Friday, January 6, 2006

NFL Blitz

NFL Blitz is about as strong a definition for the Midway style of gaming as you'll ever see. After redefining themselves with the classic arcade series Mortal Kombat and cutting their teeth in the sports genre with NBA Jam, the renowned developer aimed to combine elements of the two on a twisted version of the gridiron. NFL Blitz is not a simulation game, of that there can be no doubt. In fact, the name of the game here isn't really PLAYING football, so much as it is doing all the things you've wanted to do in other sports titles, but couldn't for fear of a hefty penalty. Everyone who's ever given up a touchdown knows the kind of white-hot anger that courses through your veins immediately afterward. This game not only embraces that fury, it encourages it.

Several variations of NFL Blitz have come and gone over the years, but as with any ongoing franchise, no sequel can ever recapture the freshness and excitement of the original. Funny, then, that Blitz itself is really a sort of delayed sequel to High Impact Football, Midway's 1990 arcade game utilizing the same premise. Rather than merely converting the same system and implementing newer graphics, however, Blitz took High Impact's basic concept and built an entirely new game around it. You're still hitting hard, fast and late, but you're having a more enjoyable time while doing so.

As I alluded to earlier, Blitz is a very easy game to understand. It's football stripped to its very core, a game without penalties. If you understand how American Football is played, this should be cake. But, where other sports titles concentrate solely on the strategy of the sport in question, Blitz throws that out the window and focuses on the game's inherent violent nature. The goal is still to get the ball into the other team's end zone, but there's also a great encouragement to hit the ballcarrier as often as possible after the play, before heading back to the huddle. Just because you can.

Due to the enormous nature of most of the game's plays, first down requirements have been extended to thirty yards. It's something that might seem like a major change when seen in print, but in actuality is almost a necessity. The realism is skewed in this game to match the changes made in the rulebook, a ten yard pickup in Blitz is about the equivalent of a three yard gain in any other game.

On the whole, this is an extraordinarily fun game to play. The very style of it SCREAMS arcade, and it's an intense ride from start to finish with very little time to breathe between plays. Hints of the Midway sense of humor abound in NFL Blitz, from the calls of the announcer to the various codes which can be implemented while the game loads. Last night, for example, I played as a team of headless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The game plays best as a two player face off, but functions very well as a one player hunt for glory as well. No matter what portion of the game you're occupying, rest assured there's a timer counting down somewhere. Even when selecting plays, a red clock quickly ticks down from ten. It adds a manic feel that further drives home the spontaneous nature of the game.

Unfortunately, the game's sense of fair play doesn't even appear to be turned on. For perhaps the first quarter of the game, both teams play on an even field. If you're good, you can jump out to a quick twenty point advantage within the first two minutes. Once you've passed that point, the game slants the difficulty exponentially, handicapping one player while making things much, much easier on the other. While this is a relatively cool way of keeping things fair when playing a less experienced friend, it gets completely out of hand when playing the computer. It's gotten to the point where every time I'm on offense, I'll either fumble or throw an interception. Even when I hit my wide receiver in the numbers with no coverage, the game will find a way to force an interception. Your offensive linemen generally provide next to no coverage after the first half, if you're doing well, and every receiver has several men covering his pattern. I haven't counted, but I'd be surprised if the CPU hasn't snuck an extra couple guys onto the field. It's incredibly frustrating to look at the stats at the end of regulation, only to discover the computer threw one interception all game, but managed to recover three fumbles and five interceptions of its own. Maybe I could pass this off as a fluke if it didn't happen with such regularity.

There are two single player modes, "Arcade Mode" and "Season Mode," and a special "Tournament Mode" for big gatherings of players. Arcade mode is identical to the system first presented in NBA Jam. You enter your initials (which can now include up to six letters) and a four digit code, and the game will track your individual stats for you throughout your career. This is something that's really fun when sharing your Playstation with several friends / roommates / neighbors, as it'll rank your stats against one another, keeping hall of fame records for as long as you've got your memory card. I threw in my copy of Blitz last week, only to discover that I'd managed 29 sacks in one game three years ago, that I'd played 149 games in the past. Blitz was a popular pastime in the halls of my college dorms, and it was really cool to see everybody's name preserved on my card, years later. In single player, the goal of arcade mode is to defeat every NFL team in existence, while the multiplayer goal is to merely defeat one another.

The single player only "Season Mode" and multiplayer only "Tournament Mode" are exactly as they sound. Season mode carries you through a regular NFL season, complete with off weeks, playoffs and the Super Bowl. As you do better and better, the competition becomes stiffer and stiffer until you reach the big championship game, which I found to be nearly impossible. Tournament mode, meanwhile, serves to eliminate the paperwork from organizing a small scale Blitz tournament amongst friends.

The game suffers somewhat from the Playstation controller's design. While I've long considered Sony's consistent PSX / PS2 control to be one of the best of all time, it's not entirely appropriate for Blitz. The lack of analog support hurts, both psychologically and physically. Due to the sheer amount of sudden direction changes necessary with any sports title, blisters start to show up after a couple hours of hard play when limited to the D-Pad. Just typing this up, it's been nearly 24 hours since I last played and I can still feel the impression of a PS-style pad on my left thumb. And this is coming from a guy who's played games religiously for upwards of eighteen years. If I don't have calluses strong enough to take this kind of punishment, nobody does.

In addition, NFL Blitz suffers from an outrageously poor passing system. Instead of utilizing the L and R buttons or any of the other buttons accessible with the right thumb to choose receivers, Blitz has you picking the ball's destination with the D-Pad itself. That's right, you're using the same pad to carefully select a wide receiver as you are to evade the defensive line. The end result is constantly misthrown passes and immediate frustration. If you've got a man open in the endzone but need to avoid a sack to get rid of the ball, it's tough luck... the guy on the left or the right is getting the pass, because you've got to avoid a tackle. Looking for a quick pitch to the running back? Half the time you'll throw the ball into a lineman's chest instead.

In terms of graphics, the game is really starting to show its age. The polygons that make up the players are overly simple, yet still very ragged. The cinemas players can unlock as a sort of "reward" for solid play are almost insultingly bad. There's no question when Blitz was released; developers hadn't yet realized the full capability of the Psone, and as such were releasing games that are today leaps and bounds behind the system's abilities. Midway was trying really hard to make those cheerleaders sexy, but lined up next to the girls of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, they look more like something that fell out of the ugly tree and hit each and every branch on the way down. Now that I mention it, these girls are nasty, even compared to the princess in the original Super Mario Bros. Now THAT should be saying something.

The players themselves are animated very nicely, with some hits resulting in a visual cringe every time. There's a hint of professional wrestling in this game, with players occasionally choosing to powerbomb their opponents or drop a Hulk Hogan legdrop after the play. You'll high step when you get close to the end zone (sometimes without merit, as defenders are breathing down your neck), and celebrate like a moron if and when you get there. Occasionally your teammates will do something stupid, like stop the ballcarrier in his tracks, only to lift him up above their heads and throw him across the first down marker. Such instances are spread pretty universally, though, and it's accepted as "just part of the game."

The audio is acceptable for a Playstation title, with the heavy drums, proud horns and dark rock sound that accompanies every television broadcast of American Football. Crowd noise isn't anything to get up in arms about, and the announcer doesn't repeat himself TOO often. It can get comical at times, as his phrases seem to be chosen at random; I've heard him tell me it "looks like a running play," with my quarterback in shotgun formation and three wide receivers. Likewise, the wrong sound clip will come up occasionally, telling you a two point conversion attempt was unsuccessful when it obviously was. For the most part, though, the audio matches the mood of the game very well.

Blitz is a very unique concept, one that's wholly appropriate and called for considering the target audience. It satisfies the most basic instinct of anyone interested in American Pro Football, and strips the sport down to its bare essentials to ease the transition for anyone who doesn't know the first thing about it. It's remarkable fun, especially in multiplayer, but really kills itself with unnecessary spikes in the level of difficulty. That, paired with below average graphics and a terrible passing system pull the game back down to the bottom of the NFL heap. It had a chance to be completely revolutionary, but lost out in the end because of a few stupid calls in production.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6.25

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