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Review: Backbreaker

John Funk | 8 Jun 2010 09:00
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Half a decade ago, EA acquired the exclusive rights to make football games starring real-world NFL teams and players with the Madden NFL series. While Madden NFL is the undisputed kingpin of the football scene, many gamers have been waiting for a new franchise to come along and knock it from its throne.

Right now, I would really like to be saying that NaturalMotion's Backbreaker is that game. Unfortunately, it isn't - not yet.

This isn't to say that Backbreaker doesn't do some really cool things, because it does. The very concept of the game is a nifty one: Whereas most football games keep you suspended high over the action, Backbreaker puts you down low, right behind the shoulderpads of the player you're controlling. It feels like a very "action-y" take on the sport, rather than a strategic one - if Madden is an RTS, then Backbreaker is Gears of War.

The result is a game of football that feels more personal: When you drop back as the QB to look for a passer, your vision is obscured by the line of scrimmage and the linebacker who is coming your way very quickly. When you're running on a breakaway, you see shadows coming up behind you in the shaky camera. It really feels terrific, and adds a sense of intensity and urgency o the sport that most games lack.

Backbreaker's intensity is bolstered in part by its use of NaturalMotion's own Euphoria engine, a physics system that generates animations on the fly "based on a full simulation of the 3D character, including body, muscles and motor nervous system." In other words, it's ragdoll physics on realistic steroids, and it's the juice behind Backbreaker's claim that no two tackles are alike.

Rather than relying on canned, pre-fabricated animations, Backbreaker is able to generate every tackle from scratch as it happens - and despite a few hitches now and then it works very effectively. I won't lie, I've winced at a few of the hits I've taken (and dealt).

This all sounds great, right? It's an intense, action-packed football game with some great-looking hits that are generated as they happen. It's enough to pique the interest of people who don't actually play sports games - or don't actually like football. That's one hell of a touchdown, isn't it?

Unfortunately, in the middle of its breakaway touchdown run, Backbreaker happens to fumble the ball.

Backbreaker boasts a standard League mode, where you take one particular team and lead them to victory in a football season - and since EA has the rights to the NFL teams, NaturalMotion had to come up with dozens of original teams, like the Honolulu Crashers, Seattle Wolves, and New Jersey Pirates (Yarrrrrrr).

Initially, the League mode seems rather deep. You can scout hundreds of promising young college players for your franchise; you can maintain a backup roster three or four people deep for every position. It feels like the sort of thing that avid fans of the sport can really sink their teeth into. But then it hits you: It's pointless. Players don't get injured or fatigued, so you don't need to swap players in and out - having a backup bench is worthless. There isn't any need to scout college stars unless your current team just sucks. You don't need to do any of it.

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