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.

Even if you wanted to argue that it exists to make your team of choice the best it can be, that’s still not very hard. Backbreaker is terrific fun for the first four or so games, but then you start to realize that it’s all just repeating itself. Every team has the exact same playbook no matter what their styles are; every team can be beaten by pretty much just playing aggressive defense and blitzing. You can select a handful of defensive and offensive audibles, but the opponents never really react to them.

Worse, the game feels sloppy sometimes on the football aspects. There were moments when what was clearly an incomplete pass was ruled as a fumble, or worse – a safety. I’ve had my QB taken down more than once by being brushed by my own running backs as I dropped to pass, and my NPC teammates seem to get penalties for roughing the punter more often than not. In a sports game, these are serious problems.

I get that Backbreaker can’t use the NFL teams or players, but its solution – putting all of them in eyeshield-bearing helmets like they’re Judge Dredd – makes it hard to connect with any of the players on your team. They all look the same, and while it’s a comparatively minor complaint, it does get bothersome.

Though Backbreaker certainly has problems, the core ideas are really solid. The passing is “eh,” but the rushing game is perhaps one of the best in any football game I’ve ever played. It takes a little while to adjust to not being able to sprint and use the defensive jukes and dodges at the same time, but once you do it works fantastically well. The “Tackle Alley” mode, which is just running from one end of the field to the other while dodging defenders, may be the single most entertaining thing in the game.

It almost feels like Backbreaker is a football game for people who don’t like football games: The lack of NFL teams and players might not bother them, and its sloppy execution of the rules won’t be quite as glaring. Instead, they can enjoy the fantastic rushing game and the fresh and action-y take on the sport.

Backbreaker plants the seeds for a great franchise that could be the new NFL Blitz. Iron out the kinks in a sequel, and we could have something truly fantastic on our hands.

Bottom Line: A fresh, action-packed take on football that makes you feel like one of the players pounding the gridiron. A fantastic team creation mode, intense, urgent action and great-looking tackles are dragged down by a shallow single-player mode, sloppy interpretation of football rules, and characters that all look the same.

Recommendation: Backbreaker 2 could be fantastic. Backbreaker 1, on the other hand? It’s definitely fun to play, but rent it before you buy it.

[rating=3]

John Funk thinks that Backbreaker is kind of like a football game for the Europeans.

Backbreaker is available for Xbox 360 and PS3. This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

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