A video game is more than the technology behind it. It has to be, because technology alone is not inherently fun; you have to surround that tech with mechanics and art and audio and everything else that goes into making a proper gaming experience. Backbreaker does not successfully do this. It is a tech demo masquerading as a video game, an animation engine trying to carry the weight of a $50 title all by its lonesome. Under that considerable weight, its back is what is ultimately broken, collapsing into a crumpled pile of half-baked gameplay and characterless presentation.
Oh, Backbreaker is a football game, in case you were wondering, the latest attempt by an upstart developer to provide some kind of NFL-less alternative to the unstoppable, world-consuming behemoth that is EA's Madden franchise. I am always disappointed when these titles don't find a way to circumvent Madden's seemingly monolithic status, but try as it might, developer NaturalMotion doesn't end up making much of a compelling argument to put Madden aside this year in favor of its debut title.
Backbreaker's key feature is its animation system. NaturalMotion has developed its own technology that ensures that hits and tackles develop in real time. No canned animations, no reused hits. The way bodies slam, bang, and fly through the air is completely unique each and every time out. In that regard, Backbreaker is occasionally a hoot. Sacks in particular often look delightfully brutal, and it's never not fun to watch a prissy wide receiver get spun around in the air by two linebackers coming from either direction. Even the standard tackles, shoves, leg trips, and whatever else look pretty cool as well.
It's just a shame that these hits, so much the focus of the game, aren't presented better. Player models are so generic and bland you might as well be playing on a Foosball table, and the camera angles are a mess. Strictly speaking from a replay point of view, the lack of ability to change the camera when you're watching one of your brilliantly timed sacks is pretty annoying. More annoying is the camera you're presented with on the field. This is one of those games that wants to put you as close to the action as humanly possible, and in doing so, more or less destroys your ability to play effectively.
As the quarterback, for instance, once you snap the ball, you're pushed in so close that it's damn near impossible to see the scope of the field. Football purists will no doubt argue that this is "realistic" and that Madden's method of letting you zoom back and see practically the entire length of the field isn't. Fine, it's not realistic. It's also not fun. It might have been, were it easier to throw the ball, but regrettably, Backbreaker is one of those games that seeks to fix problems that don't exist. Passing is mapped to the right control stick, and once you snap the ball, your QB is locked to a single receiver, until you enter a "focus" mode that lets you snap from receiver to receiver by (again) flicking the control stick. When you're in this focus mode, the camera zooms even closer, making it even tougher to see what's going on.
With practice, this system can be reasoned with, but eventually you start bumping up against other problems, like the fact that the game was balanced by some kind of offense-hating lunatic. I played around with something like 20 of the game's 40-some-odd generic teams, and with each one, I was saddled with an offensive line that ranged from somewhat porous to functionally inept. Sacks happen with such frequency that at some point the novelty of seeing them wears off entirely. When you do manage to get the ball off, the interception-happy defense is right there to ensure you have no chance of driving down the field. Don't worry, it goes both ways. On defense, I collected more than my share of sacks and bizarre interceptions, mostly by running the same three or four blitz packages over and over again. Fumbles are funny, too. They happen less often than INTs, though sometimes those "fumbles" turn out to be awkward forward passes. The game apparently can't tell the difference.
There is a running game of sorts in Backbreaker, and should you master it, you have a good shot of dominating. All you really have at your disposal are some basic jukes and stiff-arms and spins. The timing on these moves is kind of messed up, (you pretty much have to decide to juke or spin before you even know someone's coming at you), but should you get the hang of these moves, Lord help the less-experienced player or boneheaded AI opponent that goes up against you. I have seen players rack up gaggles of points online just by running the same few running plays again and again. I'll cop to a bit of defensive bewilderment from time to time, but the way my computer cohorts seemed to just buckle under the stress of trying to deal with one seemingly inhuman running back struck as, well, problematic.
So, suffice it to say, Backbreaker has its share of gameplay issues. It's not realistic enough to challenge Madden as a sim, but it's not arcadey or crazy enough to even challenge something like Blitz: The League. In a lot of ways, it's reminiscent of the ill-conceived NFL Blitz Pro, another attempt to hybrid the arcade and the realistic into something unique. But like that game, it ultimately ends up feeling like an unfocused hodgepodge.
Nothing on hand supplements those gameplay problems, either. You have a couple of league modes to play around with, including one that lets you customize and build not only your own team, but also your own league of 8, 16, or 32 teams, complete with divisions of your choosing. Customization in major sports titles is always something that seems lacking (due likely in no small part to licensing restrictions), so it's nice to see a decent spate of creation options here. But in the end you're creating a team that has to play the same clunky game of football that all the other generic teams in the game do, so the effort seems for naught. Online modes are standard, and though I did run into some weird herky-jerkiness with lag here and there, it never became unplayable.
There is, additionally, a minigame mode called Tackle Alley. This can be played offline or on (the difference being another player running around on the field with you online), and your goal is simple: Play as a ball-carrier, and avoid waves of would-be tacklers. Ironically, this is probably the most fun you'll have with Backbreaker, though you'll probably enjoy it more in iPhone form. This specific minigame is available on the service for $0.99, and on top of being way cheaper than this full game, it actually features better, more responsive controls.
As a quick aside, it should be noted that you should not play Backbreaker unless P.O.D. is your favorite band of all time. For reasons beyond reason, the developers have included the band's song "Boom" as the background noise for every single kickoff. There are something like two other songs licensed throughout the entirety of the game, but you won't hear them even a fraction of the number of times you hear this song. Music licensing is expensive, I get that. This is still absurd.
It should be said that Backbreaker is, in the end, not an entirely unpleasant experience. Its animation system, over-relied-upon as it is, does manage to impress. But whether or not that animation engine warranted an entirely new game to be built around it is severely debatable, given the end result here. Someone should do something with this technology and put it to better use in a better game. As for Backbreaker? Chalk this one up to a valiant, but ultimately wasted effort.