The inevitable comparisons NaturalMotion’s first entry is drawing to other games are numerous. The analogy of it being like Madden’s XFL or AFL game are as tired and cliche as Madden itself. While, it would not only be hypocritical of me to damn the Madden franchise, it would be as hypocritical of me to say that the comparisons aren’t sound in some ways. Backbreaker’s biggest flaw, of which it has many, is that it’s not Madden. Many gamers, especially those of the Madden faithful, have already damned it for that reason alone. But the game should be celebrated and given a shot to (okay, get ready for the tacky football/sports cliche here) get through the rookie slump and eventually come out on top in the league of ever growing sports titles.
First, let’s talk about the good: Backbreaker’s physics are dope. To say the least. The game uses the Euphoria engine. For those of you who just aren’t well versed in what that means: “Euphoria is a game animation engine created by NaturalMotion based on Dynamic Motion Synthesis, NaturalMotion’s proprietary technology for animating 3D characters on-the-fly ‘based on a full simulation of the 3D character, including body, muscles and motor nervous system.'” What does that mean? It means that EVERY tackle is unique and that characters respond to their environment versus relying on a canned animation. So, tackles are different every time and that players respond (most of the time) realistically to other players on the field. Basically, this means that the game is the most realistic sports game ever… on the field.
Now, the bad: It’d be wrong to say that his game was incomplete with all the work done on the engine. However, the game lacks what many consider to be “standards” of the genre. By and large, a majority of these things are things that we probably take for granted, like coaches and players on the sidelines, cheerleaders, referees, real-time commentary, and a TV like broadcast experience. These things are all omitted on an incredible scale and some would qualify as this ruining the game by not trying to create a “realistic football experience.”
From my perspective, so much was done with this game to change the way that the experience is felt that, one can hardly fault NaturalMotion for taking out things that take away from the feel of being on the field. For example; the camera. The camera is strategically set behind the player to provide a more intense and action packed feel, versus the “broadcast style” view of other games in the genre. This is meant to put you “into the game” and give you the feel of being a player on the field and not a spectator. So, if the games creators had intended to create a game that puts you on the field and not on the couch, why would there need to be commentary, or ESPN stats, or old referee’s running around?
This brings to the negative aspects of the camera; sometimes you get lost in the action. The camera puts you right into the action so that when tackles happen, THEY HAPPEN. Either you feel like you dropped a player like a 3rd Period Science Class, or you were on the business end of a 7 man football equivalent of a traffic accident. However, if you’re a Free Safety on the wrong side of the field when a run goes strong side, you may not get a sniff of a tackle and feel like you were left out of the action. This, however, is very much how you would feel if you were really on the field. You can eliminate the loneliness of being on the wrong side of the field by switching to the player closest to the ball carrier, but the switch can be very disorienting leaving you scrambling to find where you are on the field. If you can look at it from the perspective of attempting to put you right on the field, it can be a refreshing take and a hell of a rush to play. If you’re a Madden/2K5-aholic and need to be on the sidelines, you’ll have a hard time making the adjustment.
Passing can be a bitch. But, that’s kinda how football is supposed to be. Remember, IRL quarterbacks aren’t running around with “vision cones” and “vibrating fanny packs” telling them when they are about to be the meat in a linebacker sandwich. Yes, selecting your receiver and viewing the whole field can be hard and, having a quick release is impeccable. Whoah, that’s football. Weird. Just like IRL, it’s hard to pass a football, make a completion, and score a touchdown while evading 11 other guys on the field. Madden can be no cup-cake of a game with it’s difficulty curve, but most of the time Madden is difficult because the AI becomes INVINCIBLE during times of defeat making every game either incredibly close or a blowout with a tremendous comeback (ie predictable, boring and canned, in more ways than one). Backbreaker makes the game of football hard the way football is hard on the real field, not by making you overcome the most notoriously rubber-band AI in the genre.
Ultimately, Backbreaker lacks many things that make “broadcast style” sports titles what they are. While, this can be viewed as either an oversight, or a rookie mistake by the developers, it also could be looked at as a new way to put you into the game and give an overall different experience when compared to Madden and the many imitators. Where Backbreaker works, it works well and provides a unique, fresh, and exciting way to play video game football. Where it doesn’t work is almost for the same reasons because there are some who will be turned off by the idea of not being able to see all of the action. Backbreaker is a great first effort for a football game that fumbles (damnit, I’m sorry) the ball at some points, but as an expansion franchise, we just have to give it some time to hire the right coaches and players to get it into the playoffs, which I feel this game can do if people are just willing to give it a chance to win. This game belongs in this league.