Backbreaker brings the action directly onto the field
- Big-hitting physics engine and ground-level perspective provide a novel football experience
- Football AI isn't on Madden's level, not enough challenge from the computer-controlled opponent, lack of official NFL licence is huge
While the expertly implemented Euphoria physics engine and responsive analog-based controls elevate the overall experience, Backbreaker's iffy AI and lack of the official NFL licence hold NaturalMotion's football sim back from becoming a worthy rival to EA's iconic Madden franchise.
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When you chart the trajectory of their dominance over the past two decades, EA's Madden NFL franchise parallels the success of the NFL: Both are highly lucrative properties whose monopoly-like influence has been challenged with little success. Would-be upstarts like the United States Football League (which counted Donald Trump as an investor) and Vince McMahon's XFL tried to take on the NFL but couldn't beat it at its own game. Similarly, Madden faced stiff competition from classics like Tecmo Bowl and 2K Sports' NFL2K series, but thanks in large part to an exclusive deal with the NFL, it's grabbed an unrelenting stranglehold on the market. Any competitors wind up dead and buried in a matter of months.
To have a chance in a genre that starts and ends with Madden, a competing football game needs a good gimmick. Thankfully, Backbreaker's calling card brings something new to the table: The Euphoria physics system, which powered games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Its realistic modelling of in-game physics is a revelatory experience when applied to a sports title; for all of the improvements Madden's made over the years to improve realism, tackles still feel more like a collection of polygons colliding together than an organic crush of pads, bodies, and helmets. Backbreaker's contact looks and feels a lot more like Sunday NFL action, and the realism extends to just about every facet of player movement. For instance, I attempted to juke a couple of onrushing linebackers during one running play, but ended up tripping over my own two feet in the process. That was embarrassing, but it also seemed like a far more true-to-life result than Madden's endless spin moves and high-stepping celebrations.
Backbreaker also brings the action directly onto the field, eschewing Madden's only-from-the-offense perspective. It's immensely satisfying to line up on the edge, anticipate the snap count, blow by the left tackle, and crush the QB; it's a feeling Madden, with its canned TV-style presentation, can't really match. But the field-level perspective can frustrate at times, too, especially on running plays, where I found it hard to anticipate the actions of oncoming linebackers. It's far better on passing downs, where I actually found Backbreaker's right-analog-stick controls a lot more effective than Madden's standard face-button passing option; for me, it definitely cut down on the easily picked-off floaters down the middle of the field.
Where Backbreaker falters is in its AI, though: Outside of their strangely stout run defenses, Backbreaker's computer opponents don't offer much of a threat. Even on the hardest difficulty, I was able to move the ball against some of the game's stronger defenses. And I don't mean after mastering the game's nuances -- I mean within my first few hours. So, it's clear that any challenge will have to come from online competitors, but this leads to the classic conundrum: Without a large online player base, the game can't get any traction, but gamers won't hop online in large numbers unless they know the game is popular enough to support a community.
Compounding the problem is that lack of licensed teams. Madden's success is built on stars and name recognition: When I take control of the San Francisco 49ers, I know Frank Gore's aggressive running style on offence and Patrick Willis' explosive, intense leadership on defence are the keys to victory. I see this every week during the NFL season, and it holds true to form in-game. But Backbreaker's filled with no-name players on made-up teams; worse, there's very little variety to their skill sets. Almost every player, from the quarterbacks to cornerbacks to even the kickers and punters, look like bulked-up hulks. After playing through an entire season as the New England Militia -- Backbreaker's all-too-obvious incarnation of the New England Patriots -- I still didn't feel a meaningful connection to any of my players.
In its current state, Backbreaker neither matches Madden's polish nor overcomes its monopoly on the NFL license; in fact, its shortcomings highlight several reasons why Madden remains so appealing. But on a positive note, it definitely exposes a few flaws in EA's gameplan, and that's where you can draw one last comparison between Backbreaker and defunct NFL competitors like the USFL and XFL. To this day, you can see the ripples of those long-dead leagues in the NFL: high-priced free agency, the two-point conversion, challenge flags, and the overhead broadcast camera all came about partly because the NFL felt pressure to put a more entertaining and fan-friendly product on the field. I'm not sure Backbreaker has a future as a franchise -- it'll take a lot of polishing before it can compete, and even then, the lack of the NFL license hampers it -- but you can bet EA will take some inspiration from some of its innovations. That's a victory that won't show up on the scoreboard, but for fans of football games, it's something worth celebrating.
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