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Preview: Backbreaker

1:00 PM on 06.23.2009 // Samit Sarkar

Hey, remember Backbreaker? You know, that other football game that was announced forever ago -- the one that runs on the Euphoria engine, the one we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of in more than a year? Well, contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t vaporware. The game most definitely exists -- in fact, I spent about 45 minutes checking it out during E3, and boy, do I have a lot to tell you about it.

Hit the jump, where you’ll find the first official gameplay trailer for Backbreaker -- along with my words about the game that you can read with your eyes and comprehend with your brains. There are also six new screenshots in the gallery below!

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Backbreaker (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: NaturalMotion
Publisher: To be announced
To be released: “When it’s done”

NaturalMotion isn’t naïve. The 20- to 25-person team, based in Oxford, England, is aware that Backbreaker can’t be a true competitor to EA Sports’ venerated Madden NFL franchise -- and that’s not what they’re trying to do. As Associate Producer Rob Donald explained it, “To sit and play a Madden game now, without [...] ten years’ experience, can sometimes feel a bit daunting,” since -- in the twenty-odd years since the series’ inception -- it’s grown increasingly more complex as consoles have increased their horsepower and controllers have gained buttons.

The focus behind Backbreaker is twofold: the game aims to provide a more realistic simulation of football than has ever been seen before, but it’s also being designed to be immediately accessible to as many people as possible. While longtime football gamers are already familiar with a “language,” so to speak, that most football sims have shared -- controls, presentation, etc. -- all of that can be overwhelming for newcomers, and as NaturalMotion sees it, that’s a huge turn-off to people who don’t already know what they’re doing on the virtual gridiron. Accordingly, you won’t need a decade’s worth of football videogame knowledge to grasp the basics of Backbreaker.

Whereas most simulation football games have aimed for a broadcast television-style look, everything in Backbreaker, presentation-wise, is designed to make you feel as if you’re one of the 22 players on the field. Instead of the wide-angle, all-encompassing view that football games typically provide, the camera in Backbreaker sits low behind the player you’re controlling at that moment. It’s similar to the angle in Madden’s Superstar mode, or the Be A Pro mode in NHL 09. If you’re the quarterback, you’ll see what he’s looking at, and if you’re executing a running play, the camera will be situated behind the running back.

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Because the aim here is to offer a “pick-up-and-play” experience, the controls are simplified (and are arguably more intuitive). When you’re the ball carrier, the left stick moves your player. The standard configuration is called “evasive mode” -- here, the right stick offers “agile, get-out-of-jail” moves such as jukes and hurdles. It works how you’d expect it to work: flicking to the right or left has your player sidestep in those directions; down does a stutter step (or “back juke”); and up hurdles.

Holding the right trigger activates “aggressive mode,” which provides your power -- stiff arms and trucking (pressing A [X on PS3] switches your ball hand -- you can’t stick out your left arm if it’s holding the ball!). In aggressive mode, the camera shifts down a bit and gets closer to your player, and the audio changes as well: it’s given the classic “underwater” effect, like in a slow-motion scene in a movie, and you can hear your player panting as he sprints. Donald told me that the idea behind these changes was to make it seem as if you were wearing the helmet yourself, with your mind focused squarely on the opposing players ahead of you. I must say, it feels undeniably awesome to build up a full head of steam, activate aggressive mode, and then flick the right stick upwards to simply run over a defender, Brandon Jacobs-style.

Passing in Backbreaker is completely different from what you might be accustomed to from years of Madden. Again, simplicity and immersion are paramount; the face buttons aren’t assigned to various receivers, because NaturalMotion feels that that scheme “takes you out” of the experience. The way passing works is that you snap the ball with A/X and use the right analog stick to scan the field with your quarterback’s eyes. It’s an analog to the infamous Vision Cone that EA Tiburon implemented in Madden NFL 06, but it’s less gamey; without the yellow flashlight-like beam on the field, it feels more realistic. You can also look around before the snap with the right stick. Your primary receiver glows orange, but if he looks like he’s covered, you can use “focus” mode (hold the left trigger) to switch to another receiver.

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Once the ball is snapped, using focus will automatically follow your primary receiver, and in focus mode, passes will be more accurate. But since the camera will be closer to the QB -- like in aggressive mode with a ball carrier -- it’ll be tougher to see defenders coming for you. To throw the ball, you flick the right stick forward. In the build I saw, all the throws were simple on-a-wire bullet passes, but Donald assured me that there would be variety in the final release. They were still tweaking it, but he suggested that a long bomb would require you to pull back on the right stick and then flick upwards.

It’s a similar story on defense, though Donald admitted that the team was currently further with the offense than they were with the defense. Again, he drew a contrast between Backbreaker and the way things have been done in most football games to this point. Generally, players will sit back and let the AI do most of the work before switching to the defender closest to the ball carrier to make the tackle. Here, though, you’ll pick a player on the play select screen (you’ll be able to change, of course), and he’ll have an assignment that’s highlighted in orange. For example, in the instance I saw, Donald played as the linebacker, and his target (the quarterback) showed up in orange. So your defense’s success -- or failure -- will be on you.

If that sounds frightening, don’t worry. The game offers some optional AI assists -- for example, the linebacker was “guided” toward the quarterback -- but if you’re an experienced player, you can turn off those assists. (They’re on by default in “Arcade” difficulty and off in “Pro.”) Focus mode on defense will, again, have you follow your target automatically. Of course, the behind-the-shoulder camera in the game presents a new wrinkle; NaturalMotion is still working on ensuring that camera shifts (when you change players on defense) aren’t jarring or disorienting.

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But why would a British developer decide to make an American football game? Donald noted that “football is a perfect playground for Euphoria,” since the collision-based sport is a physics geek’s dream. In the game, movement comprises simple motion-captured animation -- technology that’s been in use for over a decade. However, “as soon as there’s any degree of contact, Euphoria takes over.” In other words, no collisions are canned; they’re all procedurally generated by Euphoria. So at any given moment, Euphoria is doing physics calculations for up to 22 players’ muscles, nerves, and bones.

In all other games, collisions are determined by so-called rolls of the dice -- when players come together, the game takes their ratings into account and figures out what will happen. But in Backbreaker, collisions are “real” -- the players’ arms and bodies, as well as the ball, are all objects with real physical properties, and the game calculates an outcome of a collision based on factors like the speed and angle at which the players crashed into each other, as well as their bodies (height, weight, etc.). There’s no such thing as a “fumble animation” in this game; if, for example, the ball carrier is switching his ball hand as he gets hit, the chances of a fumble will be much higher than normal.

As you can imagine, Euphoria also produces incredibly varied tackles, and as NaturalMotion likes to say, no two plays will look exactly the same. Players literally have “intelligence,” too. Just like someone whose car you’re stealing in GTA IV will hang onto the door for dear life, defenders are “actual physical beings trying to tackle” you. The animation blending -- the transitions from motion-captured animations to Euphoria-created collisions -- is being tweaked to be as smooth as possible, as a few hitches occur from time to time. But what I saw of Backbreaker was a pre-alpha build; there’s no firm release date yet. As Donald told me, the game will be out “when it’s done” -- since this is NaturalMotion’s debut game featuring their flagship technology, they want to make the best first impression they can.

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And they’ll need to stand out, since the competition is so overwhelming -- Madden is the only licensed football game around, thanks to EA’s exclusive contract with the NFL, so Backbreaker will have to offer a lot to catch the public’s eye. Because there are no real NFL teams or players involved in this game, NaturalMotion went to town; the full game will ship with over 50 teams, and each of their logos will be completely customizable through a deep editor that Donald likened to the one in Forza Motorsport 2.

The teams hail from cities and regions that have real NFL teams, such as New York, Green Bay, Denver, and New England, but the stadiums -- which have fully animated crowds -- were designed to feel like massive arenas. To wit, they all include distinct influences of their respective cities, and that makes them larger-than-life superstructures -- almost caricatures, in a way -- of real-life venues. For example, the Denver stadium features a mountainous ring around its top, while the San Francisco arena has a prominent, red-orange Golden Gate Bridge column sticking out of it near the scoreboard.

I first got to see the Tackle Alley mode, which is a minigame that was the original tech demo for Backbreaker. In it, you’re a ball carrier at one end of the field who’s tasked with getting to the end zone in front of you, and the mode gets increasingly more difficult as you progress. You start out having to elude one or two defenders, but on later levels, you’ll be limited to a certain section of the field, and you might have to power through seven or eight would-be tacklers. It’s a great sandbox to learn the game’s running controls, and when I tried it out myself, I got through four or five levels before quitting while I was ahead.

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Next, I got a look at Training Camp, which offers three offensive and three defensive plays for you to get acquainted with the basics. This was full 11-on-11 gameplay, and while most of the action was solid, what stuck out was the lack of blocking. Donald said that blocking hadn’t yet been implemented in the E3 build, but he also mentioned that the team back in Oxford was working furiously on it and that they’ve got a version up and running in less stable builds. I’m very interested to see how Euphoria handles the O-line/D-line battles in the trenches, but I guess I’ll have to wait. This mode was where Donald introduced me to the passing and defense.

Finally, Donald loaded up an exhibition game in Denver. The foundations of gameplay -- blocking aside -- all seemed to be in place, and he even managed to break through the line for a touchdown. I was highly impressed by what I saw of Backbreaker, but there’s still a long way to go before the game’s done. When I asked about multiplayer and standard modes like franchise, NaturalMotion wouldn’t go into details, but they confirmed that there will be local (split-screen) and online multiplayer, as well as a franchise mode.

So far, the team seems to be on the right track with realistic gameplay that’s immersive and eminently accessible, but I wonder if that’ll be enough to hold people’s interest. Again, NaturalMotion seemed to be of the opinion that Backbreaker could coexist with Madden, that it wouldn’t have to be a “one or the other” kind of situation. I hope they’re right, since Backbreaker certainly deserves everyone’s attention.

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Samit Sarkar,
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