Ever since EA locked up the video game licensing rights to the NFL back in 2004, the football gaming landscape has been populated with one choice every year. That’s like deciding you feel like a burger, only to walk out and find nothing but McDonald’s on the horizon. Goodbye choice, hello force-feeding. But that lockup has also given rise to those rebellious game developers who decide they don’t need the NFL license, and release games like Blitz: The League and All-Pro Football 2K8. But all of those games needed a hook to draw you in. Blitz did it with brutal tackles and the ability to “juice” your players with steroids, and 2K8 did it by mirroring the NFL with their All-Pro League, and the likenesses of over 240 retired NFL players. Backbreaker wants to straddle the line between the two with a realistic 32-team league where the gameplay focuses on bone-crunching tackles.
While you can’t actually break someone’s back in Backbreaker (thanks for getting our hopes up), the game has put all of its marbles in one bag by using the Euphoria engine for the tackling system. Euphoria is NaturalMotion’s own animation engine (recently used in games like Red Dead Redemption and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed) that simulates the entire body, rather than just using ragdoll physics. The game promises that “no two hard-hitting tackles are ever the same,” and it’s definitely the highlight of the game. You can practically feel the power as you steamroll your way through a dogpile, or when you lay out a running back with a well-placed tackle.
This Ain’t Madden
Backbreaker makes no bones about the fact that it isn’t a game with Madden in the title. The instruction manual tells you, “We know it’s different than what you’re used to, but by the time you’ve finished … you’ll never want to go back to the ’old’ way of playing football.” Those are big words from the new kid on the block. Their “new” way consists of a lot of attention on the right stick. When you’re the quarterback, you flick the stick to fire a bullet pass, pull it back and flick it forward to lob one up for grabs. When you’re on running with the ball, you can flick the stick in different directions to dive, hurdle, juke, spin, and stiff-arm. On defense, you can use it to wrap tackle, barge tackle, or spin.
Otherwise, the left stick drives your player, and you have the option of using a Focus Mode by pulling left trigger, or Aggressive Mode by pulling the right. Focus Mode will make your quarterback concentrate on a receiver by drowning out noise and zooming in slightly, but it limits your peripheral vision and makes you very vulnerable. Pulling the right trigger as the QB lets you scramble out of the pocket and go for the yardage on your own. When you’re a receiver or a running back with the ball, Focus shows your nearest threat, and that feature speeds you up and puts you into a charge. You can only stiff arm or barge through defenders while in Aggressive mode. If you want to juke or spin, you’ll need to be in normal or Focus mode.
On the other side of the line, the modes work pretty much the same way, although the Focus mode will make your player laser-in on the location of the ball instead of the nearest threat. You’ll only mash one particular button, since you use the same one to snap the ball, switch the ball to another hand, switch to the player nearest to the ball (or become the ball carrier), cycle players before the snap, and showboat. I found out the hard way that showboating into the end zone can be a bad idea when I pulled a Leon Lett on the goal line.
My Other Ride Is A 300 Pound Defensive Lineman
One of the biggest problems I had with Backbreaker regards the camera. Natural Motion wants to set the game apart by not having you play the game from 20 feet above whoever you’re controlling. In this game, you’re right down there on the field just behind your quarterback, receiver, running back, defensive lineman, etc. It’s a nice innovation, but it comes at a cost. You’ll first notice the glaring issues with this approach when clicking through defensive linemen before a snap. Backbreaker’s camera orients itself towards the ball from the position that you’ve just jumped into. If you’re like me, you cycle through players very quickly when choosing a position until you settle on one. In Backbreaker, doing that is almost enough to cause seizures.
This also features in the gameplay, as the defensive players don’t automatically orient themselves towards the ball unless you squeeze left trigger. You might truck through the O-line thinking you’re about to nail the QB, only to find that he’s there, but the ball isn’t. You’ll have to either scramble to find the ball and sprint to wherever it is, or switch to the player nearest the ball and… completely disorient yourself. More than once, I moved control over to an offensive ballcarrier, only to find that he was in mid-spin, leaving me unsure which direction I was supposed to go.
It doesn’t help that the players are unwieldy to control. It feels like you’re driving a big truck, since the camera follows them from directly behind. Because the screen orients itself wherever you’re looking, instead of providing you with a more static view of the field, it really feels like you’re steering players more than controlling them. It’s especially noticeable when you’re in Aggressive mode, and they turn much more slowly. Or, more accurately, it’s like the helmet cam seen in other games, except you’re right behind the player. This might be exactly what NaturalMotion intended, but it takes a lot of getting used to.
Competition Can Be A Good Thing
The game is streamlined in the arcade mode by default, meaning you won’t have access to an entire playbook, but four coach-suggested plays per formation. The stadium and menu graphics are fantastic, but players themselves have a slightly cartoonish look to them, which looks straight out of last year’s Madden Wii installment. The AI is decent for the most part, although it loves burning through timeouts. During the matches I played against the computer, there were multiple turnovers (on both sides), and at least four punts returned for touchdowns (by my team).
I was playing the game pre-release, so it was difficult to find anyone to play against, but in the matches I was able to connect to, the game handled surprisingly well. You do end up playing the waiting game while your opponent selects their play, but that’s become standard in online football matchups. Otherwise the game handled just like the single-player version, although only friends will see the custom team logos you’ve slaved for hours over. Also, players would quit immediately if I scored early, or held them during a key fourth-down play. Welcome to the Internet.
The league system featuring 8, 16, or 32 teams, and deep franchises -- yes, you can draft players -- will give you tons of opportunities for matchups, while the surprisingly robust custom logo creator feels like “Photoshop Jr.” The graphics editor is powerful enough to create any logo you want, and some players have already taken it upon themselves to recreate all of the actual NFL team logos in the game. Additionally, the game throws up a warning when you try and take a name with “Washington Redskins” online, letting you know it will be changed automatically. You know, so the NFL won’t sue their pants off. It also supports layers, color palettes, and more, and will probably make your head explode.
If you’re a hardcore football fan, you likely started itching for the next season of football immediately after the closing seconds of the Super Bowl. Or if your team blew its chances earlier in the season (thanks, Cowboys) you’re ready to go back where your loss column has a big fat zero in it. While the Euphoria Engine-driven tackles are satisfying, they alone aren’t enough to sell Backbreaker. It’s a good game that sets an ambitious precedent, although you’ll have to carve through some bumbling elements to hit its high points. If you don’t mind the control and camera quirks, and are dying to create your own custom helmet logo, then you’ll enjoy it. NaturalMotion has shown some real… fortitude for dropping this new title into the football fray after so many have tried and failed. When the NFL’s license exclusivity ends in 2012, I hope more titles like Backbreaker will change the game for the better.