Since its inception, Backbreaker has had a very interesting journey. It originally started as an alternative to the Madden franchise with an emphasis on a heightened use of physics in lieu of having the NFL and NFLPA licenses. When the full game was first released on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3, the physics were indeed good, but the basic football mechanics were deemed broken. It wasn't until the release of the Greathouse patch that the game became a title for the faithful. The developers then took one of the minigames featured on the title, Tackle Alley, and ported it to both iOS and Android, where it enjoyed a great amount of success. Seemingly finding their niche, NaturalMotion and 505 Games have gone back to the console space with a few changes. Backbreaker Vengeance an Xbox Live Arcade- exclusive title for the time being, but it does fairly well considering its self-imposed limitations.
There are a few things to understand going into this new version of Backbreaker. Thanks to the exclusivity contract held by EA, this game still doesn't contain licenses from either the NFL or the NFLPA. Instead, your league is composed of completely fictional teams with a fictional roster. Despite being a football title, this isn't necessarily a full football game. Instead, you'll get to participate in minigames that represent certain aspects of football, namely running and tackling, as opposed to playing a full four quarters with a two-team, 11-on-11 setup.
The game is comprised of three different minigames. Tackle Alley is the same tried-and-true minigame from the iOS/Android iterations: You become the running back as you try to make it from one field to the other, avoiding anyone who wants to tackle you. At first, the goal is to simply avoid people and get to the end zone. You have a full arsenal of moves, including jukes, jumps and spins — all of which can be combined for higher scores. As play progresses, you see boundaries on the field that you can't step on as well as pads that give you bonus points if you step on them, making it much more difficult to score. At the end of each set of rounds, your score is tallied; a high enough score earns you medals and unlocks other courses.
The Vengeance minigame indulges in a little role reversal, as you are the tackler instead of the runner. Like Tackle Alley, you can put on moves to prevent others from tackling you, and you have various courses that let you gain bonus points for hitting certain pads, but you'll lose if you go out of the designated boundaries. Each round only ends if you tackle the designated target before he reaches the end zone, and high scores per level open up more courses.
Supremacy is more of a mash-up between Tackle Alley and Vengeance, but there are some twists thrown in for good measure. In the first round, four players have the ball and are racing to the end zone. At the end of this, whoever has the lowest score stops being the running back and becomes the tackler instead. Tacklers can gain points with their tackles, and those who are hit lose points. To ensure that the leader isn't simply getting a free ride, they now sport a golden aura, which makes him an even bigger target. Like the other modes, different courses are used per level, and the highest score wins the game. High scores earn you medals and unlock other courses.
Each of the three modes is rather fun. It's exciting to trick a player into going one way while feinting and getting a clear path to tiptoe into the end zone and indulge in some showboating — something that's missing from most football titles. The hits are the other aspect, and each delivered hit looks satisfying and brutal. Beyond the apparent brutality and finesse of the sport, it's the scoring system that makes the game quite addictive. It's great to string together combos for points, but the constant presence of a leaderboard really feeds into gamers' competitive attitudes and gives them a big reason to improve on all of the courses. We've seen that work well for games like Trials HD and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, and it's brilliant to see that same mechanic used for a sports title.
There are some significant complaints, though. The first is that both teams and players are superficial elements in the game. With everyone having the same stats, there's no extra advantage or challenge gained from picking one team or player over another, so all of the choices are simply based on your color preference. This title is a little limited because it concentrates on minigames. There are roughly 50 courses to go through, but once you complete them, the only thing to bring you back would be a higher placement on the leaderboards, and since none of the courses are dynamic, that could get old fast for some players. The collision system also seems too sensitive. While there are a few opportunities where you can get by with the defender touching you and not taking you down, pretty much anytime any part of the opponent's body comes in contact with your own, your player immediately goes down and the play ends — even if you to fall into the end zone. Finally, the game seems to have a bad habit of letting players slide and warp around the field once someone is hit. It's funny to see the first few times, but it should've been ironed out before release.
Multiplayer is a little different from other sports games, as it's simultaneously cooperative and competitive depending on the minigame. Supremacy exemplifies the traditional competitive nature of most multiplayer sessions, as its basic premise is strictly competitive. Both Tackle Alley and Vengeance also stress competitiveness, but because two players are playing simultaneously for one goal, it almost becomes cooperative. Some are easy enough that you'll want to do everything you can to win, but others are frustrating enough that you'll end up formulating strategies so that one of you gets to the end zone or designated target unscathed. A level is replayed over and over again until someone completes it; this reinforces the desire to work together to finish the level so you don't have to endure replaying it again and again.
The game performs rather well offline with the split-screen configuration. You won't see any performance drops or degradation of graphics when playing with and/or against another player on the same screen. Online handles fairly well, though not all of the time. Even on the best connections, you'll notice some lag here and there when it comes to controller input and character reaction. It's not enough to call it unplayable, but don't be surprised if a few of your attempts fall flat when you swear that your reaction time was spot-on.
Graphically, it's the same as the first Xbox 360/PS3 version, complete with the same accolades and flaws. The stadiums sport some nice touches, making them more distinguishable from one another, and the crowds are animated well enough that they make the stadiums feel more alive. The players animate nicely, and the hits feel more authentic because of the physics system. Unlike ragdoll, the limbs bend and contort in ways that look more realistic. The player models look fine, but there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between any of them as far as size is concerned. The fact that everyone also wears shaded visors doesn't help since it makes everyone look too similar. The camera angles need some work, though. While the angle makes the player feel closer to the action, it does so at the expense of field visibility, which sometimes prevents you from judging where an opponent is and how far away he may be. It's something you eventually get used to, but having the camera be positioned just a little higher would have made a world of difference.
There really isn't much in the way of sound. The music is still the same mix of hard rock and rap you've heard in previous versions, but this time, it's all original material and all instrumental. You won't hear it much, though, since it only plays during menus and between rounds. Voices are also at a minimum. You'll hear the grunts of getting hit, but you won't hear specific quotes from players or an announcer talking about your play. You'll hear a lot of the effects, namely the brutal hits and the roar of the crowd each time someone gets smacked. They sound crisp and really come through the speakers with a lot of force and no real distortion. Considering that big hits are one of the big selling points of the game, it's good that the effects are one of the title's stand-out aspects.
Depending on what you're looking for, Backbreaker Vengeance will either disappoint or satisfy. Those looking for a more brutal, arcade-style version of Madden would be better served with either the original Backbreaker or Blitz: The League II, as the lack of true football gameplay does limit the title. For those looking to tackle or outrun guys, the various challenges up the ante for what you can and can't do on the field. The scoreboard's constant updates feed the addiction of running the same courses in pursuit of higher scores. At 1200 Microsoft points, though, Backbreaker Vengeance feels a little pricey for what's offered. Give the free demo a shot, but don't be surprised if you end up purchasing it later.
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