Impressions: Backbreaker

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Backbreaker may be the greatest football game no one will ever play. While I can attempt to detail its incredible use of the Euphoria physics engine, its spectacular graphics and truly innovative gameplay, all these features are moot thanks to the crippling fact that the game does not have the NFL license. Without the license, the annual Madden devotee won't have this on his (or her!) radar -- ironic, because Backbreaker makes good on the lofty promises of Madden 06's teased "CG movie" effect, which EA Sports has yet to deliver on, even four years later.

It's easy to get jaded about sports games as they iterate, releasing slightly improved games year after year. We've grown accustomed to complacency. But simply watch a video of Backbreaker and you'll probably agree: this game is a breath of fresh air no one expected from the genre. It goes to show that with proper competition, there's a lot of room for innovation.

Perhaps the most obvious thing to discuss are Backbreaker's animations, powered by the same tech used in Grand Theft Auto IV and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Euphoria allows game characters to react to their virtual environment and create dynamic animations. Unlike canned ragdolls, these animations are surprisingly lifelike, and because they can be generated on the fly, ensure the game feels spontaneous. Backbreaker has one huge advantage over games like The Force Unleashed, though: it's developed by NaturalMotion, the studio that made the Euphoria tech.
%Gallery-82057% What does that mean for Backbreaker? It means every tackle will look unique, and, more importantly, real. It means your wide receiver will try to extend his arms out as he falls near the ten yard line. It means that the CG trailer of Madden 06 can now be fully realized in-game.

It's not just the animation that makes Backbreaker look so sharp. The visual fidelity is impressive, unquestionably besting every other football game of this generation thus far. However, while the engine is able to render some spectacular lighting, and hi-poly character models, it has a very "clean" look, one that makes players look like plastic toys. While some may prefer a "gritty" look, I think the style gives Backbreaker a distinct aesthetic and looks even more impressive in motion.

Beyond the tech what makes Backbreaker so unique is its camera. NaturalMotion is intent on making players fully experience what it's like to be on the gridiron. The perspective used is more akin to an action game, rather than a sports game. For example, when you're running down the field with the ball in hand, the camera swings directly behind the character. Motion blur fills the screen, as you try to dodge tacklers. It's visceral, and does a great job of simulating the "rush" of being in a real game. However, this can become disorienting and even tactically restrictive, considering the player no longer sees the entire field at once.

Because of its more action-oriented gameplay, Backbreaker should appeal to players that aren't hardcore football gamers. (In fact, gamers only casually interested in sports may be more easily able to ignore the lack of the NFL license.) NaturalMotion has smartly added two difficulties to the game. A simplified casual difficulty streamlines the strategic process before each huddle, suggesting plays for the specific situation. For the experience of my demo, it served its function quite well.

NaturalMotion is hoping its comprehensive team editor will make up for the lack of the NFL license. Every aspect of a team can be made from scratch, from the players to the logo to the stadiums. Taking a page from Forza, Backbreaker comes equipped with an amazingly deep decal editor that allows players to create detailed, unique logos for their teams. While there are steps to make quick logos based on preexisting templates, hardcore designers can take advantage of the system to implement hundreds of layers into their logos.

While I came away from my demo amazed by what Backbreaker has to offer, I acknowledge that it'll take a lot more playtime to fully grasp how deep the gameplay is. It may look pretty, but does it offer the depth that football fans have come to expect? The promise of online co-op alleviates some of my concerns regarding coverage of the field (obviously, two players will have a better grasp of the playing field than just one). Hopefully, NaturalMotion will stop by once more and give us some extended hands-on time before Backbreaker's May 18 release date.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.