Speedball is what you might get if you crossed football, hockey, kickboxing, and street gangs. It’s a brutal sport pitting two teams of hulking meat men against one another. Scoring goals is just as valuable as knocking out other players, and true to the game’s name, matches are quick, taking only a few minutes. Yet as breezy as Speedball 2 may seem at first, there is a welcome modicum of depth lurking just beneath the surface.
There are only two objectives to concern yourself with in Speedball 2: pound your opponents to a blood pulp or score incredible goals. And those two intuitive aspirations are handled by a streamlined control scheme without any fluff. Ready to mash heads? Then get to it! When you have the ball, the action button passes it in the direction you’re facing, and when you don’t have possession, the button triggers a slide tackle, which you can use to steadily beat down the other team. Knocking out enemy players is rewarded with just as many points as scoring goals, which is probably why you’re never given the ability to choose which speedballer you control. If you could, it wouldn’t be long before the game turned into a poor man’s brawler. Even so, passing the ball to enemy players before slide-tackling them is not only an acceptable tactic, but one of the best around. It guarantees hits, and if you’re really aggressive, you never even have to try to score. Instead, you can just force opponents to flip through their substitute players, gradually weakening their team.
Medical droids taking to the arena to remove a downed opponent is cause for celebration.
Beyond bashing in heads and shooting for goals, the field is busy with random bits that can confuse enemy players or score you extra points. In front of each goal there’s a bumper providing another obstacle for careless goalkeepers who simply try to swat the ball away. If you’re defending your goal and not paying attention, it’s fairly easy to shoot the ball at the bumper, only to have it come straight back into your goal. Additionally, offensive players can use the bumper to confuse the defense. Each bounce gives two points, so if you have a few moments when no one is opposing you, making a shot at the bumper before shooting for the goal quickly doubles your yield and makes an offensive run more productive.
On the sides of the pitch there are ramps that accelerate the ball in certain directions, but they also act as score multipliers. If you can push the ball through once, you receive a 50 percent boost to all points you score–knockouts, goals, bumper hits–and if you can manage two shots, then you receive double points. If your opponents make it through the ramp, though, then you lose that bonus. In the career mode, if you’re trying to beat a team with better stats, carefully controlling the ramps can halve the total number of goals/knockouts needed to win, meaning that tactical players can make up for physical weaknesses.
Some basic tools to boost your players’ stats are here, but not much else.
Other doodads on the field include portals that can move the ball to the opposite side of the field and stars for each team that can be hit for extra points. Just like the bumpers and the ramps, stars and portals help weaker players balance themselves against superior opponents. As the game progresses, power-ups also appear; these can temporarily paralyze enemy players or give your team shields that protect your players from tackles.
Jumping into the career mode helps you learn the ropes beyond the game’s tutorial, which is sadly buried in the game’s menus. You can set up your own team with your name, but you need to use one of the prebuilt team logos and color schemes. After that, you can manage individual players, transfer in new ones from other teams, and send players to the gym to work out and help boost their stats. At the start of each game, there’s a bar that shows your team’s general strength vs. your opponents. It’s meant to be a loose estimation of who is likely to win based on your team’s formation and stats, but the bar is not always an accurate measure of your potential for success, especially early on.
Winning matches nets you cash over time, which helps you build and refine your team, but after a certain point, most of your players are much stronger than anyone else’s, and games become absurdly easy. While my first few matches had scores that were pretty close, after season three, I would regularly shut out the other teams and score hundreds of points, until I progressed far enough to play in the Intergalactic Cup. It’s a season-end competition that pits you against brutally powerful teams from all over the galaxy. It takes quite a while to build your team up to a point where you can reasonably compete here, but it offers the toughest challenge available without seeking out other human beings.
Before each match you get a chance to see how your team will likely stack up against your opponent.
Outside of the career mode, you have options for quick matches and basic local-only multiplayer. The multiplayer option lets you quickly select a one-off match for you and your friend using preset teams. The other main mode, Custom Cup, helps you set up a large tournament with several people and some computer players. Unfortunately, both of these modes run on the same machine, meaning that without controllers or multiple keyboards (which are both supported), you and a friend have to cram your hands onto a single keyboard, which is not a comfortable experience. Regardless, multiplayer lacks the depth and sense of progression offered by the career mode. While fairly minimal, the career’s team-building mechanics and the promise of tougher opponents do a pretty good job of pushing you forward. Without those elements, local multiplayer is good for quick matches when you and a buddy might be in the mood, but there’s little to keep you invested beyond that.
My experience was sadly marred by several bugs in the menus that kept me adjusting sound levels or controls. After a dozen or so resets, everything seemed like it was working, only to have the game lock up and wipe both my saved team data and my progress. It happened only once, and I played a total of about 12 hours, but it still cost me a good chunk of time.
Speedball 2 is quite a bit deeper than you may initially suspect, and the enjoyable career mode’s sense of progression is enough to keep you pushing onward. Without an online or even a LAN option, though, the bare-bones multiplayer limits the competitive thrills, and you can’t bring in your team from the career mode and pit them against your friends’ teams, which is shame. Instead, Speedball teaches you how to play and sets you loose, but leaves you with only a handful of avenues to explore the possibilities.