BLITZ: THE LEAGUE / Midway / Playstation 2
Blitz: The League came out after EA had already sewn up the NFL licenses until the end of time, so the action shifts to a fictional league that's even more hyper-violent (and profanity-filled) than the old arcade games ever were. It retains the same arcadey gameplay of the NFL Blitz predecessors, but now gives you the option of creating your own team and running a season mode. It has some unique qualities and some truly innovative twists that are worth a look, but they're leavened by annoying design decisions and gameplay quirks that weren't very well thought out, leaving the experience a mixed bag.

Annoying design decision #1 - the typical shit music found in sports games all over every menu screen, and a "trying way too hard" approach with the f-bombs and whatnot all over the place. New players will immediately want to check out the tutorial to learn the ropes, which are very different from Madden and the more "realistic" sims; unfortunately the tutorial doesn't do the best job explaining things and also puts you in situations where you're set up for failure. It looks like it was a rushjob, but what makes it excruciating is the faux-thug narrator who constantly spits lines like "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?" and "WAKE THE FUCK UP!" every time you mess up one of the arbitrary or confusing challenges. This is definitely not a game to buy for children, by the way, even though the packaging does nothing to indicate how violent and salty the language is other than the Mature 17+ tucked away in the corner.

Fortunately the tutorial is completely non-mandatory, and the game is simple enough that you can pick it up as you go, by playing a few one-off casual games with the prefab teams. When you've got the hang of it, it's time to move onto the game's showpeice, League mode. In this one you either pick one of the prefab teams, or create your own (from a fairly comprehensive list of major American cities). The league structure here is more like college football than the NFL; there's three divisions, and teams that perform poorly may drop to a lower division after the season, or even get booted out of the league.

The "story" aspect of League is both a strength and weakness. It has a much stronger narrative than most sports games; your team starts out as a dud that just got kicked down to Division III and is struggling to stay alive. The owner of the team places a bet with the city's mayor - if the team somehow wins the championship, the mayor pushes through a bond measure that gets the team a new stadium with lots of luxury boxes. Your roster is largely crap, but you start the season with the highest draft pick, and also get a choice of three skilled veterans to sign to anchor one side of the ball. It's fun in that this ongoing story is actually developed as you win and lose, even with some branching paths and twists it can take, and some of your players such as the draft pick rookie and the vet have personalities and are seen in vignettes in between games. The downside is, you're forced to use this structure and start with a crap team every time; you don't have the roster freedom offered to you by the Maddens and et. al.

One upside to the gameplay from the old versions in this one is that running is actually now a viable strategy, with actual running plays instead of just backfield dump-offs to the halfback. One downside, however, is that the passing game is more of a mess. Pass plays are largely designed pretty terribly, with the "hot route" running back and forth all over creation. Considering you rarely have more than 2 seconds before your line falls apart, this makes a lot of pass plays complete garbage. Player AI also loses its shit when it makes contact with any other player and futzes around for a bit, further slowing them down and throwing them unpredictably off their routes. One downside of previous versions that stays the same here is that pass rushing is almost useless, and you're virtually forced to cover the middle of the field with a linebacker or safety every play or you'll get picked apart.

The big gameplay twist here is "clutch" mode, where you can temporarily slow down time Matrix-style by holding down the L2 button. This makes all your moves super effective, so for example while in Clutch if you juke or stiff-arm an oncoming tackler, it has like a 95% chance of working perfectly. Clutch is represented by a finite meter, though, which has to be refilled by getting big plays without using it. Clutch doesn't actually help in some circumstances, and/or is a distraction. Using "clutch" while passing, for example, is almost like a handicap because as soon as you activate it and launch the ball, you take control of the intended reciever and have to get them under it, though often they're in a position where you can't actually see them on-screen when you begin moving. It's also a distraction on defense, where it's hard enough to land a normal tackle on foes thanks to their preternatural dodging and strength, but trying to time pressing L2 first makes it even more annoying.

One last complaint is the almost-constant "taunt" cutscenes before nearly every play. Not only do they repeat and get old fast (and were not really good to begin with), but they freeze the action right when you're trying to look at your pass routes on offense or quickly cycle through players on defense.

I like the concept of a no-holds-barred Lawrence Taylor-style scummy football league, and Blitz: The League is *almost* an amazing realization of this concept, but too many gameplay quirks and a little too much juvenile "attitude" hold it back.
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