Can Backbreaker teach Madden any new tricks?

A newcomer to the video game gridiron has arrived with some new wrinkles to throw back at Madden. Are any of them worth taking note of? We give Backbreaker a try to find out.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
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David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
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Scott Stein
David Carnoy
4 min read
505 Games

There is another football game in town, and it's a new one: it's called Backbreaker, and it's been developed by NaturalMotion. It doesn't have an NFL license. It's not Madden. So why should anybody be interested? Well, there's the real challenge.

Madden's sales have been dropping off. Its stronghold monopoly on NFL video games remains absurd and tends to result in laziness in the game's innovations. However, there are a lot of things Madden still does right. Statistical engines, play-calling realism, and online play are still second to none. We have a soft spot for the days when 2K Football actually had a better game, and kept Madden honest. And, at first glance, Backbreaker reminds us of that game's debut back in 1999.

Backbreaker's real claim to fame is its physics engine, the same Euphoria system that's in games ranging from GTA IV to The Force Unleashed. Tackles and player motions are astonishing and fun to watch, and have less predictable outcomes than the sometimes canned-feeling Madden tackles. Backbreaker also lowers the perspective closer down to field level, creating a shaky-cam realism that aims to shake players out of the complacent eagle-eye Madden view that turns plays into living schematics.

Because Backbreaker has no NFL license, it's created a bunch of fictional teams and stadiums in the spirit of NFL Blitz. Stadium designs are often overexaggerated and colossal, and the borderline reckless feel of the game is a nice break from Madden (although it's not as vicious as Blitz). The playbook, however, is far smaller than Madden's, and the control scheme is reinvented. It's not fully explained or easy to use.

Players can customize their teams with a graphics-editing engine, inviting a lot of risque designs. Playing online against others might lead to discovering some interesting acts of creativity. It's clever, but a gimmick in the long run. Not having an NFL license is a deal-killer for any game that wants to be about football.

The real moments when Backbreaker shines are on scrambles and running plays. Actual passing is accomplished with directional presses of the right analog stick, which can be confusing in pressure moments. And, though it's realistic, having no turbo button for running feels odd. Defense is a bit of a mess: you see the field-view of whatever player you've selected. If you're blitzing and miss a sack, you've got to press a button to catch up on where the ball went (usually for a big gain somewhere behind you).

NaturalMotion claims this is the first time this physics tech has been used in a sports game. That may be true, but it's sometimes hard to appreciate as a whole. Backbreaker might outdo Madden on physics, but that's it--and it's more likely to inspire Madden to steal a few ideas for future updates.

Backbreaker actually debuted as an iPhone game last year, with a simple dodge-the-tacklers minigame that was meant to build hype for the main game to come. At 99 cents, however, it might still be a better bet than the game that just debuted for the Xbox 360 and PS3--and a better showcase for its physics.

505 Games

Playing Backbreaker is one of the more interesting yet odd experiences you'll have playing a sports game. For starters, if I were the developer, I just don't know if I would have released this as a multiplayer game because it borders on unplayable.

When you do play against another human opponent, the screen is split, and it can be difficult, particularly on defense, to know exactly what's going on (the limited camera views are problematic, even though you can jump to the action). I played this with my nephew, who's a big Madden fan, and we spent a lot of time watching replays to figure out what had transpired on the previous play. In some cases, the replays are quite amusing--the tackle animations are impressive and entertaining (we did laugh a lot). The big issue we both had was having ample pass protection; rushers seemed to be on your quarterback in no time, so you end up completing one out of every five or six passes and getting sacked numerous times, which is a little frustrating.

By comparison, the single-player version is a lot better, and I had an easier time moving the ball and executing both running and passing plays, and I liked the team choices available for league play (they each have different attributes). Despite its gameplay problems, which mainly stem from camera limitations, I will say that when you do execute a play, slip a tackle by juking a defender or stiff arming him, or get your defender in the right spot to make an interception, it's really gratifying. So the game does have its moments, especially after you play it for a while and begin to master the control scheme.

At the end of the day, I think this is worth checking out, but I'd certainly gravitate toward a rental rather than a purchase.

As always, feel free to comment. Let us know what you think if you've played Backbreaker.