E3: Backbreaker Preview

Posted June 11th, 2009 at 12:02 am


Originally announced back in August of 2007 Backbreaker wowed with early displays of its tackling engine known as Euphoria. Since then it has pretty much been in hibernation. Now though the game appears to be gearing up and intends to prove that it is still around to make an impact.

While at E3 I had the chance to sit down with Rob Donald and Torstein Reil of Backbreaker for a look at the game and to talk about some of the thinking behind it. The meeting actually went for nearly an hour and a half so the time commitment was appreciated.

Backbreaker originally was planned to be an XBL Arcade/PSN offering. However the technology presented an opportunity to do much more. In the years since announcing it NaturalMotion has attempted to build a full featured game based around the Euphoria tackling engine.

One topic of conversation was whether the game would be “sim” or “arcade”. We were in agreement that it is difficult to define what a “sim” is. They were direct in that they do not view the game as competition to the licensed titles. They need to separate themselves and offer a different experience. While they are looking to respect the rules of football Backbreaker isn’t going to be a representation of the NFL. It may not be completely over-the-top but it will be exaggerated and open to different things. Basically as expected it will fall somewhere in the middle.

What seemed to be the biggest focus for the Backbreaker team was accessibility. This certainly is understandable as many people new to sports gaming find them intimidating at first. So the idea is to offer an inviting pick-up-and-play type experience. At the same time they want to make sure to have deeper layers and options that more skilled players can take advantage of.

That can be a difficult balance and as such they are looking at offering two different game modes. One that falls on the simple side and the other on the skilled side. Unfortunately much of how that could materialize either wasn’t shown or hasn’t been built into the game yet.

We’ve known for a while that passing the ball uses the right analog stick. What happens is at the line of scrimmage you have a WR glowing red and he is your primary option. The primary receiver can be changed pre-snap. While in play by hitting the stick up a pass will be thrown to that receiver. Using the LT and hitting the stick left or right will scan through the other receivers.

Receivers will show up glowing red if they are available to throw to while any in blue are no longer options (out of bounds, on the ground). There was some discussion around whether you should be able to throw to them regardless of the position they’re in so that could change. The ball also glows red to help users locate the ball carrier.

When simply using the left stick to run the player will have the ability to perform agile moves but using the RT when running will put the player into aggressive mode where he will go into a sprint and the moves that can be done are more powerful.

The camera angles are a big sense of offering the immersive nature that Backbreaker is going for. They are down low to the field and in on the action.  From what I saw I thought they worked well. Basically it sits behind the player you are controlling. I was most concerned about the transitions between switching players or dependent on where the ball is. The camera transitioned smoothly based on location of the ball because it locks into where the player is looking. And since you are locked into an individual player during each defensive play there is no camera shifting that would come with switching who was being controlled.

The camera angles vary pre-snap on offense based on whether it is a run or a pass. If it is a pass the angle is slightly behind and above the QB, while if it is a run the camera is positioned lower and behind the RB. Because of the camera angles Backbreaker will be utilizing split-screen for local multiplayer. I did note the concern that someone could easily spot run vs pass based on looking over at their opponent’s pre-snap camera angle so hopefully they come up with a way to fluke that or settle in with a moderate angle that works for both.

After the Tackle Alley and tutorials we went to the full 11 on 11 for a few plays. So yes, no more doubting that is what Backbreaker is going for as the core of its game. There wasn’t nearly enough seen to come to any conclusions and not everything is in or completed yet. Just as a couple examples blocking animations and trajectory on passes were not implemented in the build. Non-tackle interactions will need work.

I got my first hands-on with Tackle Alley and that has some potential for being a quick fun option especially online. The controls/player felt a little on the heavy side but I hesitate to make any judgments based on such a short run through.

Graphically the game looks real clean which is probably due in part to the lack of extras such as sideline activity and refs. The stadiums are nicely done incorporating aspects of the cities they reside in without getting ridiculous. I only saw a few but they each had their own unique presence.

Full customization is still in, unfortunately for NaturalMotion the Teambuilder feature in NCAA Football 10 stole some of the thunder of this. But it looks like it will have enough options to create some really cool teams. Hopefully it is as user-friendly as Teambuilder and includes the same option to share amongst other users.

Obviously I can’t go through a preview for Backbreaker without talking about the tackling. I was actually most impressed with this area of the game. Sure there were situations where the tackles looked awkward but there were just as many times where I thought they looked great. On one instance a RB was turning the corner and attempted a stiff-arm only to be dragged down by his arm which was all the defender could reach. At the same time the players love to dive for tackles even after a guy is down there would be times where five more players just dove by for the hell of it. It made for some laughs anyway.

Online play is going to be a big area of concentration as the developers recognize this is the area they could really build a following. Online co-op was mentioned as a possibility but not confirmed. Various mini-games could also suit it well. This really does feel like a head-to-head game, with the customization making it even more enjoyable. The frantic action and big hits seems to fit with the style and being able to include friends taking advantage of their own camera angles on your team would be great.

I did read the IGN preview that may have implied there is no franchise mode. This was not something we discussed. I did note that there were several options on the menu for different modes but they did not desire to go into them at the time.

While there is no release date to announce they did state that they have different targets they are aiming for. The sense I get is the game will land sometime late this year or early 2010 but that is just speculation on my part. They stressed that they do not feel rushed to push the game out. It is more important that it is complete and reaches the vision they have for it. They are looking at building a franchise out of Backbreaker and quality is an important ingredient in that.

I’ve always been open to different style sports games which is why Backbreaker has continued to intrigue me. From what I saw I still recognize the potential but feel as though they may be concentrating too much on accessibility and basing decisions on focus group testing from people who probably won’t buy the game anyway. As I mentioned earlier they stated that there will be depth to the game to satisfy the more knowledgeable players…I just didn’t see much of it from what was showcased.

There is still a ways to go before the game is all pulled together. I was most encouraged by how well the technology applied itself to tacking. However it remains to be seen whether it will be able to offer a true football experience that will satisfy fans of the sport.

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