This review was originally published 06/21/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
I’ve been waiting for Backbreaker for years, following every dev diary, watching every trailer, drooling over every new tidbit of information, all the while, fully expecting that it is going to unseat Madden by revolutionizing the football video game world and force EA to relinquish its NFL-exclusivity deal. And while Backbreaker delivers in terms of its revolutionary new game engine, it fumbles the game of football.
The Euphoria Engine is the driving force being this game, calculating and rendering every action and every collision on the field using its simulation of physics and human motion. Momentum is well-respected, and the game is full of "you’ll never see that again!" moments that will make your jaw drop. The action is in your face and intense, and when things get exciting, you might find yourself bouncing up and down at the edge of your seat like you did last year when Drew Brees was engineering the Saints’ come-from-behind victory in the Super Bowl. You may even jump up and cheer after breaking a long touchdown run or blindsiding a QB for an 8 yard sack. And you’ll be loving the game.
But that is only when the game is working and things are going smoothly. And counting on a full game of Backbreaker to work properly and go smoothly is like counting on EVERY other driver in your morning commute to drive courteously and obey the rules of the road. Backbreaker’s AI is a jumbled mess of half-finished football. The bare-bones rules are all there, and most of them are correctly recognized by the game. But many of the subtle nuances of planning and execution are just plain missing. It’s not so much like a game of professional football (or even a game of college or high school football for that matter), but rather, it’s more like a pick-up game with your friends in the backyard. Except you’ve got 100 friends, they all wear rubber body armor, and your backyard happens to be 120 yards long and seats 160,000 people.
The game’s AI is one of its greatest weaknesses. Playing against the CPU on Easy or Normal difficulty usually results in a lopsided affair in which your defense will sack the CPU’s QB about 10 times and pick him off 10 times. Ramping the difficulty up to hard will reverse the problem, and it will be YOU who throws 10 ints and gets sacked a dozen times. The root of the problem is up front, with the linemen. They can’t block. Linemen in Backbreaker tend to just step in front of a defender and that’s it. They don’t grapple with him, make no effort to stay in front, and are easily burnt by even the simplest of spin or swim moves (except for the one offensive lineman that decides to block the defender YOU are controlling).
Playing as the QB is made even more difficult by the placement of the camera. It’s over the QB’s shoulder, but still low enough to the ground that you really can’t see what is going on down field. And that defensive end rushing around your left tackle? You can’t see him either. Nor can you hear him or feel him coming. Some kind of QB Pocket-Awareness mechanic would have been nice. A flashing indicator on screen (like the indicator in First-Person Shooters that tell you where you are getting shot at from), or simply rumbling one side of the controller or the other based on which side the defender is coming from would have gone a long way towards making the passing game a bit more user-friendly.
On top of that, the receivers in the game do not always follow the correct routes, making timing-and route-based passing impossible. Want to run a quick slant? In real football, the QB will throw the ball to a spot on the field just before the WR makes his cut. In this game, if you do that, the QB will throw the ball straight ahead in the direction the receiver is running (like a streak route), and the receiver will even continue to run forward as if the streak was the intended route. This wouldn’t be too bad if not for the fact that the QBs are rarely on-target. Most passes sail a good 5 or 10 yards out of reach of the receiver, and much more often than I’d like, they fall right into the hands of a waiting defender. Receivers will occasionally play defense and knock the ball down rather than allow the defender to catch the Int (something that even EA’s Madden hasn’t mastered yet), but the ball is usually so horribly overthrown that the receiver can’t get to it in time to defend it.
The potential is definitely there
Running the ball is a bit easier, but not by much. Once again, the camera is your worst enemy, as it is positioned BEHIND the runner, which means your own running back’s body is blocking out the entire center of your field of vision. Did you see a hole open up as soon as the ball was snapped? Think you’ve got room for a big gain? Well guess what? A Linebacker stepped up to fill that hole just as you were getting the handoff, but you couldn’t see it because YOUR OWN BODY WAS BLOCKING YOUR VISION! The result? Two yard loss.
The game also lacks many features that are core to playing football. You cannot motion a WR or TE before the snap on offense. There are no formation audibles. There are no Hot Routes. The defense cannot shift its line or backers, or move DBs up to play bump and run. And even the Instant Replay system doesn’t allow you full camera control, so if you throw an Int in triple coverage and want to know where the open receiver was, you can’t, because the game will only show you what you already saw during the play. There is no fatigue or player injuries during Season and Road To Backbreaker mode either, despite all the hard hits going on.
There are some bright spots, however. Running with the ball in the open field is an absolute blast (as such, the included Tackle Alley mode is probably the best feature in the game). The Season and Road To Backbreaker have an interesting scouting and Free Agent signing mechanic, as well as a cool "Form" feature. Each week, your players can have "up" days or "down" days, and "Form" will indicate this. If one of your players is in a slump, you can sub in his backup in the hopes of getting a better performance. Performing well will even further increase a specific player’s form. It’s a neat feature, and actually gives purpose to you depth chart since none of your players ever get injured.
I’m not going to give up completely on Backbreaker. The underlying game engine is solid. Most of the problems come down to poor AI, camera, and balancing issues. All of which are completely fixable via updates or patches (which hopefully, Natural Motion will provide for us). With a few tweaks to the AI (some better blocking, more accurate QBs, shifting the camera up a little so we can see over the runner’s shoulder, making receivers run the correct routes and QBs throw the correct routes, eliminating the stupid "jump pass" animation, and improving some of the CPU’s play-calling and clock-management AI), this game could easily cross the boundary into "Good" or even "Great." But without the needed fixes, this game is (at best) a slightly sub-par football experience. It’s full of great ideas, but either the developers ran out of time, or just didn’t understand the game of football well enough to give us the game we all wanted.
ARCHIVE UPDATE October 10, 2012: Game patches didn't improve game enough to make it worth owning
Since release, Natural Motion has released several patches to the game to address it's myriad of issues. These patches made the game considerably more playable, and added some welcome new features like Instant Replay camera control, new offensive plays, and the ability to show/hide a blitz on defense. None of these really brings the game up to par for football fans though. AI is still problematic, players ragdoll to easily (despite the new "stumble recovery" mechanic), the camera is still a problem, and blocking issues were "solved" by introducing suction and force fields (the very things that make Madden so unbearable!).
The current game is still not worthy of owning, especially now that one year of competition (even bad competition) seems to have made EA take its football games a little more seriously. I hope that Natural Motion eventually revisits the franchise and releases a sequel, but it looks like that won't happen anytime soon, since Natural Motion has switched its focus to mobile gaming. There was a "sequel" to Backbreaker called Backbreaker Vengeance released on Xbox LIVE, but it is just a new version of Tackle Alley that focuses on playing as defenders.