Backbreaker is different from any football game I have ever played. And the team at NaturalMotion had to be different if they were going to make a sim football title to compete with Madden. Or at least get users to devote some of their football-gaming time to Backbreaker.
Backbreaker uses the euphoria engine that creates unique tackles on defense. Sports games typically have predetermined animations that are triggered by the situation. The euphoria engine creates different actions on every play. When controlling a player on defense you can collide with an opponent, even if you're not by the ball. For example, if you're playing with the defensive end and the running back breaks a run up the middle, you will turn upfield to pursue the play. But as you turn up field you can get laid out by an offensive lineman. You may run into the fullback and fall down. The euphoria engine does create some actions that you're not used to seeing in football video games. Now in that same scenario you also have the option to switch to the player closet to the ball by pressing A (X on the PS3). But since you are playing from an up-close (players) perspective, switching mid-play can leave you lost in the action.
Another gameplay element that will be a shock to a football-gamer's system is Backbreaker's passing game. Football video games traditionally have you snap the ball as icons of the controller buttons pop up above the receiver's heads. Press A to throw to the A receiver, B to the B receiver etc.. Backbreaker's passing is all done on the right stick. You'll flick the right stick to the left and right to switch your receivers, and once you lock in on your target you'll have two options. A quick pass or a lob pass. To execute the quick pass you'll just flick the right stick up. This is nice for slant passes. To throw a deep ball you'll hold the right stick down and flick it up. This type of pass takes longer to pull off as your quarterback will crank back and throw the ball. So if you have a defensive end breathing down your neck, you won't get a lob pass off. You'll get sacked.
Passing on Backbreaker is the most challenging part of the game. Playing from the up-close perspective as the quarterback really gives you the feel of what a quarterback sees once he takes that snap. In all other football games, you'll take the snap and the camera will zoom out, giving you a full view of the field of play. Including a clear view of all of your receivers. But that's not realistic. In a real game a quarterback can't see the entire field and see every receiver. When you take the snap in Backbreaker the first thing you see is your offensive line blocking in front of you. It's not a clear view by any means. This requires users to make use of the pocket. Something that is rarely utilized by football video game players -- myself included. Stepping up in the pocket in Backbreaker is key, because it's one of the only times you'll get a clear view of the field. Passing is very challenging, and sometime frustrating. But when I take the snap, step up in the pocket and complete the pass to my wide receiver coming across the middle, it's pretty satisfying.
"People are used to the easy ride, this god-like view that the blimp-cam gives them as the QB. You don't get that in our game. It's a tough game," Backbreaker associate producer Rob Donald said. "So we're giving people flexible controls, but you're gonna have to learn how to use them. You're gonna have to play well. But again, we just think that's real life."
When I first saw how the passing game would work on Backbreaker, I was concerned about the switching of receivers and the throwing all being on the right stick. One of the problems I've had, when trying to throw a lob pass, is unintentionally switching receivers. The result is a pass going to an unintended receiver that leads to an interception. Sometimes the analog sticks aren't the most accurate thing in the world. And in Backbreaker it can lead to some frustrating moments in the passing game.
The running game on the other hand is a ton of fun. I always run the ball more than I pass in the football games I play, and Backbreaker isn't any different. The controls are unique that you have the option to switch which hand you carry the ball in. Stiff arm and juke moves are on the right stick, not the buttons. Breaking off a nice run, while using the moves on the right stick, almost gives you the feel of pulling off a combo move in a fighting game. And playing as a running back in Backbreaker's up-close perspective really makes you feel like you're in the action.
But before you start to play, you'll want to create your own team. Backbreaker has a plethora of customizations options that allows you to create your own uniforms, logos and endzones. You also have the options of editing names on the roster if you'd like to recreate your favorite NFL or college team. If you just want to dive in and start playing, Backbreaker comes with 60 teams. So you can create a team from scratch, play with an existing team or make edits to one of the existing teams. Backbreaker does not have an upload and share option. Hopefully this is something that will be implemented in Backbreaker 2.
Once you have your team ready to go you have a couple options. You can play a regular franchise mode, which will allow you to play multiple seasons and draft players. Or you can play Road to Backbreaker, which is set up in the style of European soccer leagues. You start in the bottom division and have to work your way up to the top division. Finish at the top of your division and you'll move up. Have a bad year and finish at the bottom, you'll be knocked back down.
Backbreaker also has an addicting mini game called Tackle Alley. Tackle Alley has you take the ball from roughly the 3-yard line as you have to avoid the defense and make it to the endzone. The first round of Tackle Alley (which are called waves) has only three defenders to evade. You accumulate points for using juke moves, spin moves, stiff arms and even celebrations. As you advance through the waves you'll face more defenders that will come at you from different angles. Some waves will even have specific spots in the endzone that will reward you with more points. For example, scoring in the middle of the endzone will net you 300 points, score in the right or left part of the endzone and you'll rack up 500 points. Tackle Alley can be played offline or online and has full leaderboards. You can also play ranked matches online and show off your created teams.
One issue I have run into with Backbreaker is playing on the defensive line. When you're in control of a defensive lineman, they don't explode off the line of scrimmage. Instead they stand up then start to engage the offensive lineman. This causes a delay of about a second-and-a-half. That extra time can be the difference between a sack and a touchdown pass. And if NaturalMotion gets the opportunity to make a Backbreaker 2, I would like to see the ability to import your own music. When you score a touchdown in Backbreaker the atmosphere doesn't change much. If you were to close your eyes and just listen to the game, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a touchdown or a first down. Since there's no commentary on the game you're just listening to the crowd and a public address announcer. The ability to import your own music would add to the solid customization options that Backbreaker provides.
Backbreaker is one of those games that you'll either love or hate. There's no in between. You'll either appreciate the risks that NaturalMotion has taken, or you'll bemoan the fact that it's too different from what you're used to. If NaturalMotion just made a game that was a Madden replica, which would you play? Madden or the Madden replica? Backbreaker had to be different if it wants users to embrace their title.
"This is what we're doing. We want to recreate football," Donald said. "We're not trying to recreate a football video game because, funny enough, there are people that do that quite well. We wanted to blaze our own trail."
And hopefully the team at NaturalMotion will have the chance to build on what they created -- a completely different football experience.
Click below to listen to my interview with Backbreaker associate producer Rob Donald.