Backbreaker Review: The Challenger Crashes

Backbreaker Review: The Challenger Crashes
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Twenty-five years ago saw the last game of the USFL – a league given no shot against the NFL’s monopoly, but beloved to this day for the rebellious challenge it posed. Today, similarly pitted against the Madden monolith, comes Backbreaker.

Video game or sport, no amount of nostalgia or John Facenda verbiage will by itself make something a legitimate contender. It still has to line up and deliver on the terms commonly expected by the sporting public. Backbreaker faces two brutally difficult tests – is it different enough from the establishment to be better? And is it familiar enough to the mainstream to be accepted?


The Hits Keep Coming: This is meant to be football from the perspective of a player, not a broadcaster (there aren’t even any announcers in the game, except for the stadium P.A.) Although not a true third-person camera, I enjoyed Backbreaker’s novel perspective, which puts you in control of one player, action-game style. It takes some getting used to, but it makes playing defence, especially in the secondary, fun even for a novice. (As Luke puts it, when you lay on the left trigger sprint modifier, it’s like playing football with Gears of War’s roadie run). Switching defenders can be a crapshoot and passing is a lot harder than in a game like Madden. From the QB perspective, the game doesn’t give you much opportunity to go through more than two options. But unlike gimmicky first-person attempts in past sports games, this one’s still playable and very fun.

Control Box: Backbreaker joins the sports design trend of placing emphasis on the right analogue stick. It’s everything from your swim/rip move on defence, to your bonecrunching hit or tackle, to juking, spinning, selecting receivers and passing. You use the left trigger as an action modifier (“aggressive mode”) to go into other areas of your player’s toolset. Everything is contextual to the type of player you control and it’s pick-up-and-play intuitive after one trip through the tutorial. There is only one complaint, but it’s a biggie: The lob pass. It simply does not work as described in the tutorial or the instruction manual and is functionally impossible to execute in a live game. Don’t bother with it unless you’re trying for the tutorial achievement.

Football in the Future: NaturalMotion shrewdly constructed a quasi-futuristic football world – say, set maybe 30 years in the future – to help it shed inevitable reminders that it’s not a licensed football game. Players wear a uniform that resembles a type of combat armour, everyone has a shaded visor and a microphone headset. The stadiums are a joy to look at when you can steal a glance. Visually, the game lays a great foundation for the story of a league and a team that you’ll end up telling, through both your play and the game’s mind-bogglingly deep team creation tools.


A Mess of Multiplayer: Backbreaker absolutely flunks in online play. Lag is totally crippling for those not hosting a game – to the point I thought I’d intercepted a pass and ran all the way to my end zone before realising my opponent had scored. Hosting a game there is no lag, but your opponent will feel it, so be prepared for a lot of quits. It’s just not something you’ll want to take online more than once.

Shallow Singleplayer: Unfortunately, singleplayer games are not a particularly deep experience after about half a dozen games. The playbook is uniform to all teams and runs about 100 on offence and defence. You get four audibles on offence and defence and a basic flip-play command that inverts the formation. I did not observe any injuries or fatigue in the game, making me wonder why the teams need depth charts beyond the fifth defensive back or receiver.. The AI is easy to beat at all levels of difficulty, even with the worst teams if you play conservative and blitz a lot. It’ll chuck a lot of incompletions and interceptions, and won’t react to what you do pre-snap, including parking the free safety on the line of scrimmage. In all, Backbreaker serves up a decidedly last-generation package of game-management features, which wouldn’t even be state of the art in 2004.

Pointless Penalties: Be prepared for your defensive line to get the yips and break off four or six unprovoked offsides (this seems more common to multiplayer than singleplayer). It seems to be one penalty the game is capable of accurately calling. You can stand a defensive lineman straight up in the neutral zone before the snap, with no flag thrown. The game delights in flagging roughing the passer, some of which are just unavoidable. But by punter got knocked to the ground three times in a game with zero penalty called. The game doesn’t show much understanding of the more subtle variances on pro football’s rules – an incomplete pass behind the line of scrimmage is going to wind up a fumble, and running backs coming of the backfield on a receiving route can be mugged with no pass interference consequences. You just have to try to avoid these situations.

Madden alternatives get graded on a curve, because it takes a lot of courage to go up against that game without an NFL license; because gamers resent being forced into one option for any category; and because they’ve nursed a grudge over that franchise’s exclusive NFL deal for more than six years. But those hoping Backbreaker is a spiritual heir to NFL 2K5 or a righteous middle finger to EA Sports will be disappointed.

There are parts of this game I do want to see in a full-featured NFL title, especially the playing perspective and the rollicking violence on field. Dragging a defender the last 10 yards of a kickoff return touchdown run is one of my all time football gaming highlights, without a doubt.

Still, given the shameful quality of its multiplayer support, there’s not enough else in Backbreaker’s no-frills singleplayer experience to make it more than an off-season exhibition, like the Ohio State spring game. NaturalMotion definitely demonstrated that the Euphoria engine belongs in sports gaming. But it didn’t show that Backbreaker belongs with it.

Backbreaker was developed by NaturalMotion Games and published by 505 Games for the Xbox 360 and PS3 on May 25. Retails for $US59.99/$AU99.95. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.

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    • I was not thinking about it but yeah, I’ll have a go.

      BTW, I am a fan of this game because it makes me smile when I play it. The unexpected is what i like, along with the fact that after playing the sport here is AUS for so many years, it is a much closer representation of actually playing the sport.

      Have not played the full version (fingers crossed for today???) but i actually don’t disagree with the above that much. There are questionable plays, penalties and from what I hear the lag is an isuse (I will include some AUS testing in my review).

      I think the important thing here is that the demo is freely available on XBL (and PSN at some point…) and this game is best played before you pass judgement, and played for a week or so. It is so different from anything else you would have played that it takes time to readjust your gameplay. This game has certainly split the football community (at least in a strong debate) about the pros and cons.

      There are massive expectations for this game and this is perhaps why there are often poor reviews (I have seen between 50 and 87 on metacritic).

      Ultimately, this was never going to be a madden killer (I doubt they’ll even notice it in sales) but the fact that this has been talked about with madden shows they have had a monolpoly for ages on this sport and I don’t think many will argue that if nothing else, competition will drive innovation on both sides which is a good thing for gamers.

      This is also a totally new IP that is introducing new technology to a genre that it has never gone into before. This game has its flaws, as many games do. It just depends on what your tollerance for these things are before you decide not to buy the game. I really enjoy the gameplay and the controls/camera are exactly wehat i like about the game. I am not looking for a total football simulator and as such, don’t mind. The game is fun and I have used it to introduce those not familiar with football with the sport.

      I will still be getting it and will play with it for a week or so before passing my final judgement via a review…

      Hey Owen, if you are done with that copy, seeing as though you do’t want it, I’l take it off your hands mate!

      • I’m here for the creation tools, mainly. And the hits.

        FatShady, I take it you’ve been harassing your local game store staff too? I just rang EB and they’re not expected to receive a copy until tomorrow.

        As for the multiplayer, Owen, I don’t mind as much. This is one of those games I’m taking home to enjoy by myself – I’m a big appreciator of sports games that allow extensive customization.


          Sorry for yelling but you will all appreciate how happy I am right now.

          JB Hifi Pitt street – Strand arcade is selling right now $79 with a mini backbreaker football (actually pretty cool).

          I will be on XBOX Live tonight – GT: ‘FatShady

          Feel free to jump online later and talk to me if anyone here has any questions about the game.

          Let me know if anyone else is getting it and which system and include your GT/PSNID so we can play and test the local multiplayer…

          Cheers and thanks for putting up with my fanboyism…

          Review to follow…


            Haha, enjoy, look forward to you’re review mate.

          • Whoops, I meant your. I think that’s the second time I’ve done that today.

          • FatShady, I think I’ve enjoyed following your comments more than the Backbreaker articles themselves. It’s refreshing to see someone posting religiously about a game (and in a positive manner) because they are genuinely excited rather than the chip-on-the-shoulder elitism from snotty little brats that is the norm. Looking forward to your review.

          • Thanks and I appreciate your comments.

            Over at the backbreaker forums the game is coping a hiding from so many people that play it with certain pre conceived ideas of what a football game should be and then complain about it. I look forward to presenting my opinion objectively ASAP.

            I am doing an MBA at present and have an exam on the 14th of June (International Business Management – Yay!) so may not get time until after that.

            Played it last night for the first time and it was really fun. I only played one game and just did the training camp and the team customisation. Will take a bit of geting used to but have been thinking about the review a bit more. I really want to seperate my fanboyism from the game and give it a fair go.

  • Gears of Football!

    I’m excited by this game, haven’t played an NFL game since the 8bit Atari days, but this looks like actual fun. Shame about the multiplayer though, does it have lan-play and are the issues still there if it does?

  • Played the demo and I’ll stick with Madden – Euphoria belongs in sports games but this is not the revelation I was hoping for.

  • Just a quick note to David. Can I include pictures for the review. I am thinking of designing the Kotaku logo in Backbreaker for the images. if so, what resolution/pixel limit is preferred etc or can you just resize.

    Not sure how I will get the screen cap from the game yet. Thinking of running the xbox through a DVD recorder, then playing on a PC and taking a grab??? I dont have anything else?

    • Mate, if you go to all that effort, I will definitely use your screenshot. I can resize whatever you submit.

      • Announcing the starting quarterback for the Australian Kotaku Gamerz. ….David Wildgoose #1. I will go through the forums and add a few of the regulars also.

        Early review: online is laggy and while you can play a pretty good game the occasional lag is frustrating. Real shame and without this being addressed I don’t see me playing any yanks any time soon. The lag was against an Aussie.

        • OK, the first WIP video of the Kotaku team in BB. Still a ways off but just a taste of the team in game. The customisation of this game is easy…. and quite good. Sorry about the crappy video capture. $200 digital still camera taking a video off a plasma never looked so good. lol.

          • Wow Youtube compressed the %&^%^ out of that .. don’t bother watching it… sorry. All i wanted to show was that I got the Kotaku logo into the game but I am working on some hi res pictures…

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