No matter what kind of spin the NFL tries to put on its players, we all know that not every single player is a role model or a nice guy. Let’s face it, it’s a rough and dangerous sport, and many of these guys use their fame and money to get away with things we regular people could never pull. You simply need to look at the controversies that have raged this year to pick up on this fact. Sex scandals, DUIs, steroid discussions and team fights are just the tip of the iceberg. Now imagine if the league didn’t try to cover this stuff up, but acknowledged some of the “darker” sides of the game? You’d have something like Midway’s latest Blitz incarnation, Blitz: The League.
Veterans of the Blitz battlefield (and these gridirons are battlefields!) will be quite accustomed to the general flow of the game. This is the standard 8-on-8 football that you’ve come to know and love, complete with 1st and 30 to go for first down and punishing hits that are often boosted with turbo. Refs still aren’t included in the game, so you can perform any measure of illegal football moves, such as late hits, pass interference and tagging someone out of bounds without worrying about losing yardage. You’re also not expected to worry about navigating huge playbooks or heavy tactical strategy; you pick a run or a pass play on offense or a defensive play on the other side of the ball, with an audible possible at the line of scrimmage. However, this year introduces two new significant additions to the formula: Clash and injuries.
We’ve all heard about athletes getting into “the zone,” that mythical state of mind where you can run just a bit harder, sprint a bit faster or see what’s happening around you more than you normally would be able to. Well, Blitz implements this in a feature they call Clash. Clash can be triggered at any time during a game, provided you have some stored up in your clash bar to augment a play on top of any turbo you might be using, which can help open up the field on offense or help you close on a back on defense. Fortunately, any Clash that you use can be replenished by performing a big play on either side of the ball. For instance, if I’m on offense, I can break a run for big yardage, which adds to my meter. If I want to further increase it, I can gather Clash Icons by performing some other action, such as juking or stiff arming defenders, or even taunting the opposing team with the ball. On the flip side, I can get defensive Clash Icons by dirty hits, sacks or starting and winning fights. Actively filling your Clash Icon meter provides you with a special state known as Unleash mode, where you’re almost guaranteed a perfect catch or evasion of a hit on offense or a fumble on defense.
Obviously, this gives both sides a number of additional weapons that you can use to punish your opponent. There’s an additional effect that you’ll discover by pulling off certain moves; successfully triggering a stiff arm or a dirty hit takes its toll on the opposing player. Draining their stamina enough will make them susceptible to any one of a host of injuries, ranging from concussions and back spasms to fractured forearms and shattered hip pointers. Unlike other sports titles, when it comes to these sports wounds you have a choice for the most part (unless it’s a season ending injury). You can treat that player for the recommended number of plays, quarters or games, ensuring that they’ll come back at full strength once they’re healed up. You can also choose to “juice” them with some substance, be it painkillers, steroids or something else, getting them back into the game faster. Both sides have negatives, though. If you heal a key player and take him off the field, his replacement may be much worse. On the other hand, if you juice the guy and get him back in the game, he can potentially be injured again in the same place or in another area of his body, knocking him out even longer.
Aside from quick play and going online for matches, the primary thrust for the game isn’t a franchise mode but the included Campaign mode, a story driven season drawn up by a writer from ESPN’s controversial and now off-air show “Playmakers.” The concept behind the feature is relatively simple: The owner of a team that’s literally at the bottom of the league is fed up with the lack of production from his squad and decides to clean house, getting rid of every single employee and starting over from scratch. His plan, as he tells the mayor, is to build a team that will be successful enough to build a new stadium and provide him the championships he wants while giving her enough political clout to get her plans accomplished. It can be said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but the owner literally tries to bed the mayor at every single turn. Needless to say, some of this sets the tone for a number of the situations throughout the season; don’t think that the content is appropriate for kids, because it definitely pushes the envelope.
Initially, you start out picking and choosing everything from the city your team plays in to their uniforms and personnel. You pick from conservative and radical coaches, offensive and defensive coordinators and doctors, so you could have a medical staff that likes to get their hands on the most experimental drugs and a defensively minded coaching staff that likes to run the ball. You also have to choose a rookie, a veteran and a team captain, who wind up playing pivotal roles in the storyline of your team as they try to maneuver through the three-tiered divisional system. You need to successfully win seven games in each division to qualify for the divisional championship game where you try to beat the current titleholder to advance into the next round of play. This isn’t like the current NFL season where you have playoffs either; instead you move up in an extended season that’s twice as long as the real pros.
As you prepare for each game, you have the option to increase your player’s stats with a number of training regiments, which you can further increase by purchasing additional equipment for them. If you want an illegal edge, you can use “performance enhancers,” although if you are sloppy with your “supplements,” you could get fined by the league thanks to random drug testing. You can also buy stat-boosting items like gloves, pads and shoes to increase obvious features like catching ability, tackling and speed. Of course, you don’t have a bottomless bank account, so you’ll need to make money by placing and winning bets on your games. You will also gain money during each match by a number of factors such as running up the score, causing injuries and winning fights, which you can further sink back into your organization. Additionally, as the season progresses you’ll have certain challenges assigned to you, such as injuring a certain player on the other team or not allowing a defensive star into the backfield more than three times. Successfully accomplishing these goals unlocks additional extras, such as cheerleaders, cheats or other items in the extra menu.
While the game is definitely a leap forward in gameplay, particularly with the brutal aspects of the game, the largest complaint that can be lodged against Blitz: The League is that it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough. Sure, you get the option to send hookers to the other team to tire them out, but that comes far too infrequently to be a significant tactic. Why not having a bartender slip the star player of the other team a Mickey that knocks him out of the game? Why not bribing opposing players or paying off opponents to throw matches? The concepts that are included are good and feel appropriate to the game, but they’re not used fully and they don’t pop up enough to be a significant part of the gameplay, relegating some of the scenarios to a gimmick. They don’t affect the other teams dynamically either, so you’re rigidly following the scripted scenario of the plot. Hopefully if there’s a sequel this will be adjusted to be a more evenly balanced league.
The AI of the game could be much stronger and more realistic. First of all, you can find yourself effectively running the same play on offense and defense and being successful for a majority of the time. Granted, the Blitz series has always been somewhat weaker when it comes to play calling; you are playing 8-on-8 and the plays are literally quick sketches of guys trying to get open. But I could fire off the same screen or mid-field post pattern and gain at least 15 yards for every play. What’s more, the computer would choose really random decisions during play, such as going for one when they needed two to tie the game or sometimes standing still as the play ran past defenders. Just don’t expect it to be a clean game, as later on in the match the rubber band AI allows the computer to start picking off just about every pass or breaking every tackle around to keep the spread relatively close. This is understandable to a point, and somewhat frustrating, but given the wild circumstances around the league, it feels more at place here than in something like Madden.
Fortunately, the technical aspects of the title make up for the game hiccups. While the PS2 has longer load times than that of its Xbox counterpart, the visual levels are essentially equal to each other, so you’re not missing out on the experience all around. Blitz: The League captures that “in the huddle” feel that extreme ventures like the XFL tried to capture with their on-field cameras. To that end, a number of the close-ups, particularly when players are talking smack to each other, are extremely effective in bringing you into what’s going on between the teams. Character models are pretty impressive, and even the larger linemen seem both muscular and lumpy in the right places that befit their field position. Along with that, the celebrations and animations for injuries are the real stars of the game. Whether it’s the Green Bay Moon of the crowd or watching someone’s fingers get fractured, you’ll probably ride the roller coaster of elation and wincing from watching painful hits. At first I thought that I might tire of watching some of these moves. But incredibly, actually breaking out a dirty hit that takes an opponent off the field on a cart has never felt so good.
The audio is very solid also, so when you’re hearing the crowd heckle you, you really hear insults. A majority of the comments will wind up coming from players on the field, so you’ll have to deal with intimidation tactics up to trash talkers during a game. I will warn you now though that the language is not for the timid – there are plenty of F-bombs and other curses that will be launched through your speakers. Aside from this, the music feels as though it sets the right tone for the game, even though there aren’t a lot of recognizable groups in the playlist. Sound effects for Blitz are another selling point, with the snapping of bones or the bruising impact of pad on pad echoing through the stadium.
If you’re a vet of football games or the Blitz series, you’re in for a pleasant surprise with Blitz: The League. The injury system provides an added adrenaline kick to gameplay, and the campaign mode, while not fully as explored as it could be, is more than enjoyable for most players. If you’re looking for a good alternative to the standard sim fare, tackle Blitz: The League. Literally beating the hell out of opponents on the football field never felt so good.