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Backbreaker

Score: 68%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Natural Motion
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 2; 2 (Online)
Genre: Sports (Football)

Graphics & Sound:

It's odd to review a football game and not use Madden as the title, but it's happened a few times already this year. Backbreaker harbors no intentions of going after EA's monster franchise, nor does it try to be Madden. Instead, the focus is on providing bone-jarring hits that fall somewhere on the border of realism and arcade. It's a great goal, but the gameplay has to come first.

Backbreaker promises no two hits are alike, and delivers on that promise. Every year, we see a new sports game and comment on how "realistic" the animation looks. From this point forward, we'll have to look at Backbreaker first, then see how well the rest of the pack is keeping up. Players bend, twist and contort, finding all manner of positions to fall into after a big hit. Just like watching a real game, its amazing players are able to get up after some hits.

Hits in mind, there are some issues. Tackles look fantastic, but common football motions (basically, any not handled by Natural Motion's euphoria physics engine) look a little sloppy. This may, however, be a side effect of the otherwise amazing animation since these same motions would likely garner high praise in another football game.

Sound is a complete wash. There's no commentary outside a robotic PA announcer and P.O.D.'s "Boom" is used way too often during gameplay. Yeah, I know it's a cool football song, but listening to it after every kickoff has moved it to that special place in my heart reserved only for Limp Bizkit and Smashmouth.


Gameplay:

I'm no expert on football, so I'll never claim the ability to provide in-depth analysis on the sport. At the same time, I know the game well enough and have played enough videogame incarnations to know Backbreaker has issues. Some are forgivable. After all, this is the company's first foray into football games. At the same time, many of the omissions are features that should have been included, regardless.

Backbreaker manages to make nearly every small error possible, dragging the entire experience down. It feels more like a prototype than an actual finished product. From the outset, nothing feels right. Few players move the way you'd expect based on their position. All players feel exactly the same when running, which shouldn't happen. Though there are exceptions, wide receivers should feel a little sleeker while running backs should have a little more heft. Both feel nearly identical.

Backbreaker is light on play modes. In addition to a standard season, there's Road to Backbreaker, an expanded franchise mode. Oddly enough, scouting only appears in single season. The premise behind Road to Backbreaker is neat. You begin as a new team in an eight-team league and watch it expand to a full 32 after a few years. I'm not sure why the feature was left out of the one mode where it seems to make the most sense, but that's the least of Backbreaker's gameplay woes.

Team creation is really cool and one of Backbreaker's non-euphoria related highpoints. You can make just about any team you want, ranging from believable facsimiles of NFL teams to fictional teams from movies. There's an understandable drawback of not being able to share creations with other players (I could see the lawsuits brewing), but it's still a fun option.

Multiplayer is limited to exhibition games and fun when you can find a game. I noticed a few lag issues, but nothing I haven't encountered in other games. There's also an online mini-game, Tackle Alley, which is actually more fun than Exhibition games. If Natural Motion was able to package the mode as a stand-alone download game, I'd be interested.


Difficulty:

Make sure to play though Training Camp first, though it wouldn't hurt to have the manual nearby just in case. Training Camp offers a set of challenges designed to teach the ins-and-outs of gameplay. The activities offer a good overview of how things work, though it still manages to gloss over some smaller, but not less important, details.

Many of Backbreaker's difficulty issues stem from a terrible camera system. There's only one camera view available (even during replays) and it's way too close. I think the idea is to get you as close to the action as possible, but sometimes caveats have to be made in the name of gameplay. On offense, it's impossible to see all of your receiver's routes as well as players rushing in from the side. Sacks are common, so be grateful there are no injuries. Defense isn't any better. It's fun being really close to the line, but you won't know what's happening anywhere else on the field.


Game Mechanics:

Backbreaker skims on nearly every feature it can, causing it to feel more like an arcade game than simulation. Every team has similar playbooks, pre-snap options are limited and there are no injuries or even hot route options. This will disappoint hardcore fans, but may not come as a minus to players who think Madden has become too complicated. If only the controls complied.

Natural Motion tried something different with Backbreaker's control scheme, and I give them props for the attempt. Rather than following Madden's button-centric scheme, Backbreaker places actions on the Right Analog Stick. Some motions, like jukes or stiff arms, feel fine. Others, like passing, don't. While at QB, pressing the (Left Trigger) focuses on the nearest receiver. It's a cool idea, and implemented way better than EA's attempt a few years ago. At the same time, release times are just a few milliseconds too late.

If you manage to get the ball out of your QB's hands, don't expect it to reach a receiver. Balls routinely sail past their intended target. To compound the issue, defenses will pick off just about anything that comes their way. It's uncanny. The running game is slightly better, but success depends solely on whether or not your line decides to show up on a particular play.

As much as I hate to say it, Backbreaker feels more like a tech demo than a real game. I'm willing to make a few exceptions based on the developer's experience, but not enough to let some of the major issues slide. Despite its flaws, Backbreaker has some potential, but only if Natural Motion can move past design decisions and improves the core gameplay.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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