In today’s market, it is pretty commonplace for a big budget console game to end up on the iPhone / iPod platform. Rarely is the case the exact opposite; where the game hits to iPhone first and then lands on the current generation consoles. Such is the case of Backbreaker (football) from 505 Games. Backbreaker hit the iPhone as a mini-game first, early in the console verion's development. The portable game consisted solely of an arcade-style running game; the thing that blew people away were the tackle physics and the running mechanics that it utilized. I was only one of many who played the original game and said “I can't wait to see what they would do with a full football game”. It appears as though we don't have to wait any longer as Backbreaker has launched on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.
On its surface, Backbreaker offers the expected football package. Gamers have all of the usual and expected modes such as exhibition, league(s) / season, and online versus (ranked and unranked). The game also includes a 25 mission training mode that shows you the ins and outs of the game’s control scheme as well as the mode that started the entire franchise: Tackle Alley. Tackle Alley serves as both a mini-game and an advanced tutorial to the running mechanics of Backbreaker. It proves to be a fun diversion both online and off as you can track your high score through the 120 waves you will progress through.
The package sounds like a typical run of the mill football package, and it is on the surface, but let’s get into the things that I feel truly set this game apart from the competition. First and foremost, it should be noted that as with any football game outside of the Madden series, Backbreaker lacks the official NFL license. You will not find any teams or players that you are familiar with here. The game provides players with around 60 custom teams of all different skill sets to use both online and off, but you won’t be spending much time with them. Instead, players will likely use the fully customizable team builder in order to craft their own franchise. The game allows you to build a team from the ground up, selecting everything from the city, name, player roster, strategic focus, and especially the colors and logo design.
Backbreaker has a full-fledged logo and customization tool that is very similar to the one that has become famous in the Forza series of racing games... and I am sure that we have all seen the works of art that have come from that community. The game allows you to create logos for your team that can be used on your uniforms, helmets, and even your stadium fields and end zones. The system consists of using layers (up to 500 for uniform logos and 1000 for endzone) of various shapes that can be rotated, resized, colored and combined to create your masterpiece. It may take some work, but you can create some pretty amazing designs using the system. All of the base teams included in the game were designed using the game’s team builder by the staff at 505. I have already run into numerous players online who have recreated their favorite NFL teams with some incredible accuracy. There are 32 slots for saved teams on the game, so theoretically you could recreate the entire NFL as I am sure many players will do.
Once you actually get on to the field, a few other things will become apparent about Backbreaker that will make it stand out from the competition. The biggest marketing focus of the game is on the physics engine used. The character physics and animations are spot on with realistic football. There are zero canned animations used during gameplay. Every tackle, run, and collision animation is based on the physics engine and ensures that you will see something different every time. This really adds to the experience for the game as you feel like you are watching an actual football game rather than playing it. It looks that good in motion. The look that it maintains in motion can also be credited to the camera system used by the game.
The point of view and camera system used in Backbreaker is light years ahead of any sports game I've seen. The camera focuses from a third person perspective on the selected player rather than giving you a complete view of the field. While it takes a little bit of getting used to, it serves to create a far more immersive football experience than any other game released to date. This new perspective for the player provides the game with a different feel than you are used to and will force you to play the game differently than Madden or the 2K series. You no longer have the full view of the field; you are limited to the point of view of the character which you control, just like in the real game of football. You will not see that defender storming behind you, preparing for a devastating sack unless you move the camera view around and focus your characters vision in that direction. The same feeling is had with runners and receivers... and by defenders as well. When you are on the line, on defense, you sort of get tunnel vision on the opposing quarterback, again just like in real life. The experience provided is much more realistic than other football video games.To go along with that visual perspective, Backbreaker also allows you to fully play the different roles on the football field. The developers know and have implemented a system where gamers can play just as important of a role away from the ball as those who have their hands on it do. You do not have to control the character with the ball at all times. You can let the AI control your ball carrier and you can run a blocker for him to ensure that he gets the first down or even scores. This is an incredibly nice change of pace for football enthusiasts as it allows the action all over the field to be experienced.
The control scheme used in Backbreaker is also light years ahead of the traditional controls used in football games. Many other game makers have tried to move their sport games to utilizing only the analog sticks and the results have been disastrous. Backbreaker nails the analog only control scheme for both offense and defense. Aside from using the A button to snap the ball and the right bumper to switch your mode (passive versus aggressive), everything that you do is controlled with one of the two analog sticks (gameplay-wise). I absolutely loved the kicking and passing mechanics in particular. Everything is done on the fly while the game is in motion; there are no “pre-set press A to stop the meter” style mechanics here. Again, much like the camera angles, it may take a little getting used to, but once I became familiar with it I grew to appreciate it immensely.
All of this sounds really, really good... and it really is, but unfortunately, Backbreaker also suffers from some serious issues that will likely turn most gamers off. First and foremost, the penalty calling in the game is not effective at all. Penalties exist in the game, but the “refs” don’t call them until well after the time in which they occur. Offsides is a perfect example; I was able to move my entire line past the line of scrimmage and behind the opponent’s quarterback and the play was allowed to continue. It isn’t until after the play has been run to completion that the penalty is called. This became very annoying when playing online against someone who would legitimately try to use it as a tactic; you end up wasting a ton of time because the game never really makes them aware of the penalty.
Backbreaker also contains a pretty limited playbook compared to the competition. Gamers should note that there is a difference between the playbooks offered in arcade versus the pro modes; in the arcade mode, the playbook is constantly being rotated and a different assortment of plays is offered depending on your situation. Switching the game over to pro mode will allow you to access the entire playbook at any time. The game, unfortunately, doesn’t spell this out for you. It wasn’t until a few hours in, when I noticed a “tip” on a loading screen that informed me that the expanded playbook was available. I can imagine that a lot of gamers will be turned off by the fact before they ever even realize that it can be rectified with a simple options change.
The worst thing is that the game is very “glitchy" at times and some of them are serious game breakers that can ruin the whole experience for you. During my time with the game, I experienced a few phantom interceptions and other turnovers. This happened on more than a few occasions; following what appeared to be a dropped pass or perhaps simply a tackle during a run, with no information provided by the game,
I would notice that I was suddenly on defense when the play selection screen came up. Needless to say, this was very annoying,
More annoying than that and the worst thing that I experienced is the games biggest Achilles heel: roughing the kicker. You should hope and pray that you never put the computer, or any opponent for that matter, in the position of kicking a punt. When your opponent punts the ball, the computer controlled defenders on your team will likely, and I mean at least 40% of the time, be called for roughing the kicker. The first time it happens, the opponent will choose to re-kick the ball... which will lead to the penalty once again. The second time, the opponents will be given possession and a first down. This became an inevitable loop for me on at least 5 occasions over the past week. The only option I would have to regain possession of the ball would be to force a turnover or let the opponent score. It is my sincere hope that this is something that can be rectified with a simple patch of the game because when it rears its ugly head, it can suck all of the fun out of Backbreaker.
It is issues such as these that I have mentioned that keep Backbreaker from reaching its true potential. The truth of the matter is, 505 and Natural Motion are onto something with the formula that they have concocted here but they still have a ways to go. Backbreaker takes most of the things that the Madden series is criticized for and shows us how it should be done. The animations, the camera angles, and the games ability to show that there are roles to be played away from the ball are just a few of the things that set this game apart. Unfortunately, the game messes up on a lot of the simpler things that it will need to nail before it can be a true contender in the market. There is a lot of fun to be had here and the customization modes will give it some long legs in terms of its lifespan, but unfortunately gamers will likely be headed back to EA’s camp when Madden 11 launches in the fall because of the shortcomings and problems with the game. Maybe next year Backbreaker... you truly have the potential to do it.