally). Instead, this game plays fast, hard, and is simply fun.
The game features a very different take on the game of football.
Plays unfold smoothly and offer enough field vision to give you a feeling of control. The pocket (despite only usually having three linemen) remains intact often enough for you to get a pass off or have successful runs. On defense, it’s easy enough to switch to the nearest player to lay out the ball carrier. Interceptions and fumbles seem to be toned down from the last version, but the A.I. will punish you for mistakes. There IS some catchup logic that is evident, but it too seems to have been toned down. I’ve had some great games where I’ve held a small lead and games where I climbed back in when being down big. I've also been blown out by three touchdowns. To me, it’s not a huge issue, and probably keeps some easier games from being boring blowouts. I haven’t felt cheated thus far.
Play-calling is somewhat standard, although the plays in the selection screen could have been visibly bigger. Play variety is pretty good, and running the ball actually works. I can even manage 5-plus yards up the middle against the right defense, which wasn't that common in past Blitz games, which relied heavily on the pass. That said, passing is still the bread and butter of most offenses, and you will throw -- and get burnt -- by a large share of deep bombs. There are also a fair amount of trick plays on offense that result in some wild sequences. Unfortunately, there is only a minimalistic instant replay system (start, pause, no different camera angles or slow-mo), so you won't get a good look at what just happened. Also, I've found no way to audible to a punt return formation; without any way of knowing what formation the A.I. is running, I've needed to send a safety or corner back to receive a punt when I assumed the CPU would go for it. For an out there game, the A.I. runs a pretty conservative game on fourth down.
Graphically, the game’s hit or miss. The stadiums, in my opinion, look great. The weather effects, too, are top notch and have a very observable impact on the game: fields degrade, uniforms get dirty (and bloody). Jumping into Clash mode adds a color filter (blue or yellow, depending on the level of Clash) and some handheld camera effects. Little things, like ice crystals on the edge of the screen during snow games, just add to the overall atmosphere of this game.
However, the player models have room for improvement. They look a little "plastic-y," and don’t animate that well. Pre-snap, the QB bobs like a football on the ocean, and, while he looks all right at first glance, he quickly starts to look a little silly. All players are a little jerky when they run, and once animations start, they have to finish. There is a great "stumbling" animation following a collision on the field; the first time I saw it, I thought my player could recover and keep running. However, after seeing the same animation three more times in the same game, it quickly lost its appeal. There is also the occasional weird glitch, like my fat lineman’s injured hand resting inside his belly.
All told, however, these graphical shortcomings don’t necessarily bring the game, as a whole, down. Sure, branching tackles and more fluid players would improve this game, but I think the gameplay is fun enough (especially online, local multiplayer, and in Campaign mode) that I am willing to overlook these minor issues.
On top of the story mode (which could be replayed with various custom teams while having The Franchise play different positions), there are exhibition, tournament, and online modes that will keep you busy. Additionally, there are a number of bonus modes that affect how you play the game -- rewarding you for hits, penalizing you for plays that aren’t a score, making the ball slippery, etc. An additional mode is unlocked through the campaign that is highly reminiscent of a certain movie and its remake. It’s not more fun than other modes (less perhaps), but it’s a nice novelty.
Also in the novelty category is "the return of late hits!" and touchdown celebrations. These aren’t that innovative, but actually have some relation to the rest of the game. Late hits can actually reduce the victim’s stamina by a few points, can be countered, and are initiated by more button mashing. TD celebrations are initially locked, and are unlocked by experimenting with various button combos, not unlike those loading screen codes Midway used to include in all of its sports games. The celebrations are fittingly crazy, and occasionally the subject of an in-game objective.
Finally, this game is rewarding because of its dedication to context; that is, it provides a great deal of detail as it relates to the league’s history, players and teams. It also gives some nice winks to the NFL: Mike Mexico (aka Vick) is in prison, a certain wide receiver is labeled as a team cancer (aka...uh...many NFL WRs), and the Philadelphia stadium looks a lot like Franklin Field. Each loading screen gives you a team history or player bio, which makes each game feel a bit more realistic (despite the crazy injuries). In other words, as wild as this league is, it feels like it exists somewhere; it doesn’t feel like a bunch of made-up teams competing in a completely generic league.
Once again, this game accomplished its goal. It’s meant to be an over-the-top, adult version of a football game. It tries to tell a compelling story while taking shots at the "No Fun League." It attempts to be a fun single and multiplayer experience that’s easy to play but sometimes difficult to watch (bursting scrotums!). It does all of these things with panache and a great sense of humor.
It's not is for everyone. However, if you are looking for the aforementioned things in a gaming experience, you won't be disappointed.
On the Field: The arcade football recipe hasn’t changed much, but it works. The Clash system is fun without being too gimmicky or unbalanced. Mini-games are fun, but cut-scenes get old.
Graphics: Great stadiums, atmosphere, and an overall visual style. Less than mediocre player models and animations. Intentionally gross injury animations.
Sound: Frank Caliendo’s Madden impersonation is the highlight here, but it’s used so infrequently you sometimes forget he’s in the game. Then he talks, and you recall the last time he said the same thing. Everything else is just competent, including the celebrity voice acting.
Entertainment Value: If you want a hard-edged, adult-oriented, arcade football game, this is it. The story adds uniqueness to an otherwise somewhat limited Campaign mode. Various modes and different ways to play through the campaign add replay value.
Learning Curve: Not much of a learning curve if you’ve played any Blitz before. Training Camp makes learning the controls fun.
Online: Standard online modes definitely add to the overall value; probably the best way to play, outside of local multiplayer and Campaign mode(s).
Overall Score: 8.0 (Excellent)