With the NHL and NBA seasons winding down, sports fans know what's on the horizon -- the return of American football. 505 Games and NaturalMotion aren't wait for August though. Earlier this week they released a new football game to the masses known as Backbreaker. And while it's certainly no Madden, Backbreaker may be worth a look for hardcore football fans, but even they stand a good chance of being disappointed.
First And Long
As most of you know, EA has had the NFL licensed secured for several years. Backbreaker, therefore, features a full league of unlicensed or 'homemade' teams. Coming from a background including games like Great Basketball on the Sega Master System, I'm completely fine with that. I don't need the official license to enjoy the game, but Backbreaker has a lot of other nags and problems that significantly hinder the experience.
Before getting into those, let's start off with where all new Backbreaker players should go -- Training. This well put together mode only takes about ten minutes to run through and it gives you just about everything you need to know to play the game. Training is split into twenty-five mini-events, most of which only take a few seconds to complete. Topics include running with the ball, kicking, passing, and playing defense. It's evident from training that the controls in Backbreaker are very simple, making it accessible, but also not as detailed as a more advanced player would like.
In Backbreaker, the left and right triggers are for Focus and Aggressive modes. These two mechanics aren't quite like anything that I've personally experienced before in a sports game and I'm not sure if they're even necessary. Focus Mode is used, for example, when playing as the quarterback to help you see the field. While holding L2, you can tap the right stick to the left or right to checkdown your receivers. Aggressive mode is used when running with the ball, or when on defense. When you press R2, the camera zooms in close to your selected character. In either case it reduces your view which greatly limits what you can see around you.
Whether you're running with the ball or trying to stop an offensive play, this zoomed in view turns out to be annoying more often than not. You can switch players at anytime, something more useful of defensive than offensive, but the effect is jarring. Even when you are at the line, before a play starts and you switch between defensive men, the camera quickly snaps to the next player and it takes about a second to figure out what position you just switched to. It's much worse in the middle of a play when you switch to another player and your view is completely flipped and out of sorts for a second. Usually by the time you figure out who you are and what the heck is going on, the play's over.
The plays in Backbreaker are fairly basic, but for all but the hardcore, they will suffice. The Arcade mode is especially basic, including just four pass and run plays and a few defensive plays. The Pro or sim mode allows you to choose by Formation and includes several times as many available plays. Oddly, unless I missed it, I didn't see anywhere to do a fake punt or field goal. I did like that after a play is finished, you can press L2 to spike the ball (to stop the clock) or R2 to immediately line up again with the same play instead of having to go back to the playbook screen.
No matter what team you choose -- the Little Rock Maulers or Buffalo Beasts or Detroit Demons -- the playbooks are the same, but each team does have a rating. The rating is derived from a score assigned to their Offensive and Defensive prowess. A statement about each team's O and D is displayed during team select too. So for example, you will see teams with statements like "aggressive front seven," "smart wide receivers," or "elusive runners" to help describe their strong points.
In addition to Training and Exhibition, Backbreaker includes a few other modes. Tackle Alley has you running through increasingly more difficult waves of tacklers. This mode is worth a look, but I don't like the running in this game so it didn't appeal to me for long. Online and local head to head play for both standard games and Tackle Alley is supported, with Leaderboards for online as well. Players can also start a dynasty mode in which you pick the size of the league (8, 16, 32 teams), your team, and go from
there. The mode is fairly simple, but you can view a variety of stats, standings, schedules, free agency, and so forth. And then there is the Road To Backbreaker mode which lets you either take an existing team's logo and colors and adjust them, or let you create one from scratch. I was surprised at how detailed you can get in customizing your uniforms and logos, but it's worth pointing you that you cannot share them online. After you fully customize the name, appearance, and choose your roster, you can use this custom team anywhere in the game.
Each mode can be tweaked by editing the game's options. Simple adjustments can be made to toggle things like highlighting the ball carrier and whether or not to show the routes during pre-snap of each play. Other traditional options like time of day, the stadium, quarter length, and so forth are adjustable too.
But no matter the mode, the core gameplay and presentation of the game are the same. The gameplay tends to lie somewhere between zany and unrealistic to semi-decent sim. For the most part I played with an 'arcade attitude,' as I found that more enjoyable than trying to make a sim out of the game. As such, some pretty crazy things happened like ten forced fumbles in a half and thirty-five points in a quarter. At times I just wished the game was more like Midway's Blitz franchise since it was leaning in that direction anyway, although it never quite takes the leap.
From a presentation perspective, Backbreaker doesn't impress any, if at all. Let's start with the visuals. Character models are few in number making a lot of players look just like one another. Given the fact that all the teams and players are fictional anyway, it just made it that much harder to ever care about any of the players on my team. The animations are probably the best part of the visual package, as they are pretty fluid and nicely varied, but they can't in themselves make up for the other shortcomings. The stadium crowd looks awful as well and the fields are nearly barren. Other than the players, there is nothing to be seen -- no refs, no bench, nothing at all. Replays are limited to one camera angle and touchdowns are celebrated with a really generic looking jumbotron sign.
The sound package is similarly disappointing. The only commentary is provided through a PA announcer who has zero emotion and frankly adds little to nothing to the experience. In game effects are moderate at best and the inclusion of POD's 'Boom' song at every kickoff is painful.
I'm all for American football games in addition to the yearly Madden and NCAA titles. Even without licensing, I think it's still very possible to make a good football game but you really have to bring a solid package to the table to standout. Backbreaker has some heart, but it just doesn't provide the polished, deep, and entertaining experience it needs to to really standout from the shadow of Madden, or even Midway's old Blitz franchise. Somewhere in between Madden and Blitz you will find Backbreaker, but it doesn't pack enough punch to warrant more than a rental.
To the summary...
It's nice to see another American football game from an outlet besides EA, but NaturalMotion misses the mark with Backbreaker. Perhaps in a future iteration the story will be different, but for now there are just too many issues with the game to give it a recommendation.