It's not fair to say American Football fans have been lumped with Madden over the years. Even if in reality it's the only choice, it's actually quite good. Creator EA has the exclusive rights to all the real teams and players from the NFL, the game's presentation authentically recreates the spectacle that is Monday Night Football, and it's got more game modes than you can cope with. Sure, Madden hasn't significantly evolved in recent years, but as a package it's brilliant.
This is where Backbreaker collapses in a heap. It plays an intense, gruelling game of gridiron, and in many ways a more authentic one than Madden, but as an overall package it's as bare bones as the stereotypical nerd the cheerleaders never notice.
The main draw here is the physics. Oxford-based developer NaturalMotion created Backbreaker using their own technology, Euphoria, which Grand Theft Auto IV fans will know well. Remember when Niko would get drunk and fall about in often hilariously realistic ways? That was all down to Euphoria. Imagine 20 Nikos smashing into each other on a 100 yard field - that's Backbreaker.
Tackles look fantastic. Players twist and turn with stunning realism as force and gravity do their work. The violence here isn't over the top or juvenile, as it has been in other American Football games - it's authentic. Big hits make you wince not because of some gimmicky slow motion effect or a crash zoom on snapping limbs. You wince because you know that what you're watching looks like the real thing and you've caused it.
In one play, I burst through the defensive line with my running back and slammed into the onrushing safety. As I was brought to the ground, the ball didn't touch the grass, so the play was still alive. I inched forward, using the safety's body as a human slide. Then he flipped me over, my head snapping back as my back hit the dirt. It was a jaw-dropping moment. I replayed it at least three times.
According to NaturalMotion all the animations are calculated on the fly - nothing is pre-canned. It sounds like a wishy-washy PR claim, but you can believe it. You get the impression that no two tackles are ever the same, which is one hell of an achievement.
The tech powering Backbreaker's bone crunching tackles is what's best about the game. Elsewhere, Backbreaker disappoints. NaturalMotion has positioned the perspective a lot closer to the players than EA does with Madden, giving the game a more 'in your face' feel. When it works, it's great: onrushing linebackers truly terrify and collapsing pockets make you soil your virtual spandex. But when it doesn't work the game feels frustratingly claustrophobic, an effect NaturalMotion probably intended but has over-egged ever so slightly.