“You come at the king, you best not miss,” says stick-up man Omar Little in The Wire, when he retaliates against the Barksdale organization after they put a bounty on his head and tried to take him out. Madden is the king when it comes to football videogames -- if by default -- and threats to its throne so far, such as 2K Sports’ All-Pro Football 2K8, have failed to capture an audience.
NaturalMotion’s Backbreaker is the newest challenger to Madden’s gridiron dominance. The defining feature of this highly anticipated football game is its use of NaturalMotion’s Euphoria engine, which lends “life” to the 22 men on the virtual field and does away with canned animations in favor of a simulation of bodies that have skeletons, muscles, and a nervous system. Ostensibly, a football game is the ideal showcase for such an engine, which produces incredibly realistic collisions.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to simulating the sport of football than bodies hitting each other.
Backbreaker (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Publisher: 505 Games
Released: June 1, 2010 (NA)
To be released: June 25, 2010 (EU)
The Euphoria part of the gameplay equation in Backbreaker doesn’t fail to impress, producing moments of brilliance that you’ve heretofore only seen on a real-life football field. The visual component of the marvelously rendered collisions serves to enhance the feeling of accomplishment that you get when you succeed in Backbreaker: the most satisfying part of one of my long touchdown runs was seeing three straight defenders crumple to the field and reach futilely for my ankles after I greeted each of them with a stiff-arm. Sadly, those kinds of beautiful demonstrations of the laws of physics are one of the only redeeming qualities of Backbreaker, a frustrating mess of poor design decisions and awful AI.
NaturalMotion had a vision for this game: they wanted to provide the most realistic simulation of football ever seen in a videogame, while making it accessible to audiences of all kinds. On the accessibility front, the game employs a simplified control scheme. As the quarterback, you switch between receivers by flicking the right stick to the left or right, and you throw by flicking upward (or down, then up, for a lob instead of a bullet pass). An alternate scheme has you switch receivers with X/B and throw with A. Yes, these controls are technically more realistic, since a real quarterback has to look at the receiver to whom he is throwing. But coupled with NaturalMotion’s presentation philosophy, passing becomes an exercise in frustration.
The idea of the game’s camera angle -- which sits directly behind the player you are controlling -- is to put you in the shoes of a player on the field. So the quarterback has a very limited field of vision, unlike in most other football games, which offer a wide-angle perspective that provides a view of the entire field. Is it more true-to-life to let you see only what a quarterback sees? Sure. However, there’s a fine line between simulating a sport and taking all the fun out of it, and Backbreaker crosses that line. The close camera angle and the requirement of switching receivers combine to produce too many sacks and interceptions; this is exacerbated by the high game speed, which means that plays develop too quickly at the line of scrimmage. In many cases, you’ll drop back and a defender will be in your face before your receivers even have a chance to get open. (It doesn’t help that the simplified controls have no provision for throwing the ball away when you’re under pressure outside of the pocket.) Passing became so problematic that I simply stuck to the running game for almost all of my plays.
But it’s not just you who will suffer too many sacks and throw too many interceptions. The CPU offense in Backbreaker is inept -- even when I was playing against the highest-rated teams, I had no trouble stopping the CPU’s pitiful running game, and if you let them run enough plays, they’ll turn the ball over to you at some point. The CPU quarterback doesn’t seem to know when to take a sack, so he’ll often throw picks because your defense was about to take him down. And you’ll force a lot of fumbles if you get to him in time, since Backbreaker doesn’t know what a forward pass is. (Here’s a hint: if the quarterback’s arm was moving forward when he got hit and the ball came out, that’s an incomplete pass, not a fumble!)
The game also doesn’t know how to call penalties properly. I’ve seen instances in which a defender literally tackled my receiver before the ball got there and another defender picked off the pass, yet there wasn’t a flag in sight. I haven’t seen a single holding penalty called, and holding is one of the most common penalties in football. It’s not calling penalties, either; my CPU teammates often committed repeated fouls, and there’s nothing more infuriating than having two straight roughing the kicker penalties on punts turn a 4th-and-27 situation into a first down.
Backbreaker also suffers because it lacks features that have been standard in football videogames for years. I have fond memories of Pat Summerall going, “Oh, no. There’s a man down,” when a player got hurt in Madden NFL ’96. But there are no injuries in Backbreaker; there’s also no fatigue, no replay challenges, no hot routes (or pre-snap adjustments of any kind except audibles), no sliders, and no commentary. When you look at a replay, the only camera angle available is what you saw when you ran the play. For example, if you threw the ball to your tight end, the replay would show the play from your quarterback’s point of view until the TE caught the ball; then you’d see the rest of the play through his eyes. There’s no free-roaming camera in replay, and the game doesn’t let you save replays, either.
The game does have an exceptionally robust create-a-team feature: you can create up to 32 teams from scratch or modify any of the existing 50+ teams, and the deep, Forza-like logo editor offers endless possibilities. (In fact, the logos for each of the teams in the game were created using the in-game editor.) I was able to craft a near-perfect recreation of the New York Giants’ logo and uniform, although I had to call them the “G-Men” (you can use the names of real NFL teams, but you can’t take those teams online). It’s a lot of fun to mess around with the editor to get everything just right, and it’s relatively easy to use. But in another critical omission of a feature that’s expected in 2010, there’s no way to share your created teams with the world.
Backbreaker has two main league modes: Season and Road to Backbreaker. In Season, you put a team in an 8-, 16-, or 32-team league and play for multiple seasons (you can play this mode with friends, but not online). Road to Backbreaker has you take a created team from a small league to a big league; you play games to earn credits that you can spend on free agents to improve your team. The structure here works just fine, and both modes have enough to do even though Season has no trades or anything (instead, you scout up-and-coming athletes) -- but frankly, I had no desire to keep playing them because the gameplay is so flawed (and you can’t simulate games).
Perhaps the most fun mode in Backbreaker is Tackle Alley, a minigame in which you have to elude a field of defenders on the way to the end zone. It’s essentially identical to the very successful Backbreaker iPhone game; you have to plow through increasingly difficult waves of tacklers. The best way to rack up a high score is to string together moves such as jukes and spins. Tackle Alley offers a great diversion to let off some steam after you’ve been victimized by the inadequate AI of the 11-on-11 full game.
You’d think that the CPU AI issues would be rendered irrelevant when playing against another human online, but my experience was often filled with so much lag that I had to press the D-pad repeatedly just to move around in the playbook. I didn’t seem to get nearly as much slowdown when I hosted games, so playing as a “guest” might be the problem. And even if you’re not playing against the computer, problems such as the game speed and penalty calling don’t go away.
Football is a complex, multifaceted sport; perhaps it’s unfair to ask that NaturalMotion have all the kinks worked out when Madden still can’t get it completely right after more than twenty years of iteration. That said, Backbreaker just isn’t a competent simulation of football. I give NaturalMotion credit for their uncompromising vision -- they stuck to their guns and didn’t include things like a standard football game camera angle, which would probably have felt like a cop-out to them. But any game that makes me listen to P.O.D.’s “Boom” every damn time someone kicks off (and Refused’s “New Noise” at the beginning of every game) is going to draw my ire. For all its lifelike hits, Backbreaker simply isn’t fun to play.
Score: 3.5 -- Poor (3s went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.)