When EA announced that it had procured a lengthy exclusive license with the NFL, then followed it up with an NCAA and Arena League license, video game enthusiasts screamed bloody murder. They claimed that EA was stifling innovation and pushing competition out of the market creating a monopoly. Midway’s latest entry in the Blitz series, Blitz: The League puts all those worries to rest, creating one of the most fun, original sporting titles since EA’s own Mutant League series back on the Genesis.
Blitz: The League has been totally revamped from the old rehashed Blitz/Hitz formula from a few years ago. Gone is the bright, almost cartoonish graphics, replaced with a much grittier look and few which provides (gasp!) atmosphere to the game. While there’s a “Quick Game” option that allows you to jump right in, most players will be spending their time in the “Campaign” mode, the game’s story mode.
Essentially, the team has hit rock bottom, the owner wants a winner along with some fringe benefits, and he’s starting from scratch. Blitz: The League provides you with a significant amount of customization as you create your new team. You get to pick the coaches, the players, and even the team doctor. You choose the city, the logo, the jerseys, and the stadium. Then, it’s on. Your goal is to take your team from Division 3 to the Division 1 Championship by any means necessary.
It took me about three or four games (which are played over two-minute quarters) to really get used to the new style. The playbook is fairly limited, which is good for a non-football expert like myself, but has enough plays to make strategy still count. Your offensive and defensive coordinators will spit out zingers in between plays, giving themselves pats on the back, and ripping on the other team.
The gameplay is pretty frantic at first, sometimes too frantic. It’s easy to miss tackles or watch a running back bust through five lineman, but in general the football feels pretty solid, yet retains that arcade feel that Blitz is known for. It’s not a simulation, but it’s not Tecmo Bowl either. You’re running two-minute quarters, 8 on 8, 1st and 30, but it definitely doesn’t feel unfair. Scores aren’t too out of hand and you’ll be using some traditional clock and scoring strategy.
Outside of your typical passing buttons, diving and player changes, the game features the standard turbo button that has been on a staple of the series. In addition, there’s also the “Clash” button. On offense “Clash” slows down time, allowing you to pull off sweet runs and catches, as well as evading would-be sack artists. On defense using “Clash” when tackling allows you to throw some dirty hits, which is a blast. My wife shook her head as I gleeful explained how I broke some guy’s hip and put him out for the season. The right thumb stick can be used for evading tackles, which in conjunction with clash mode looks great.
Your “Clash Meter” is limited and is drained whenever you use it, but is refilled whenever you run up yardage and make big plays. As you make big plays you’ll also receive icons, which you can combo. For example, you could make a “dirty hit” on the opposing teams captain, causing a fumble, then taunting the other team as you run it into the end zone; that’s worth four right there. Keep getting icons and you’ll get the opportunity to “Unleash”, one-shot power-ups that allow you to cause fumbles and serious injuries or spectacular runs and catches.
While you’re playing short cut-scenes often appear offering amusing smack talk, which is pretty funny the first couple times around but will be skipped after a few minutes. The end-zone celebrations, on the other hand, I watched every time.
Between games you’ll get to purchase equipment for your team and develop your personnel, putting them on various training regimens or putting them on supplements both legal and illegal. Juice your players too much and you’ll get caught and fined. You can also choose to Juice your players in the middle of the game if they get injured Varsity Blues-style, or play it the safe way. Between games, you’ll also get further into the story and be goaded into various challenges by your opponents. These challenges, along with your progress in the game, open up unlockable game modes and of course the all-important FHM cheerleader pictorials.
Blitz features head-to-head multiplayer both on- and off-line. The online servers are powered by Gamespy. When you log in for the first time you’ll create an account and provide so location information, presumably so that it’s easier to find better servers. The two lobbies that were available to me only had three people in them, but I was able to jump into a game immediately. According to the updated leaderboard, there were over 1,300 ranked players at the time, which isn’t too bad for a PS2 title.
The multiplayer experience was very satisfying, with lag only seeming apparent during, of all things, kick-offs. Speaking of the kicking, being able to “buzz” the opposing player while he’s trying to kick a field goal is a lot of fun and nerve-wracking when they do it to you. Some players seem to try to exploit the onside kicking mechanism by kicking away from the players, but they were rarely successful in our games. With a competent opponent, the game is a struggle back and forth, making strategy that much more important. It should be noted that you’ll be more successful covering receivers and knocking them out of plays than trying to sack the quarterback.
What really makes Blitz: The League is the presentation; sure it’s a bit crude and definitely geared towards the older gamer, but it manages to get you to completely forget about the fact that none of these players and teams are real, but you still want them to win. The developers have created a history for the league, the teams, and your opponents. It takes bits and pieces of the real football world, including a quarterback named “Mexico”, the infamous hotel alias of Mike Vick, and weaves it into this alternate reality. It’s inside content like this, combined with the genuinely fun and relatively simple play mechanics that keeps both veteran and new players happy.
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Madden and EA will rule the football world supreme for the foreseeable future, but their exclusive football licenses are forcing innovation. Excitingly, the first attempt at an unlicensed football game in this era seems to be a success. Let’s see if the fans give Blitz: The League the chance that it deserves.