NFL Blitz was a revolution that shocked the nation, but no one was more stunned – or more frightened – than EA. Blitz was the first of its kind; an arcade-born football game that didn't need rules and regulations to pull in the masses. It acquired fans that barely followed the sport, and sent a powerful message that Madden wasn't the only football king on the block.
More than a decade has passed since the Blitz glory days. In the wake of EA's takeover of the NFL license, many publishers have decided not to invest in new football game development. This has all but squashed the competition in the simulation market, but it hasn't completely thwarted new ideas for fresh arcade-style football games. While the NFL license would be helpful to any studio, the reality is that football games don't need it to be successful. They do, however, need to contain great gameplay, excellent controls, and undying replay value.
In concept, Backbreaker delivered the goods on all three elements. In execution, however, the game doesn't have the stamina to make it past the 40-yard line.
Developed by Natural Motion, Backbreaker could very well be the only football game for PlayStation 3 that wasn't made by EA, Midway, or 2K Sports. As a newcomer to the genre, Natural Motion brought some interesting ideas, the most significant being a new gameplay perspective. Rather than use the same old, high-above-the-action camera angle found in every football game available, Backbreaker uses a tight third-person view that brings the player closer to the action. The results are visually interesting, but the mechanics are mismanaged. While the game strives to be as simple and as straightforward as possible, the camera often gets in the way.
At first, it seems like a challenge that can be overcome by perfecting your passing skills. Instead of assigning different buttons to each open player, the game lets you pass by moving the right analog stick. The right stick primarily controls the direction in which your player is facing. But since the camera is locked to your player's back, it also inevitably controls the camera.
Thus, when you want to pass, you must essentially deal with three different elements: the camera's position, your player’s direction, and the teammate you want to receive the ball. Unwarranted mistakes will follow, none of which will hinder your opponents because they are merely AI and do not have to deal with these mechanical issues.
If the camera problems stopped there, Backbreaker might have been on to something special. If nothing else, the closer view is intense, especially when holding the Aggression (R2) button, which is this game's equivalent to the Turbo button in the Blitz series.
However, aggression is another area where Backbreaker stumbles. Football, as my sports-expert-cousin loves to remind me, is a game that's all about strategy. For me, the key to scoring touchdowns is being able to change my strategy on-the-fly. But that's not easy to do in this game, and it's all because of the camera. You can't move anywhere but forward while using aggression; if you try to back up to avoid getting tackled, your quarterback will spin around and run in the opposite direction. Throughout this deadly (in a word, stupid) evasive maneuver, the camera never leaves the back of your player. The only way to know who's running behind you is to look for shadows – but if you can already see them, chances are it's too late and you'll be tackled anyway. Plus, there's no way to decipher who the shadow belongs to; your teammate or your opponent. The only way to know for sure is to reposition your perplexed player and hope you do it in time to juke away from danger.
Like most modern football games, jukes and spin moves are performed with the right analog stick. Their execution isn't too difficult, but they don't come handy as much as you'd think. In Tackle Alley, the evasion-based mini-game that rewards the player with points and Trophies for scoring touchdowns in one run, players will happily juke their way across the field. Don't get cocky though; this mode isn't easy because you're good -- it's easy because the opponents are stupid. They jump at you from several yards away, making it very easy to avoid most of them, sometimes without juking or spinning. Regardless, Tackle Valley is pretty entertaining. In fact, it's the most exciting part of the game.
Backbreaker has received a lot of attention for its realistic tackle animations, and while they are by no means groundbreaking, they are much more impressive than the pre-made tackles featured in other sports games. The animations can get a little crazy though; if two players are running really fast when they collide, don’t be surprised if their bodies are wrapped up like a spider being flung across the room. It looks interesting, but is that really the way the human body would react in this situation? Probably not.
Animations and the Tackle Alley mini-game aside, Backbreaker doesn’t have much to offer fans of the sport. It’s worth a rental, if only to see what other developers can do with the genre. But this is not the game that will finally prove my belief that the NFL license is just a license; for now, the leading competition can continue to rest on its laurels.