Since EA locked up the exclusive rights to the NFL and NFLPA for their Madden series, the rest of the gaming world has had a tough time finding a way to create an engaging football title that doesn’t use official teams and players. Publishers have had to rely on gimmicky gameplay mechanics and over-the-top presentation to garner any sort of attention in the sports gaming market, and so far, none of the results have been very good. With Backbreaker, publisher 505 Games tries to go beyond this formula by attempting to present a simulation of football from the perspective of the ball-carrier. Of course, there’s a gimmick, as well; Euphoria-based tackles, but in the hard-hitting sport of American football, it’s one that fits perfectly, and makes sense. On paper, the formula is sound. Unfortunately for Backbreaker, we don’t play video games on paper, and in practice, the game is an uneven football experience with a ton of customization options and some moments of thrilling gameplay, but fails to offer a realistic football experience, and, through a series of bafflingly ill-advised design choices, refuses to take advantage of its own strengths.
Backbreaker’s approach to the sport is different than any other football game’s. Instead of presenting a full view of all 22 players on the field, the camera is set low, zoomed in on the quarterback on passing plays, and the running back on running plays. On defense, players can choose whom to focus on, but the camera is the same. In theory, this helps present the feeling of being in the ball carrier’s shoes, seeing only what he can see. In practice, however, it feels too claustrophobic, and while not being able to see what’s happening on either side of the player may make the game more realistic, the constant tackles from blind spots don’t help make it any more fun. Playing quarterback is especially frustrating, as the camera tends to cheat to the QB’s throwing arm side. This gives them huge blind spots, allowing for far too many sacks in an average game. On passing plays, the offensive line has a tendency to completely ignore oncoming defenders, adding to the already high sack total. The running game is better, but defensive linemen still go unabated into the backfield far too frequently. This means that players will often see their running back crushed as soon as they receive a hand-off; it's the opposite of fun. On the rare occasion where the offensive line manages to hold back the D for more than a half a second, Backbreaker’s potential as a football game comes out. The hyperactive feel of the game, along with the close-up camera, make for some thrilling pass and catch scenarios. The running game is the star, however, and when plays develop like they’re supposed to, players will see holes in the line open up realistically, and have an opportunity to take advantage of the awesome juke, spin, and stiff-arm moves at their disposal. It’s immensely satisfying to send a would-be tackler flying the wrong direction after a spin move, or make two linebackers smash into each other as you deftly sidestep their tackles. Playing defense is a less frustrating experience, but it’s no more balanced. Breaking through the opponent’s swiss cheese O-line is just as easy on this side of the ball, so games will usually end with more than ten sacks on each team. Furthermore, interceptions are way too easy to pull off, as players simply need to stand in front of the receiver when the ball is thrown. This results in frequent double-digit turnover totals, which turn the game of football into a ridiculous back and forth joke.
Playing in arcade mode simplifies play-calling, only offering four run plays, four passing plays, and four selected by the “Coach.” Switching to simulation mode opens up a full playbook, but either way, the computer-controlled coach is always an idiot. You’ll frequently see your opponent make insanely bad calls, like running the ball on 4th and 17 at their own 30 yard line, or punting from midfield with time running out and a 3 point deficit. Likewise, the computer coach will frequently forget that there is such a thing as clock management, and simply reuse to call time outs. As a result, single-player games aren’t much of a challenge, making it relatively easy to go undefeated through a full season. Most players will be more interested in going head to head with a human opponent, which can be done online or offline. Online play is no different than the single-player experience, except that your opponent might know something about football. It’s easily the best way to play, and the online connection, so far, has been very solid. Playing against a friend on the same console is an entirely different experience. Since players are zoomed in on a single player, offline multiplayer is presented in split-screen, with one player controlling the top window, and the other playing on the bottom. The problem is that the already claustrophobic camera is made even more unmanageable here, making offline head-to-head games just short of unplayable.
As a solo experience, Backbreaker offers exhibition games, season mode, and Road to Backbreaker, a mode that challenges players to take a created team through several increasingly difficult and prestigious football leagues. Road to Backbreaker is fun, and offers the most satisfying single-player 11-on-11 experience, but season mode is as bare bones as could be. Team and individual stats are kept, but teams can’t trade or cut players, and there’s no free agent pool or college draft. This relegates the mode to little more than a series of games against the computer, and makes the season mode feel hollow.
The real draw of Backbreaker is its use of the Euphoria game engine. This physics engine does an amazing job of making tackles realistic and hard-hitting, and seeing players try their best to avoid going down once hit is strikingly realistic. With all these physics-based interactions, there will likely be many times that players will want to go back and watch the replay of a particularly brutal, impressive, or even hilarious tackle. Backbreaker technically has a replay system for this, but it’s extremely poorly implemented. Many big plays will be shown again automatically, using the game’s action replays. These pop up immediately after a play, ostensibly showing a better angle of the action, but the camera almost never gets the play in frame, so while your running back may be juking defenders out of their shoes, you’re watching an offensive tackle block a defensive tackle 10 yards away from the play. Just as annoying is the fact that action replays are always split into two sections. Most replays are only about four seconds long, meaning that the first section of the replay will show the first three seconds, and the second will overlap, showing the last three seconds. Easily the worst aspect, though, is the instant replay fond in the pause menu. A game with such incredible tackle animations should have focused heavily on the replay system, offering a full-featured replay system like in Madden, and the ability to edit and share replay videos online, like in Skate 3. Instead, we’re treated to an utterly featureless system that allows viewers to fast forward, rewind, or play. That’s it. No zoom, no camera controls, not even a pause button. It’s utterly baffling that this aspect of the game, which really should have been its strongest selling point, is so incredibly underdeveloped, and it really hurts the game.
Another aspect of Backbreaker that’s badly hindered by the lack of an online community is its team creation system. Using a surprisingly deep logo editor similar to the one found in Forza 3, players can create elaborate logos for their teams, and change the colors of every element of the game’s unique, futuristic uniforms. This leads to some truly inventive and impressive custom teams, but there’s no way to share them with friends or the online community at large. In fact, to even see an opponent’s custom logo, they need to be on your Xbox Live friends list. It’s a shame that 505 couldn’t get together a Forza-style online store, because it would have added a lot of value to the game experience. As it stands, it’s a great customization engine, but a lonely one.
In addition to regular football, Backbreaker offers Tackle Alley, an expansive mini-game that’s probably the best way to experience Backbreaker. Players begin at the 10 yard line, and must juke, spin, stiff-arm, and hurdle their way to the end zone, avoiding a varying number of defenders. Players start with 10 “lives,” which are used up when they’re tackled, and gain more by completing stages. Points are gained for avoiding defenders, stylish moves, and showboating, and these are all multiplied by the total number of juke moves that are pulled off. Completing multiple waves in a row will build up your streak, which further multiplies points. Sidestepping at just the right moment and sending two defenders flying across the field is an absolute blast, and the ability to play the mode head-to-head online only ads to the awesomeness and addictive nature of Tackle Alley, though there is often a problematic delay when playing online.
Backbreaker is an attempt to simulate real professional football from the player's perspective, but due to its lack of balance, constant turnovers, and brain dead AI, it feels more like a game of junior high school ball. That said, there is a lot of potential in the football action, and the future of Tackle Alley is as bright as can be. 505 needs at least another year on the game, though, to fix the camera, tune the game to feel like football, and add features to flesh out the offline and online experience. If they do these things right, Backbreaker may stand as a legitimate threat to Madden’s supremacy, but for now, it’s an interesting, but deeply flawed experiment. Tackle Alley, however, is well worth a rental.