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.
The controls take a while to get used to: initially they're bewildering, even with the aid of the unhelpful tutorial. Holding the left trigger puts your player in what's called Focus Mode. It's hard to work out what effect this has on the game, but it feels as if it helps in some way. When controlling the quarterback, for example, focusing during a play seems to increase the likelihood of accurately throwing the ball (with a flick forward of the right thumb stick). When you finally wrap your head around the controls, playing on offence doesn't get any easier. Even on the normal difficulty, I struggled to land passes or run more than five yards. I've never played an American Football game in which interceptions and negative gains are more common than they are in Backbreaker. I found running the ball the first two plays was my only option, then, when forced to pass, praying not to be picked off. In Backbreaker, throwing the ball is an exercise in frustration.
The upshot of this is that each match feels like a slog. In Madden, points scoring often borders on the ridiculous. Backbreaker plays a grittier, dour and slower - quite a lot slower, there's no sprint button - game. This is American Football the old fashioned way: running the ball hard, tackling harder and only airing it out when all else fails.
Some will think it terribly boring to run the ball so often. But, thankfully, running the ball in Backbreaker's quite good, and benefits from a clever stance system that adds strategy to what would otherwise be a simple case of powering forward and waiting for a tackle. There are two stances: normal and aggressive. When in normal stance flicks of the right stick trigger spins and jukes and other fancy skill moves. When in aggressive mode, the same stick triggers more powerful moves, like shoulder charging, stiff arming and protecting the ball. The skill is in switching between the two stances and, thus, the two move sets when it's most appropriate.
Backbreaker's running game is so good NaturalMotion made a mini-game out of it. Tackle Alley sees you control one lonesome back that needs to battle though increasingly difficult waves of tacklers to reach the end zone. It's great fun - the early waves are easy enough to pass, but soon you're faced with loads of defenders, and you have to combo jukes and stiff arms and all the rest to get through. At the end of each wave you're awarded points for the moves you use, where in the end zone you end up and showboating. Playing Tackle Alley online is probably what you'll spend most of your time doing with the game.
Which is Backbreaker's biggest problem. Outside of exhibition mode, online play, a league and what's called Road to Backbreaker, Backbreaker's version of Pro Evolution Soccer's Master League, there's not much else to do. You can create your own teams, design their logos (with a hard to navigate creation tool) and use them in the league modes, but you can't use them online. Put simply, when it comes to having stuff to do, EA's Madden wins.
And EA also wins when it comes to authenticity. Gameplay rules, of course, but having all of the real player and team names adds a lot to the experience. In Backbreaker, every team and every player is fictional. It's not like in PES, where the player names are real but the teams aren't. Here, nothing's real. So it's hard to associate yourself with a particular franchise.
The cold, harsh truth is that Backbreaker feels like a Euphoria tech demo. It comes as no surprise to learn that the game was once designed as a downloadable title to showcase NaturalMotion's clever physics skills. Perhaps it should have remained as such. This is no Madden killer, as some have billed it. But it's a clever game. Backbreaker won't leave EA sweating, but it will do well to learn from it.