Version tested: Xbox 360
Every one of my Sundays between mid-August and early February consists of waking up at or around 11am, catching the pre-pre-game and the pre-game show, and lazing out by watching almost 11 hours of grown men pummel each other to bits all while attempting to carry, throw and kick a ball into and towards the opponent's goal area.
When a Nintendo64 happened to appear underneath my Christmas tree way back when, the game that had a near-permanent residence in the cartridge slot was Madden 64. Of course, all subsequent iterations in the series became automatic purchases as well, rationalised as doing my civic duty, supporting the sport created by Americans, for Americans. It's a sport with the chutzpah to take the universally known moniker of "football," as in soccer, and redefine it for us Yankees.
With that said, Backbreaker is a passive attempt at recreating the spirit of the sport on a gaming console. The atmosphere and gameplay - save for the use of NaturalMotion physics - are non-existent, the controls are all over the place, and P.O.D.'s Here Comes the Boom, the official song of every single kick-off, plays so often you'll want to go OJ Simpson on your game unit.
It's also a shame that the judicial proceedings challenging the NFL's exclusivity deal with Electronic Arts are taking so long to shake out, because Backbreaker could have used some of the League's well-established motifs (and real players!) to bring some colour to the action. Alas, you're left to play what amounts to an exhausting, half-baked experiment with features, for the most part, done better by the Madden series.
That's ironic, because during the game's development cycle Backbreaker's makers have effervesced with pride over their nascent creation, saying that it would finally take Madden down a notch and usher in a new generation of football games relying on the NaturalMotion physics engine - which, for the most part, is actually an interesting feature.
Players are no longer subject to a limited number of canned animations that eventually become repetitive. Like snowflakes, each tackle is different and, during my review sessions, delivering and receiving unique crushing blows was the best part of the whole experience. There is a future for this technology in sports gaming and hopefully other developers will take a long look at it in future, if they haven't already.
However, upon further examination things begin ripping apart at the seams. The Training Camp mode is a near-mandatory stop because Backbreaker uses a wholly different control set than what you'll find in the Madden series. Instead of using your controller's buttons, the majority of your players' actions will be controlled by transitioning in and out of "focus" and "aggressive" modes which increase their speed and throw accuracy and allow them to absorb hits to keep on slugging along the pitch. For example, your quarterback in focus mode will be able to lead and hit his receivers better, but the camera closes in on the action and increases his blind spot.
Unfortunately, this also happens on the defensive side - which is ridiculous considering, for example, that a corner must be able to see more of the field to execute their defensive strategy better, not less. Furthermore, the action on the field is fast and furious, making the need to fumble around with entering and exiting modes to keep up impractical.
[Correction: Since this review was published, it has been pointed out that this section is unclear and could be misleading. When playing defense, it is "aggressive mode", not "focus mode", which causes a narrowing of the view. It was the need to switch between these two modes which our reviewer found impractical when playing defense. -Ed.]
Even giving the game the benefit of the doubt with this strange control system, there's always the ability to change camera angles. Right?
Sorry, pal: you're locked into a third-person view for whichever player you are controlling. You will often find yourself trying to fight over a block while a play unfolds on the other side of the screen. Even with the ability to change to a relevant player (i.e. the ball carrier or defender), I easily became disoriented long enough to miss any chance at making a play on the ball. Football is certainly a game of inches and in the virtual world, it's also a game of valuable split seconds. Backbreaker does not accommodate.
Of course, all could be forgiven if playing the game was actually fun. Sadly, the feature set is anorexic. Along with the Training Camp, you can play through two separate, but essentially equal, career modes called Season and Road to Backbreaker. Season Mode is the standard pick-your-team-and-win-the-title endeavour with very light managerial aspects thrown in, like scouting and roster editing. Road to Backbreaker is more of the same, but you'll get the chance to create your squad from scratch and pit it against up to 32 other teams.
Aside from the game's physics engine, Backbreaker can at least hang its hat on incorporating a thorough creation engine in Road to Backbreaker. You can pick team colours, edit the team logo and even choose how many star players you want. OCD creators rejoice: with enough time you can pretty much replicate anything under the sun, if the rest of the game hasn't turned you off completely by that time.
[Correction: This section also requires clarification. Teams created with the team creation engine are not restricted Road to Backbreaker mode, but can be used in Season mode, too. -Ed.]
Thankfully, playing football isn't the only thing you can do in Backbreaker, because an expanded version of the iPhone's Backbreaker Tackle Alley can also be found in this console version. The basic gist is that you must manoeuvre your lone ball-carrier across the field as increasingly dangerous waves of defenders come hurtling toward him. As addictive as it was on a mobile, Tackle Alley on a console controller lacks tactility, making pulling off jukes (left or right on the right control stick) and spins (a half circle on the right stick) an exercise in frustration.
I was often oh-so-close from reaching the end zone when, instead of spinning, my player juked and was demolished by an oncoming defender. Nevertheless, there are 100 waves to challenge yourself against and the game dangles the ability to unlock additional teams to use as a reward. (Oh great, more football teams.) You can also play Tackle Alley with or against a friend online, along with regular exhibition games. From the few games I was able to find and play, the experience is no different than playing solo, except for a few hiccups due to lag and disconnections.
But don't be fooled by such mitigating novelties: at its core, Backbreaker is a soulless attempt at straddling the fence between the over-the-top action found in the Blitz series and trying to accurately simulate the sport of football like the competition. For every amazing tackle and crushing blow that the NaturalMotion physics engine pops out, there is an equal and opposite debilitating occurrence that the developers willingly included, in good faith of course. Unfortunately, playing Backbreaker just reaffirms the quality effort, no matter how incremental in updates it may seem from year to year, that EA puts forth with each year's Madden.
4 / 10