Blood Bowl 3 Preview: Tombstones And Touchdowns

I can’t tell what exactly it is that’s running towards my touchline, ball in hand. It was a man once, I think. Now, it is a creature of pus and boil, tentacles squirming where its face should be and gruesome claws clutching onto the ball as if its life depends on it. Luckily, I’ve got a ratman in the perfect spot. Barry is a humble Lineman (Linerat?), but he puts his Warpstone-bedecked shoulder right under the oncoming beast’s chin, fatally puncturing its oozing throat. Against all odds, my lone defender has held strong. A turn later, I’m at the other end of the field, Barry having passed the ball to his colleague, Phil, a Gutter Runner, whose exceptional pace and proclivity for dodging tackles has taken him to the opposite end of the pitch. Unfortunately, just one step from the touchline, one second from glory, he trips over and dies.

I’ve always thought sports needed more violence. I’ve been hooked on Blood Bowl since the early ‘00s when I realised my love of sports had been combined with the fantasy genre that took up every minute of my life. Blood Bowl wasn’t my first foray into the Warhammer worlds, but it may have taken the biggest hold on me.

I played a lot of the Blood Bowl video game, and less of the sequel. I don’t know why, that’s just how life is sometimes. But when I heard a threequel was on the horizon, complete with updated models to represent the new Games Workshop kits, I was all-in. After counting down the days and surviving three delays, Blood Bowl 3 is here. There’s not a lot of the final game available to preview, but here’s what I think of what I’ve played.

I’m not talking about separating my childhood memories from assessing how good this game is, I do that regularly as a critic. I’m talking about the fact that this version of Blood Bowl 3 is the next iteration of the multiple betas that preceded it, the fact that I couldn’t play online at all or access the store, and the fact that I can only talk about the first two competitions of the campaign, the first of which is an extremely hand-holdy tutorial and the second of which is fine. As previews go, that’s fairly normal, but for a game that relies on its online play, it makes judging it a difficult prospect.

Blood Bowl 3 looks great. From the initial cutscene when you load up the game, to the pitch views, to the slow-mo action shots as you murderise an opposing Elf, it looks more gruesome than ever. The action is stylised and cartoonish, which works perfectly for the fantasy setting and helps the violent punches and brutal takedowns feel visceral but not gratuitous.The gameplay is largely unchanged too, from the tabletop game and the betas, likely due to the fact that developer Cyanide Studios has to be faithful to Games Workshop’s latest edition.

The character models are ripped straight from the tabletop as well, which is fine by me. The new models look great, and their digital counterparts are just as detailed. The customisation options are nice, but a little basic to start with. As Blood Bowl 3 is a live-service title, we’ll get more options as the Blood Passes kick off. In its current state though, the customisation is a little lacking. You can switch out helmets, hands, and armour, but nothing really of note. You’re playing dress-up rather than fundamentally editing your players. And, most crucially, every standard player bar one is a man or male-coded beast.

While the tabletop game has taken huge strides forwards in terms of gender parity in its players, the video game is severely lacking. Product manager Gautierd Brésard tells me that that’s something the developer wants to improve (stick around to read the full interview about Cyanide’s Year One plans later today), but off the bat, it’s incredibly disappointing. This is exacerbated by the fact that the one female player, the Witch Elf, is wearing a rather dated kit that basically amounts to her underwear. It’s more clothes than she wore in Blood Bowl 2, Brésard is keen to point out, but none of the current customisation options can cover her up at all, and none of the male players are in similar states of undress.

The gender parity is better when it comes to the cheerleaders. While Cyanide does include the standard Games Workshop bikini-clad humans, it has more creative license for the teams that the tabletop company doesn’t manufacture models for. There are male cheerleaders and goatman cheerleaders and Dwarf cheerleaders and Elf cheerleaders, but only the male Dwarf (spraying beer from a cannon to rile up the crowd) is dressed as scantily as the female Humans, Elves, Orcs, and Goats.

The menus in general are nice and snappy, although I have a personal vendetta against games where the escape button doesn’t take you backwards and instead brings up the general menu. It’s taken plenty of inspiration from EA live-service sports titles in its navigation, and it works well for a fantasy equivalent, despite not being able to use some categories thanks to the shop and online play being disabled at present. They will be there for launch, but I can’t judge what I haven’t seen.

The campaign is just about the only thing I can talk about, albeit only the first two tournaments. They’re good, the gameplay has only been tweaked since the betas. If you know Blood Bowl, you won’t be surprised here. The difficulty is fairly easy and I couldn’t find a way to toggle the AI, but this mode seems aimed at beginners, so that’s alright. Most players will be diving straight into online play to fight each other and devise their own tournaments. I can’t tell you if that will be good or not, because I haven’t played it yet. You might be starting to sense a pattern emerging.

The only glaring issue I ran into during the campaign was that sometimes the UI was hard to see, at some points in busy scrums being practically unreadable. It’s something I picked up on in the beta, too, and would like it to be addressed as sometimes I was waiting for my AI opponent to make a move for a good while before realising they were waiting on me to choose whether or not to re-roll a die or use an Apothecary. Maybe that’s on me for not paying enough attention to the scrolling text log in the bottom left of the screen, but I’d like a little more visual stimulus or a sound notification if my input is needed on my opponent’s turn.

Other than that, Blood Bowl 3 plays like, well, Blood Bowl. It’s not innovative or transformative, but it works well and looks nice while doing so. It will be the definitive way to play Blood Bowl online, if its live-service elements hold up. My verdict on the game will likely hinge on how well it does the live-service – how much new armour costs, how varied the new teams are, and the like.

Judging what I’ve actually played, though, it works well and, while that’s an impressive feat considering some of the first betas, that’s the lowest bar for a game to clear. I have some issues with the player designs and a minor UI niggle, but it looks good and plays good. It’s a good game. Will the online play work? Not a clue. Will it be ruined Darktide-style by extraordinarily expensive monetisation? No idea. The most crucial elements of Blood Bowl weren’t available in this preview, so we’ll have to wait and see.

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