For those of you video game enthusiasts out there, consider me amongst your brethren. As a die-hard football fan, I can appreciate a good football video game when it’s made available. EA Sports’ Madden franchise has taken the NFL licensing hostage since 2005, and the world hasn’t seen a lot of alternative virtual football since. The lack of licensing makes it hard for developers to appeal to football fans, and even legends of NFL past can’t move product (see: All-Pro Football 2k8). Natural Motion hopes to change that with the release of Backbreaker, an arcade style football game that puts you right in the action via third-person camera (think of it like playing Superstar Mode in Madden). The beautifully crafted Euphoria physics engine boasts tackling I promise you’ve never seen in football games before. The big question is, does the game provide the gamer a meaningful serving of alternative football?
This is where the comparison to EA’s Madden ends; Backbreaker isn’t trying to be the new Madden, nor is it trying to replace Madden. What Natural Motion’s goal is, is to provide us with an incredible experience that you haven’t seen before. Being handicapped without the NFL license, Backbreaker’s world of football exists in the future, where all players wear visors, have microphones in their helmets, and state-of-the-art equipment (which looks funky, but cool). The version of football in the BB universe boasts a different set of rules than pro football as we know it today; receivers need just one foot in bounds to make a catch, field goal are attempted from 10-yards behind the line of scrimmage (instead of 8), and players don’t fatigue or get injured. Ok, so the last one isn’t really a rule, just something the developers made unique to this game. There’s no video tutorial or section in the game manual on what the rules of the Backbreaker world are. I have no problem with the game using different rules I just wish they could’ve taken the time to give Backbreaker a broader identity by explaining these unique conditions. With each team in the game completely original, it would also be nice to have biographies and descriptions of who the teams consist of. It’s nothing major, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the game’s solid engine, but it would’ve been nice to have a better connection to Backbreaker’s universe.
The game’s strong point, or back bone, is the Euphoria physics engine. This engine does not rely on canned animations to determine how a player is tackled, or how a play takes shape. You’ll notice this the first time you make a tackle (or get tackled), and every time there after. Natural Motion claims you’ll never see the same tackle twice, and that claim is reasonably accurate. When running with the ball, you’ll never be certain of how you’re carrier is going down, which can be both a positive and a negative. At times, your ball carrier will seem indestructible, shaking off defenders and sprinting towards the end zone; other times, you’ll feel weak and powerless. For example, sometimes even the slightest bump into your own blocker will result in the ball carrier rag-dolling to the turf, or something as simple as an arm tackle will thrust you downward with incredible momentum. With such an unpredictable engine, anything can affect your running. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it would be better if the ball carrier didn’t fall over from bumping into blockers so frequently, or if arm tackles didn’t have the strength of ten men. Overall, the engine is a thing of beauty, regardless of its shortcomings. You truly have to play Backbreaker to see just how wonderful it can be. Seeing a QB absolutely mauled by a rushing defender has never looked so frightening. Preventing your QB from getting manwiched is a feat in itself.
After the jump, the rest of the review, my Overall Grade and some custom creations I made using the game's incredible Team Customization Tool...
The gameplay controls for the passing game use the Right Analog stick to pass and cycle through receiving options. In order to throw a bullet pass, you simply flick the R-Analog stick up; to throw a lob, flick the R-Analog stick down, then up. After you release the pass, you can use the R-Analog stick to put slight "after touch" on the ball to direct it away from defenders, or to lead a receiver. The lob pass can be tricky, and sometimes the game won’t recognize the motion you’ve made on the controller resulting in a bullet pass (when you wanted lob) or the QB won’t pass at all (and you get smushed). It takes some practice, but the even when the controls have been mastered you’ll still have the occasional lob pass simply not work.
Since the game pits you in a third person view (and not the Eagle Eye view we’re accustomed to), cycling throw the QBs reads with the R-Analog stick can also be tricky. Prior to the snap, you can switch the player you want as your primary receiver by holding down L2 and cycling with the R-Analog stick. The L2 button is also used for focus mode after the snap, which allows the QB to zero in on his target and deliver a particularly accurate pass. Most often, you won’t have enough time to progress through two reads and you’ll be sacked (or throw an INT into coverage). I like the camera view (especially in focus mode), and I like the passing controls (most of the time), but a little more time in the pocket would be nice.
The controls for running the ball I’ve grown considerably found of. You use aggressive mode by holding R2 (which acts like a turbo), allowing your ball carrier to stiff arm defenders directing the R-Analog stick left or right, or truck over defenders by pressing up on the R-Analog stick. If you hold down on the R-Analog stick, the ball carrier will secure the ball with both hands, something I recommend doing when running into a group of pursuers. When not holding R2, your ball carrier is in Agile Mode which gives your player better maneuverability. You can flick the R-Analog stick left or right to juke, rotate the R-Analog stick from the down-to-up position left or right to spin, or hurdle defenders by flicking up.
The dive or jump over the pile, you can hold up on the R-Analog stick. Jumping over the pile into the endzone proves to be magnificent; getting jarred and flipped around in the air ain’t too shabby either. When controlling the ball carrier, you can use L2 as focus mode, which will switch the camera to view pursuing defenders behind you. While in focus mode on offense, you cannot perform any evasive maneuvers, so hopefully your path to the goal line has no obstructions.
Defensive controls are similar to running the ball; R2 is used for aggressive mode, L2 for focus mode. While in aggressive mode on defense, your player’s vision is restricted because the camera zooms in closer to your player. To perform a barge tackle, you flick down on the R-Analog stick (you can also tackle by getting close enough to the ball carrier, or pressing up on the R-Analog stick). If executed properly, you’ll put a great deal of hurt on the ball carrier. If you miss, your player will laughably slide by or face plant into the turf.
By holding L2, your player will focus on where the ball is, leaving you less susceptible to play fakes. Focus mode on defense provides you with the best camera angle possible to pursue the ball carrier. You can use the R-Analog stick to redirect your player around defenders, and when engaged with blockers, you can rip, swim, spin and bull rush using the R-Analog stick also. The control functionality on both offense and defense are extremely well executed, but if you prefer using the face buttons to control your players’ actions, you can do so by switching to Alternate Mapping in the Controls menu.
Speaking of plays, another area where Backbreaker is lacking: the amount of plays you have at your disposal. On offense, you have the Single-Back, I, Pro, Shotgun and Goal Line Formations (and Special Teams of course). In each formation, you have a small variety of run and pass plays, but other than play-action, no trick plays. There’s no WR reverses, no HB passes, or flea-flickers; something that the game certainly could’ve taken advantage of with such a terrific game engine. When selecting Punt or Field Goal, there’s no option to run a fake punt or fake FG; when you line up to punt or kick, you’re going to punt or kick. Defensive play calling is just as limited as offense, with the 3-4, 4-3, Nickel, Dime and Goal Line formations. The Dime formation is rather pointless, considering the offense doesn’t have a 4-WR set at its disposal (which frankly sucks).
You can audible before the snap, but on offense you can’t call a hot route, nor can you send a receiver in motion. On defense, you cannot quickly call a double team on a primary receiver, or command a LB to blitz or drop in to coverage. It’s very simple, basic command of the offensive/defensive units and more depth and adjustments would’ve been greatly appreciated. The game plays incredibly smooth, but it definitely needs a deeper playbook and functioning pre-snap commands other than the ability to audible. The QB gestures at times like he’s sending a WR in motion, which is confusing since you can’t actually do so. These limitations certainly won’t hold you back from beating an AI opponent, but again, it would be nice to have.
In terms of the AI, Natural Motion failed epically (and I hope the development can address these issues with a patch). On the Pro-Hard difficulty setting, I have no problems beating down my opponents. Some of you may not care about this, since online play is Human vs. Human, but with game modes like Season and Road to Backbreaker, a smarter, more competitive AI would be welcomed. QBs controlled by the CPU’s AI tend to throw too many INTs, or make incredibly poor decisions. For example, in my first game on the Pro-Hard difficulty setting, the CPU QB completed 8 of 28 passes, for 63 yards and 4 INTs. That doesn’t seem too bad, but considering how often you’ll see opponent QB’s stat lines look this, it is quite bad.
The Defense’s AI isn’t nearly as atrocious, and sometimes you’ll find yourself throwing just as many INTs if you’re not careful. A remedy for the situation would be better offensive line tendencies, which could allow both the user and AI controlled QBs more time in the pocket to make progressions and proper decisions. With such a frantic pass rush and collapsing pocket, the AI QB does not adapt accordingly. Online against a user at least your opponent can counter with shorter pass plays or misdirection run plays, but the pass protection still needs fixing. Since the game boasts Road to Backbreaker mode, it certainly needs better AI.
In Road to Backbreaker mode, you take a created team and play through three separate leagues, starting at the bottom of the bunch. In the first league (the CPFL), you’ll find yourself pitted against 7 cupcake teams. If you finish in the top two of this division, you’ll move onto the UPFL and take on 15 more suitable opponents. When that season ends, you’ll be moved up to the BBFL where 31 high-calibre opponents are waiting to take you down. Of course, with the poor CPU AI, you likely won’t have much struggle at all. The mode is still fun, because you create your own team and acquire free agents with credits earned from previous contests, it just isn’t hard.
Climbing up the ladder through various football leagues should be tougher, but the AI prevents that. If Road to Backbreaker Mode doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can also do a regular season mode of 8, 16, or 32 team seasons. You can completely customize the league and division names for these season modes, and put in as many user created teams as you like. In other words, you could have a 32-team league that consists of your own personal creations. During the season mode, you can also scout players that will be available in the offseason draft, which is definitely a nice touch. Unfortunately, there are no free agents in the season mode, or the ability to trade players.
If playing a season or going on the Road to Backbreaker isn’t your idea of fun, there’s always the option to play an exhibition game against an AI opponent (online against a user), or a split-screen multi-player with (or against) another user on the same system. Also adding to the game’s replay ability is the incredibly addictive Tackle Alley mode (which can be played 1 or 2 player offline, or 2 player online). Tackle Alley is simple, you are the ball carrier and you must score a touchdown to advance to the next wave of defenders. This mode really allows the running engine to shine, and you’ll also see plenty of collisions of both defenders hitting you or each other, if you juke out of the way in time.
Tackle Alley gives you 100 waves to complete, so don’t be surprised if you spend a lot of time here trying to complete this fun, addictive and challenging mode. At the absolute least, Tackle Alley alone is worth giving Backbreaker a play, you won’t find anything else like it and again, the game’s engine truly shines in this mode. The ability to play Tackle multi-player online or offline should have you coming back for me.
As for online exhibition games against other users, the experience can be hit or miss. For example, in the numerous games that I was the host, I experienced no lag at all. The game ran smooth and interruption free. As games when I was not the host, I experience a considerable amount of lag. In some instances, the lag wasn’t much more than affecting the timing on a kicking meter, other times, my ball carrier seemed to warp from one spot on the field to the next, because the connection was suffering. I can’t really hold this against Natural Motion, as it could be connection issues on my end or my opponents end. When participating in a game with no lag at all, I had a terrific experience. What holds online play back, however, is the lack of an online season mode. With just the ability to play online exhibition games or tackle alley, the game feels bare bones.
Another disappointing feature online, is that user created logos are blocked unless you are friends with that person. In other words if you spent hours creating a custom team and you aren’t on my friends list when we play, I’ll just see a generic Away Team or Home Team logo. I understand this measure was taken to prevent Natural Motion from copyright infringements, but not everyone is taking "NFL" teams online.
I’ve saved one of the best parts of the game for last, Team Customization. This is a mode you can arguably spend hours on, creating a team from scratch or copying an existing team from the Backbreaker pool. In this mode, you are your own limitation. The customization tool gives you so many ways to create a logo, there’s nothing you can’t do. You also get to design the endzone, putting in whatever logos or text you desire. Changing the teams uniform colours is simplistic, and you can’t change the stripe designs on the helmets or uniforms, but that’s really not a big deal considering the stunning logos you can create using your own imagination. You can also rename your players and reassign their numbers, but you can’t adjust their height, weight or attribute ratings. Personally I like this feature, because I’m tired of seeing taking 7’7 WRs online in games like All-Pro Football 2k8.
When choosing your team’s offensive and defensive specialty, along with team bias, you can also assign the amount of Gold Players to your team’s offense and defense (up to 11 each). In other words, you can already stack your team with talent, there’s no reason to create a 7’7 400 pound beast. However, assigning 11 gold players to both your offense and defense does not result in a team’s overall rating becoming 99, nor does it give all your gold players ratings of 99 in every category. So while you can create a juggernaut of a football team, you cannot create a godly, untouchable creation (thankfully). This paragraph I’ve spent on Team Customization really doesn’t do the feature justice and it’s something I recommend you check out for yourself.
Graphics/Engine – 9 out of 10 (beautiful physics engine, great player interactions, no canned gameplay animations)
Gameplay/Controls – 8 out of 10 (excellent, intuitive controls, passing game is a little touchy)
Artificial Intelligence – 2 out of 10 (extremely poor computer opponents, even on the highest difficulty)
Online Playability – 6 out of 10 (only tackle alley and exhibition, both fun if experienced lag free)
Lasting Appeal – 6 out of 10 (the CPU AI is depressing for Road to Backbreaker, but the team customization should keep you around for a while)
Overall Grade: 31 out of 50
Final Word: For video game enthusiasts looking for a unique football experience, I definitely recommend Backbreaker. The game will take some getting used to in terms of camera and controls, but once familiar you’ll definitely enjoy your experience playing human opponents and tackle alley. Road to Backbreaker mode would be considerably better if the CPU AI wasn’t so horrific. With hopes of a patch to fix theses issues, Backbreaker could become an exceptional experience that you won’t want to miss. Until a patch is released, I can’t fully recommending purchasing this game, but renting it should be on your "to-do" list.
Creations I made using the Team Customization tool:
End Zone Design for Custom Team "Deathskin Razors" (homage to Mutant League Football):
Team Summary for Created Team "Montreal Expos":
Helmet for user Created Team "Leamington 57 Thugs" (a shoutout to the town that not even a Tornado can defeat):