The Latest Backbreaker Preview

Posted April 2nd, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Game Informer has released the most comprehensive preview of Backbreaker yet. For the most part the preview is very harsh on the game. As I’ve said from the start it is important to manage expectations. Backbreaker has the potential to be a fun game, but it will not be a comprehensive sim or be able to capitalize on every element of a football game that the hardcore crowd feels is necessary. Check out the complete preview here.

My first hand-on time with Backbreaker left me with mixed impressions. While the variety of tackling animations is quite impressive, the skill players should be refined so they feel more agile, the passing needs to be tweaked so players can cycle more quickly between receivers while under pressure, and a few camera tweaks would go a long way to making perspective transitions less damaging.

I’ve pulled out some choice sections from the preview and added some commentary. Considering the timing the final code for the game will need to be locked down soon, probably within the next couple weeks, so anticipating any major changes would not be realistic. Again, an early demo with be absolutely crucial for this game. Continue on to check out some of the items discussed in the preview and leave your thoughts in the comments!

To avoid ugly lawsuits with EA and the NFL, however, you cannot name your upstart franchise the exact names of NFL teams and play online with them. Anything goes in offline play, but if you want to take the Minnesota Vikings onto the field against friends online, you’ll have to be creative. One workaround I found was to use the abbreviated city or state name. Typing the name San Francisco 49ers resulted in the pop-up box telling me that the name couldn’t be used online, but when I typed SF 49ers I received no such warning.

The same applies to player names. I tried names from every era of football – Fran Tarkenton, Tommy Kramer, Tarvaris Jackson – and I received the warning about not being able to take these names online each time. Even little known quarterback Steve Dils didn’t work, which leads me to believe that Natural Motion has a database featuring the names of every player who ever donned a helmet in the NFL. To get around this, NFL fans could intentionally misspell names or just use the abbreviation technique.

It sounds as though these restrictions just apply online, but still it seems a bit extreme to block out any names that just so happen to be shared by someone who played in the NFL. Having said that, most people will not do much in the way of editing with their games. The hardcore crowd that was looking to re-create the NFL will be severely hampered by the restrictions if they choose to play online, but a bigger deal will be made of this than it really is.

Unfortunately, if you want to create an entire 32-team league with NFL clones, you can’t rely on some hardcore fan in another state to do the dirty work for you. Backbreaker does not feature a tool to upload and share rosters or teams with other players.

We still don’t really know much about the customization system other than it being described as similar to what Forza provides. The problem there is the Forza system is extremely difficult and complicated to use. I would never be able to create anything worthwhile. For people who know what they’re doing though the possibilities are fantastic. What I would hope for is something similar to Teambuilder first introduced in NCAA Football 10. That was very easy to use, offered a bunch in the way of customization, and the results were terrific.

The skill ratings feel rather empty considering the depths to which Madden credits attributes. Each player, no matter the position, is rated in four areas – focus, agility, speed, and strength. While these ratings may be fine for creating basic skill sets, there is no way to deduce what ratings affect abilities like quarterback accuracy, zone coverage, man-to-man coverage, etc.

That is discouraging to find out. Teams and players will be rather vanilla. There simply aren’t enough distinguishable characteristics in having four general rating areas.

Like All-Pro Football, Backbreaker lacks split-second responsiveness, so to properly juke past defenders you must activate the move well before you’re in the position to perform it. The tackling animations are easily the most impressive feature in Backbeaker; tackles can be made from all sorts of angles, and each one results in a different animation. Gang tackles happen naturally, and when a ball carrier gets hit at an awkward angle, it legitimately looks like an injury could have happened.

This is something companies seem conflicted about. EA Sports now wants that twitch factor, the ability to always be in control and make moves instantaneously. That may not be as realistic, but the question is it more enjoyable to have that ability? Or is the weight and momentum being implemented that may prevent those things better for the game?

The exhibition mode did not feature any injuries, but if Natural Motion is smart it will take advantage of the realism their animations impart and make them an important part of the season modes.

Lack of injuries, fatigue, and player progression are clearly a big drawbacks to the game.

I couldn’t for the life of me establish a decent rushing attack in Backbreaker. Running the ball is plagued by multiple problems. The rigid running style of the backs works to their detriment the most. It’s tough to negotiate tight spaces because the backs run so upright, and the defense collapses run blocking very quickly. The running backs’ lack of wiggle makes it extremely tough to slide through tight holes, and I often found myself the victim of shoestring tackles from interior defenders who simply reached around their blockers.

Taking the rock outside on sweeps is hindered by an overly sensitive camera adjustment that swings too wide toward the sidelines. You can’t see the pursuit coming from the interior, which is where a running back’s eyes are normally focused on these plays.

I think one of the most common responses to the limited number of Backbreaker videos so far is the lack of success running the ball in them. These comments seem to support what has been seen.

Once a pass is completed, the camera abruptly shifts to the receiver. This can be a disorienting experience when in traffic, and given the game’s inability to account for split-second button presses, it’s hard to make a quick move immediately after making the catch.

The starkest contrast between Backbreaker and Madden is in the game’s defensive camera. Rather than keep the same perspective for both offense and defense, the camera shifts behind the defenders. Placing you right in the thick of things gives playing defense a renewed sense of excitement that Madden currently lacks.

This remains a concern to me. Anyone who has played a position such as defensive back in the career modes or with Madden’s online co-op last year knows how difficult it can be to track the action. Switching players would make it even more disorienting due to the perspective.

Arcade mode isn’t likely the best place to showcase the AI in Backbreaker, but it was laughably bad. I saw several instances where the quarterback tripped on an offensive lineman before handing the ball off. I also witnessed more than one fumble where the quarterback pitched the ball into the side of the fullback when it was intended for the tailback, resulting in a frantic scramble to recover the ball. The AI hardly fared better in the passing game, with most plays ending in a sack or an incompletion after the quarterback scrambled around indecisively. My opponents’ highest completion percentage in all the games I played was around 30 percent.

The defensive zone coverages tend to sag, so your best bet for large gains is to scramble on a play that sends everybody upfield with go routes. With half the defenders playing 30 yards downfield, once you get past the line of scrimmage nothing is stopping you from making huge gains. This is compounded by the general lack of awareness in the defensive backs, who frequently stayed in coverage instead of pursuing a quarterback scrambling up the field.

Getting the AI up to the level gamers expect these days just wasn’t going to happen in a first attempt. Hopefully though it isn’t as bad as it sounds here. While the game could be fun enough to ignore flaws, seeing AI gaffes frequently saps that fun right out.

With no play-by-play announcing, the field feels pretty barren. Player chatter is nonexistent, and the crowd basically sounds like a blanket of white noise, hardly reacting to big plays.

From the videos it is very apparent that the atmosphere is stagnant with the crowd not taking over the way you would expect. The noise the players make are especially awkward.

I don’t recall seeing any statistical overlays breaking down the action outside of the obligatory halftime summary and frequent stat updates on the score bar that runs along the bottom of the screen, The “cutscenes” are clichéd, stagnant shots of the scoreboard indicating first downs, sacks, etc. You cannot check game stats in the pause screen.

The majority of Backbreaker players will spend most of their time in the Season and Road To Backbreaker modes. Season mode allows players create a custom 8, 16, or 32-team league that features player scouting and drafts between seasons. Natural Motion said much of this mode is still being tweaked so I didn’t delve too deeply into the mode, but I did notice there wasn’t an option for making player trades, a peculiar omission.

These are things that take years to build, and the background of the developers has probably hampered the presentational experience a bit. Not being able to check game stats would be an odd thing to leave out. There appears to be a good variety of modes and options but each mode should not be expected to be expansive. There is a reason why it is being called “season mode” and not “franchise mode”.

The biggest concern from this preview is that clearly the desired fun and fresh experience that Backbreaker is trying to provide did not, in this case, cover up for what was seen to be missing or the inherent flaws being exposed. That could though just be attributed to an individual’s take on the game that may not end up representing the majority. I know I tend to enjoy arcade games that may not necessarily get great reviews so it’s remains important to keep an open mind.

Regardless the demo is going to be huge in convincing consumers to give the game a shot. It’s somewhat ironic that Backbreaker releases on the same day as UFC Undisputed 2010. That franchise launched itself towards huge success last year based largely on a fantastic demo that hit over a month before release. Backbreaker is in a position where it will need to do the same.

If the game releases, and the general consensus is similar to what was found in this preview, the potential of Backbreaker becoming a franchise could be killed. There has been a great deal of patience in the creation of the game. The developers have frequently stated that they were not pressured to push the game out and were instead waiting until it was ready. With not much time left to improve on or fix issues lets hope that the game is truly ready and is not just being dumped into the marketplace to die.