With Madden dominating the genre – due partly to EA’s exclusive holding of the valuable NFL license – it can be difficult to find a decent pigskin experience these days. But NaturalMotion wanted to provide gamers with a different experience, one that sort of blends simulation and arcade-style gameplay, and ideally sets itself apart from most other sports titles available. Now, on the one hand, the perspective alone is enough to be considered somewhat innovative, in that you actually feel as if you’re on the field controlling one particular player. On the other hand, there are drawbacks to this and the overall erratic nature of the gameplay results in spiking highs and dismal lows. You’ll go, “damn, that was awesome!” one minute and the next, you’ll be frowning at the screen, wondering why something happened. Perhaps the primary saving grace can be found in the large amount of customization and options, where you can create your own team from scratch and participate in Leagues of up to 32 teams. But that’s not quite enough.
The graphics are loaded with a lot of interesting animations, primarily because the developers didn’t want you to see the same tackling animation over and over. They give the example of saying that “no pig pile will ever look the same,” and while that may be true, we also have a lot of bizarre movements that often seem downright comical. Really, the players often look more like rag dolls than humans, although we can’t really take anything away from the inherent fluidity, which does exist. The presentation is very clean but not intricately detailed; we have a very slick, complete visual palette that doesn’t attempt to render every blade of grass in high resolution, but focuses on its strengths. And those strengths are animations (which, as I said, can look kooky at times), and some good color and shading. There’s a lot of clipping going on when getting down and dirty, though, and unfortunately, despite all those animations, it just doesn’t look “human” enough. In other words, I’d call it a decent effort.
The sound isn’t where it should be, mostly due to an extremely repetitive soundtrack – as in, you only hear one particular song during kick-off – and we also hear a lot of the same effects when down on the field. There are only so many times you can hear, “Pass, pass!” and the collisions and player grunts all sorta sound alike. That being said, such sounds are well implemented; the crunch of a big hit is most satisfying, the roar of the crowd is significant when the home team pulls off a big play, and when you’re right in the midst of the action, it really does sound a lot like a football field during a game. For that reason, perhaps it’s unfair to harp on the lack of sound variety throughout and normally, I wouldn’t…but after playing for quite a while, I really don’t feel as if any aspect of the sound greatly enhances the experience. Basically, one game sounds a lot like the next and if you’re going to put in player comments, you may as well add a few more; perhaps some trash talk, or something like that. And really, they needed at least a few more tracks to make it less tiresome.
As you might expect, the gameplay is the compelling factor. I like football. I’ve played football. Therefore, I can appreciate when a developer wants to bring you into that sport and immerse you in the sensations that go along with every snap of the ball. In this way, you have to realize that you’re going to be sacrificing control over the entire team; the point of Backbreaker is to make it seem as if you’re one man on a side of eleven, which is realistic and appropriate. Hence, if you choose to be a lineman on defense to rush the quarterback, and he gets rid of the ball before you get there, you won’t see where it goes; you’ll only continue to see the crush of bodies all around you (unless you quickly switch to another player near the ball). On top of which, the camera is always so close to the action, you can really only see what’s directly in front of you, especially when you’ve enabled the special Aggression mode. Now, you can also decide to drop back in coverage, which gives you a look at much of the field but if the pass goes over your head, you’re in trouble.
Oddly enough, this unique perspective is both the game’s biggest plus and, at the very same time, it’s biggest minus. The immersion you feel when trying to find and exploit a hole in the defense as the running back, or going man coverage on a receiver, or trying to take the corner with an outside linebacker, is welcome. It really makes this football experience feel somewhat special. But if you’re accurately picturing the game based on my description, you may have already stumbled upon the big drawback of which I speak: the lack of vision. When that close to the action, you really can’t see what’s going on around you too well, even when you’ve backed off on the Aggression. This is most painfully evident on offense. Dropping back with the QB is both frightening and frustrating, because you really have no idea where the pressure is coming from. This is doubly difficult when you enter the Focus mode (hold L2) to zone in on a particular receiver; at that point, you have no peripheral vision whatsoever. This brings me to the other main flaw…
Regardless of whether you play on Arcade or Pro mode, the offensive lines for both teams are way too porous. Any given game will see literally dozens of sacks, and a horde of interceptions and fumbles. Scrambling as the QB is essentially out of the question and you almost never have more than a few seconds to get rid of the ball, regardless of the talent of your offensive line. I built up an All-Star team just to test this, and my QB was almost as susceptible as when I chose a random team and played an Exhibition match. Same goes for the running back; he almost never has holes because the o-line is mostly useless, and to top it all off, it’s far too easy to lose your balance. I’ve been tripped up by a random arm, I've tripped over my own players, and in general, if you even touch another player, you’re going down. The addition of juke and spin moves do help, although it will take some practice. Also, I sort of like the fact that you can’t do any moves (like swimming through the line) if you’ve got the Aggression Mode enabled; you’ve got to let off if you wanna spin, for instance.
The last problem I’ll speak of is the lack of distinction amongst the players. The great players really don’t seem to be that much better than the lousy ones, especially in regards to the offensive and defensive lines. But somehow, despite all this Backbreaker can still be a lot of fun. I think it’s because of that original perspective, which really forces you to approach each play as a real football player would, and although it may feature an arcade-style of gameplay, it feels more like a simulator. So in this capacity, it is an interesting and even effective blend. I really liked seeing some of the more insane animations kick in during some plays; QBs literally getting launched over a rushing linebacker and losing the ball in the process, or diving stops that just barely bring a would-be breakaway to a close. It can be very invigorating, and with the option of Arcade, Pro, or Custom, you can set things up almost exactly the way you wish. In Arcade, you get the benefit of a yellow marker on the ball handler, and the QB will always automatically lead the receiver.
But if you want full access to the entire playbook, you have to play in Pro mode. While in Arcade, you only have a few plays to choose from and they’re assembled into simple and easy-to-understand categories: Run, Pass, Special, and Ask the Coach on offense and Coverage, Blitz, and Balanced on defense. This really helps streamline the gameplay and lets you experiment with a variety of different approaches in a very short span of time. And being able to create just about everything from scratch is a blessing because remember, there are no real teams or real players so you won’t likely want to choose one of them for League play. If you want to create the New England Patriots, however, you can almost do that. It will take some time, but you can do it. And lastly, the overall sensation and immersion can be top-notch, given the right situation and provided things play out correctly. That erratic nature rears its ugly head too often, though, as wide open receivers will drop balls while those triple-covered will haul it down. It’s still super fun to break off big plays; there’s no denying that.
It’s just the lack of visibility and a pervading feeling of not knowing where the opposition is that brings this game down, along with that virtually useless offensive line. These affect every aspect of the experience, which is why it might really annoy some people, but I should continue to stress that Backbreaker is one of those rare instances where it turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts. …or if not “greater,” definitely “funner.” The smaller kinks might get to you, like the constant roughing the kicker call on punts that you can’t seem to avoid, but creating your own team and setting out to bash on the competition made me grin. The online play doesn’t really change anything; the problems are still there and oh yeah, because nobody besides critics have the game yet, it’s hard to get a sense of how it might play. But hey, the options are there (use the right analog for everything or utilize face buttons) and the immersion is there, and that’s the best that can be said about it. I just wish they had spent more time refining the major flaws because they really do hold this one back.
6/1/2010 Ben Dutka