Review by DDJ

Reviewed: 06/24/10

Raw and unpolished, but a great foundation for the future.

Review in Brief
Game: A new football franchise, built primarily on a full physics engine for player interaction.
Good: Amazing physics engine, increased focus on individual player control, lots of customization, sufficient game modes, suitably different from Madden to stand alone as more than a generic form of the game.
Bad: Inflexible and often obnoxious camera, overly simplistic AI and playbook, lack of a tie-in to the NFL hurts, very very glitchy.
Verdict: Really great for its new features and what it represents, but unpolished as a game by itself.
Rating: 6/10
Recommendation: Rent if you like, or at least tolerate, sports games (or good physics engines). Don't rent if you never like sports games at all. I can't recommend purchase, though.

"Raw and unpolished, but a great foundation for the future."

Let me start this review off by saying two things: first of all, I wholeheartedly respect what Backbreaker is trying to do. Starting a franchise is very difficult, especially when there's such a direct comparison available with an established franchise. Imagine if two RPGs were as similar as two football games inherently must be: same exact battle system, for example. It would be very hard for the second game to differentiate itself from the first.

Secondly, and perhaps less importantly, I am a general fan of sports games. I feel like oftentimes, standard gamers review sports games from a strictly gaming angle, and miss a bit of the point. No one is creating sports games because the sport inherently makes for an awesome game; sports games are meant to capitalize on that fantasy we all have of playing in some real-world event. A sports game created strictly to be appealing from a gaming perspective would look very different from any football game I've ever seen.

I issue those two disclaimers to say this: I like Backbreaker a lot more at a meta level than this review will show. I like the overall game concept, I love that a company was willing to take a risk on it, and I feel like it makes some general strides forward for sports games that will be very impactful in the future. Analyzed in the context of the broader industry, I think Backbreaker will prove to be significant.

However, from a strict game perspective, I'm not a huge fan. When you step back you might see the challenge that the game presented to the developers and the potential takeaways for future games, but as for the game itself, it leaves you wanting more -- and not in the good way.

In the end, Backbreaker could best be described as a one-trick pony, a polished technical demo, or a raw experimental game. The game's selling point has been its physics engine, which supposedly provides a very different gaming experience; and that engine is executed flawlessly. But beyond that, the rest of the game is serviceable enough to demonstrate the engine, but not to provide a real game experience; alternatively, the game is experimental enough to test new features and provide a ground level from which to work from in the future.

But as a game in and of itself, analyzed independently of what potential the franchise might have Backbreaker just isn't very good. I admire what it's trying to do, and I have high hopes that this will provide a great point to start from, but at the end of the day, the game just isn't that great in its current state.

The Game

While for the majority of this review, I'll attempt to analyze the game independently of the rest of the industry, there are some aspects of the game that only make sense in context. A description of the game, for example, will only make full sense in context of the current landscape of football video games.

The current landscape of football video games is, simply, EA's Madden series. We won't talk much about that series, but the purpose of Backbreaker is to provide a legitimate alternative to Madden. So, while at a fundamental level the game is still a fairly standard football game, there are important decisions made specifically to distance the game from its competitor.

The game's major selling point is its physics engine. Rather than operate with the pre-rendered tackle animations of Madden, the game dynamically generates collisions. While this might seem like a somewhat minor feature, I'll talk later about what makes it so important.

While the physics engine is the selling point of the game, other important differences also include the lack of an NFL tie-in license (due to EA owning exclusive rights to all NFL logos and players) and a more athlete-focused control scheme. I'll talk more about what that means later in case it's not clear here.

The Good

There is a whole lot to like about Backbreaker. Some of the features it introduces will have fans of football games standing up and cheering. A lot of the game's hype came from the early demonstrations of these features, and the features themselves do not disappoint: as I'll discuss later, the game surrounding them leaves a lot to be desired, but where the game is good, it's really good.

The Euphoria Engine
The entire primary selling point of Backbreaker is its use of an actual physics system. For context, I'll stoop to comparing to Madden again, just to explain the difference.

In Madden, player-to-player interactions are scripted. When two players are approaching one another, the game evaluates based on a complicated formula what should happen, and then plays the animation to match. This is why, after playing several games of Madden, you start to notice certain tackles, stiff-arms, pass completions and other events looking exactly the same: because they are. The motions that go along with a certain interaction are pre-recorded and played back to match the situation.

That's the reason why oftentimes, Madden interactions can look unnatural: there is no possible way to pre-record every possible collision. Take, for example, a receiver that goes up to catch a ball. A defender tackles against their legs right as they catch it, but another receiver blocks the defender. As a result, the receiver catching the ball is knocked a little off-balance, but can still land; the now-blocking receiver is engaged with the former defender.

There is no way to pre-record every complicated situation such as that; and it wouldn't be terribly prudent either, considering how rare each individual collision is. But pre-recording leads to the endless regurgitation of the same animations over and over, making the player feel that the game is more deciding what will happen rather than reacting. Plus, it just looks unnatural.

Enter the Euphoria engine. The Euphoria engine is a full physics engine dedicated to modeling correct interactions between flexible entities: in this case, football players and the ball. Rather than scripting interactions, players actually react accordingly to one another. When a player tackles another player, it isn't that the game plays a pre-rendered tackling animation: the ball-carrier's body actually reacts to the forces placed on it by the defender.

This simple notion has huge implications for realism. First of all, for superficial realism, the game quite simply looks more realistic. If you watch blockers run into each other in Madden, you effectively see the animation happening the exact same way over and over. Players spin without touching the ground in order to line up and make the animation make sense, and after a while you'll be able to tell just from the starting positions what the outcome will be.

With the Euphoria engine, no two interactions look the same. If you watch the offensive and defensive lines pop out of their stances, you can see how they legitimately engage each other, and how one pass rusher actually gets past his blocker (or doesn't, in other instances). Everything is dynamically generated, and so nothing looks awkward, unrealistic or predetermined.

What's more, you can actually feel the gravity of certain decisions. For example, if you're rushing the ball and run into a would-be tackler, but lower your shoulder (one of the subtle controls you're given), you might blow over him, but you might also get tackled anyway. In Madden's scripted encounters, the result is determined by a number of variables and then the outcome is played back according to the animation. In Backbreaker, you can actually see why one result happened and not the other. You might see your player ram the defender before the defender can react, or you might see the defender anticipate the move and grab on anyway. You might see the move thrown to early, allowing the defender to recover; or you might see the defender over-commit and miss the rusher as he cuts back. The point is, you see the subtle impacts of your decisions.

There's really no way to describe how smooth and realistic the animations look. Players actually ram into each other like they do in real life, rather than following some determined scheme for encounters. It's absolutely beautiful.

But all the realism I've discussed so far is based solely on how the game looks. It's conceivable that the older way of handling collisions could accomplish the same results, albeit without looking as nice. But the physics engine has an equally important impact to how it actually reacts to different situations.

Just as it's impossible to prerender collision scenes for every possible collision, it's also impossible to determine the results of every collision mathematically in any kind of realistic way (okay, so technically a physics engine is still just math, but you know what I mean). No matter how many variables the game weighs, there are still going to be odd reactions unless it's measuring the positions, velocities and goals of every part of every body.

That's exactly what Backbreaker does. When it's dealing with a collision, it doesn't calculate likely outcomes: it simply simulates them and shows you the results. So if you have three players converging on a ball at once, the engine doesn't bat an eye: just let the players wrestle for it and react accordingly. There's no need for a prerendered "pick up" animation to play once the engine has mathematically determined who should pick the ball up: just put the ball in the hands of the player that touches it first.

Because the realism goes deeper than just the visualization and down to the actual core of the gameplay, it actually holds a significant impact on what happens in the game. Put simply, everything just feels real. Even replayed in slow motion, the players perform realistically: there aren't any bizarre pivots or moments of scripted engagement. Everything just looks great.

To sum up this point one last final way, I'll describe two subtle situations I've witnessed that show just how impactful the Euphoria engine is:

First, imagine a player running up the middle. A defender comes from the right to tackle the rusher from the side, and gets his arms on the rusher. But just as he reaches him, another blocker comes up. Under the traditional scheme, the defender and rusher would already be "engaged", and the extra blocker would be irrelevant. With this engine, the extra blocker actually shoves the defender off the rusher, freeing the rusher to keep running.

Second, imagine basically the same play, but rather than an additional blocker coming in, an additional defender comes in. The initial defender has held the rusher up but has not brought him down; in traditional scheme, the second defender would have to "wait" until the encounter with the first defender was complete before tackling. Here, though, the second defender plows right into the ball-carrier, knocking him down while the original defender continues to hold on.

These are two instances where both superficial realism and physical realism play a strong role, but it should be noted that even the superficial realism alone is fantastic. For example, if you hit a player in mid-air, he'll spin around as if you really, you know, hit him in mid-air. The possibilities are literally endless.

Athlete-Focused Control/Camera Scheme
So, surprise surprise, the one major feature that the game pioneered is really, really good. But one feature does not a good game make. There are a couple other things to like about Backbreaker, though, and the first is the control scheme.

I'm not entirely sure what the design decisions were behind this broad category of features: they may have been attempting to accomplish exactly what I'm going to describe, or they may have just been looking for things to do differently than Madden. Whatever the motivation, Backbreaker puts a much more significant focus on controlling individual athletes than on managing the team from a bird's-eye view.

This starts with the camera. The camera has been highly criticized by many players of the game, and with fairly good reason (which I'll get to later), but it does contribute to this general area of improvement. Rather than a bird's-eye camera that focuses on the field as a whole, the Backbreaker camera takes a position much closer to the individual player with the ball. As a result, your vision is much more akin to what the player actually sees, rather than a view of the play as a whole. You actually feel like you're controlling that player, rather than just controlling whoever the current ball-carrier is in a larger scheme.

The bigger contributor to this general mood, though, is the control schema. In most other football games I've played, the controls tend to be relatively simple, especially when running with the ball: joystick to move, other buttons or joystick to do some simple jukes and dodges. There's sufficient control, but really, how much do the things you do once you have the ball matter? Oftentimes it feels much more like you're executing the one logical path for your play-call. You can make mistakes, sure, but it's tough to make a play better.

Backbreaker goes for a more complicated control scheme for nearly every player and situation, opting for a fairly complex set of context-sensitive controls. Based on position on the field, current player, and some preset preferences, there are very particular actions you can execute. For example, while running at a would-be tackler, you can still stiff-arm, spin, juke and ram like a regular scheme; but the context-sensitive controls (as well as the physics system) lend a whole new sense of realism to these actions. A juke can be done at exactly the right time with very different results than it would have granted earlier or later; and certain particulars about how you execute the various moves modifies how they appear. One can actually choose between a firm stiff arm for a strong tackle, or a quick stiff arm to just knock off a passing glance. And these aren't strong differences, they're very subtle and intuitive.

The overall impact of this control scheme is that simple things like running the ball through fairly open space actually involve skill. It's no longer a matter of just pointing the control stick toward the more open area: running is a learned skill. If you're coming over from Madden, this will be tough at first, but it's much more rewarding once you get used to it.

Oddly enough, this focus is actually augmented by some of the game's drawbacks, such as its relatively simplistic playbook and somewhat bad AI. But I'll talk about those later. I should also mention that the learning curve is a point of criticism for many reviewers of the game; Backbreaker does have a somewhat steep learning curve. However, in my opinion, this is a necessary evil that comes from the goals of the game, and couldn't have been avoided without losing some of the game's good features, so I'm not going to criticize the learning curve.

Great Customization
One of the weaknesses of the game is its lack of an NFL tie-in license. The developers, however, recognized that this would be a legitimate weakness, and aimed to counter it by supplying a customization suite that far surpasses anything seen in an alternate franchise.

The depth of team and player customization is absolutely astounding. You can create and customize your own players, teams, team uniforms, team names, team logos, and a wide variety of other characteristics. This goes beyond the rather rudimentary customization we've seen in other games -- customization here gives you full control over nearly every aspect of your team from a creative standpoint.

This addresses the lack of tie-in very nicely because it allows the player to really create what they feel is their own league. Yes, it would take a lot of work to create a fully-functioning league of 32 teams, but it's certainly possible: and chances are those that are that interested in having a realistic league would be willing to put in the work. Plus, the player can create teams without putting forth quite that level of full control over every element: one could only create the team names and let the computer choose the other values.

While the customization is a nice way to address the problem of a lack of NFL tie-in, some players might find it too cumbersome to use to its full extent. Suffice to say, if you usually like the customization features, you'll love these: but if you don't usually use them, you probably won't use these either.

Sufficient Game Modes
Due again to the lack of an NFL tie-in license, the developers were left with some question of what game modes to provide. The standard is, clearly, a 16-game season and 12-team playoff bracket -- but if we're not emulating the NFL, why stick with that format?

Backbreaker doesn't. While it includes this "season" mode (along with the typical exhibition game, quick multiplayer, and a multi-season mode I'll mention in a moment), it provides some elements of customization that you won't see elsewhere. The many alterations are all very minor, and so listing them here is unfeasible, but perhaps the most interesting one is the ability to choose the number of teams: you can play a season with a full 32 teams, or you can opt for smaller leagues. The smaller leagues are actually a substantial hedge against the lack of an NFL tie-in: with Madden, getting to the Super Bowl and playing a team you've never seen before isn't terribly bad since you're aware of the real-world Steelers, Patriots or what have you. In Backbreaker, where would the thrill be in getting to the championship to play the San Antonio Sharkheads when you've never even heard of the team before? With a smaller league, you're aware of all the teams, and the playoffs are sufficiently more epic.

There's one other game mode that deserves mention, and that's the Tackle Alley mini-game. It's not unusual for football games to have training mini-games, and Backbreaker might be a little disappointing to have only one. But the one it has is extremely fun, and useful.

Suitably Different
I'm trying to avoid analyzing this game based on anything except its own merits, but I do feel there's one more important distinction to draw based on its comparisons to the more established football franchises.

In developing a football game without an NFL tie-in license, Backbreaker ran a risk of being basically the "generic" brand to Madden's brand name. Sure, technically it would be the same, but it would just miss out on some of the extra charm that comes with an NFL tie-in license. At an equal price, there is no way Backbreaker could compete if it tried to play by Madden's own terms.

But the game avoids this trap by being suitably different from its established counterpart. This clearly starts with the physics engine, which provides a much more realistic gameplay experience, and draws an immediate visual distinction between it and Madden. Along with the customization suite, there's an instantly recognizable discrepancy.

But this difference is further augmented by the player-focus I mentioned earlier. Because of the camera and control scheme, the game simply feels like a different game. Each individual feature might be decent in and of itself, but the overall impact is that when you pick up Backbreaker, you don't feel like you're playing a more generic form of Madden; you feel like you're playing a truly different game. It differs sufficiently enough to be recognized as a stand-alone title, not a cheap knock-off.

As I'll discuss in a moment, there are numerous drawbacks that make Backbreaker a subpar game by its own merits; but please don't miss this point: the game is sufficient to start a new competing franchise. With some polish, further development, better testing and a few tweaks, this game could easily become preferential to Madden.

The Bad

The problem with Backbreaker is an issue of polish, refinement and testing. The game is extremely raw, and borders on being considered unfinished. It plays very much like a technical demo of certain features, where the player is expected to realize that there are certain issues that will be fixed as the game is finalized... except, the game's already been finalized.

It's these issues that absolutely cripple Backbreaker (no pun intended) from a gameplay standpoint. It accomplishes all its major innovation goals beautifully, but it falls on its face in taking care of simple issues of inflexibility, shallowness and glitchiness.

Camera Inflexibility
Earlier in this review, it would appear that I praised the camera. That's not exactly the case, though. I praised how the camera contributed to one particularly interesting innovation; however, the camera itself is a major point of emphasis among the game's critics.

The problem with the camera, in my opinion, is its inflexibility. It sits behind the player at a much lower angle than in other games, and gives a great impression of being in control of a particular player. However, the game doesn't give you the option of switching to a more traditional camera angle. Sure, there are times when the new angle is really nice, but without also having access to a bird's-eye angle, you lose a bit of the game.

There's also a problem with the implementation. While having a low camera angle right behind the player does play a role in increasing player-focus, it also damages gameplay because it isn't implemented ideally. For example, one place where I would argue it's good (although others dislike it) is on pass plays: it can be difficult to see receivers over those big offensive and defensive linemen, but that's realism. However, take a running play: the camera is pointed the way you're running, but then a tackler comes in from off camera and crushes you. The angle of approach for that is usually the type of thing a normal player would see in their peripheral vision.

While the idea for the camera is good, there are some problems with the implementation that severely throw off its positive impact. And don't even get me started on defense: in real defense, you can look back at the quarterback to see if he's throwing, running, etc. Good luck trying to manually play pass defense. The concept is strong, but the implementation is way off. I've always wanted a football game from a more first-person perspective, but not one whose only option is a first-person perspective.

Somewhat Simplistic: Shallow Playbook, Subpar AI...
I'm grouping a variety of somewhat minor, specific criticisms in together because they all echo one overarching theme: Backbreaker just doesn't have a lot of strategic depth to it. The focus on the game, as we've described, is on the physics engine and player-focus, and while those are executed well, they're at the expense of strategic depth.

First, there's the shallow playbook. Now, granted this might not be a terrible thing: after all, Madden is offering a simplified playbook option in its next iteration, too. But the difference is, Madden has the option for higher complexity: Backbreaker doesn't. The playbook has suitable variety to it: you've got basically one play of each fairly distinct type (inside run, outside run, fullback dive, etc.), but there's a strong lack of variety that breeds predictability. In other football games, you'll find an effective outside run (for example) in multiple different lineups, but in Backbreaker you'll be forced to basically telegraph your running plans based solely on the formation you choose.

Secondly, in spite of the shallow playbook (fewer plays should have made this easier to dodge), there are several broken strategies in the game. A broken strategy is a strategy that basically guarantees a win based only on a relatively simple plan. There's two that I found in the game, one offensive and one defensive: on offense, short passes are basically indefensible. A team can charge down the field on the exact same 4-5 yard pass play every time, and there's not a defense in the game that adequately defends against it. On defense, there's the goal-line defense: choose a goal-line defense, and every single time you'll get the runner or sack the quarterback. Now, the existence of a broken strategy on both sides begs the question what happens when they play against each other: I'm not sure, no one I've played against used either. I'm inclined to think the offense would win, but regardless, there should not be such an overpowered simple strategy.

Thirdly, there's the subpar AI. AI in football games exists in two ways: the team you're playing against and its high-level strategies, and the AI of individual players (either your own or your opponent's). On both these levels, the AI in Backbreaker is subpar. It isn't terrible or game-breaking, but it certainly isn't great. The workability of those broken strategies alone shows that the AI is not able to learn from its mistakes and your patterns, and moreso you'll find that it isn't difficult to figure out the AI in a given game. It's not terrible, but it certainly leaves something to be desired.

Lastly, there's a certain suspension of reality that occurs with the game's lack of an injury framework. I understand it's an extension of the limitations of the physics engine -- the entire focus on the engine is rigid bodies, and figuring out the forces applied to those bodies and their breaking points is another issue entirely; Madden gets by with basically randomly generating injuries. Plus, an injury framework extended solely from the physics engine would likely result in far-too-frequent injuries judging from some of the collisions. Still, the absence of injuries or fatigue does break strategy a bit by allowing you to find one good running play and run it all game long, without fearing fatigue, strategic response or injury.

Lack of Real-World Tie-In
Yes, we know about this one. EA owns the exclusive rights to all NFL logos and such, and thus games like Backbreaker and Blitz can't use NFL teams. Because it's a business decision and not a design decision, it's hard to hold this against the game; but if we're judging solely the game experience in a vacuum, it's hard not to acknowledge that this is a detriment.

That's because part of the appeal of sports games is in living out a fantasy of participating in some event which has a direct real-world corollary. It's about taking the Falcons to the 2010 Super Bowl, given that there's a real team out there called the Falcons, a real player called Matt Ryan, and a real event called the Super Bowl. It's about entering the shoes of your favorite player and team all at once, and playing the real season that they'll be playing.

That connection is part of the appeal of sports games, and the lack of a tie-in license destroys that. Yes, it's possible to create all the teams and all the players (if you really want to), but even so, it never feels like you're really living in the NFL. If we're not going to have the tie-in to the league and its rules, then there's room to make lots of other changes too, and I wish Backbreaker had gone more in the direction of experimenting with what it could do without obligation to a real-world league. For example, imagine an infinite end zone, or an infinite playing field. Imagine super-powered characters. Imagine 300-yard fields, or 22-player sides, or 5-player sides. There was a lot of experimentation that could've been done, but instead Backbreaker makes mostly a de-branded NFL game, preserving the same rules, regulations and idiosyncrasies.

Glitchy, Glitchy, Glitchy
Here's the ultimate point where polish comes into play. If I pay $60 for a game, I expect a game that works as intended. Instead, Backbreaker is very glitchy. The glitches aren't harmless either; there are glitches that make a big difference to the game.

I personally experienced three glitches while playing the game, and I've read of others experiencing several more that I find very believable considering my experiences. I'll cover mine in detail, then others more cursorily.

First of all, the game calls some extremely bogus penalties. I'm not one to complain about the refs, but some of these are just ridiculous. We're talking a pass-interference penalty when literally, no one was within 5 yards of the receiver the entire play. It's not even a judgment call, and I can't help thinking that the game misinterpreted and thought that a lineman was a receiver or something. Crazy.

Secondly, twice I've seen penalties enforced in the wrong direction (both, again, on pass interference plays). Defensive pass interference and the offense accepts the penalty... and gets pushed back? Not even 15 yards, but some seemingly random number of yards. The offense gets penalized for defensive pass interference? Huh?

Thirdly, and similarly to the first one, the roughing the punter penalty: woah. You look at the punter the wrong way and they call a penalty. Literally, there is no way to rush the punter without getting this penalty. You're forced to call the safer no-rush option every time just because the game apparently thinks the punter resides in a great soap bubble and coming within 10 yards of him constitutes murder.

Those are just the three I've seen, but in my time I've read of several others. You'll block a kick, get called for roughing, but return the kick for a touchdown anyway and the CPU will decline the penalty. You'll score a safety, but then you'll be forced to kick off (not every time, just sometimes). You'll throw a touchdown that appears to be caught, but the refs will rule it incomplete... but you'll be allowed to kick the extra point anyway and then kick off. Random safeties being called when neither team is anywhere near the end-zone. Plays that never end 'cause the player is never technically tackled. Fumbles that never get picked up. It just gets crazy.

These glitches are all likely results of the physics engine. In Madden, for example, the game calculates that a player is down before playing the animation that shows them going down: so, if they're not down, they won't look to be down. But in Backbreaker, presumably it calculates being down based on the player's actual knee, so if the player's knee somehow doesn't technically touch the ground, the play might never end. It's harder to explain the others, but it's quite likely to have something to do with the physics engine there too.

The Verdict

The new features that Backbreaker introduces are excellent: the physics engine, aside from the glitches that it may be responsible for, it fantastic. Playing the game just has a much more realistic feel to it; it feels much less like a football simulation and more like an actual football game. Players interact logically, motion carries on fluidly, and overall the game just looks amazing. The added focus on individual players also provides a much needed different feel from other football franchise.

But the problem is that the game doesn't take the efforts to be a great game aside from what makes it new. The new features are great, but the game that surrounds them is subpar. The camera makes the game hard to play, the artificial intelligence is overly simplistic, the playbook leaves much to be desired, and the glitches -- oh my goodness, the glitches. The glitches make you feel like you're playing an E3 demo, where the major demonstrable features are worked out but the bugs haven't been solved yet.

Overall, though, I really like Backbreaker, despite the somewhat low score I'm giving it. It's a much need refresh to the football games genre, and shows what could be done in other franchises if the effort were put in. The new things that it demonstrates are brilliant: the physics engine is absolutely amazing. I've never seen a football game that looks like this, and without full physics-based motion, we never will. That alone makes the game at least passable, although the lack of polish on the rest of the game cripples what could have been itself a game-changer. As it is, it's only a harbinger of a future game-changer.

My Recommendation

If you like sports games, rent it. If you don't like sports games, don't. I have trouble recommending buying it no matter what, only because the more you play, the more the features become commonplace and the glitches become obnoxious.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: Backbreaker (US, 06/01/10)

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