Old School Video Game Review: Backbreaker

Backbreaker, an arcade-style football romp with no NFL licensing, promised a “real” football experience with a unique graphics engine and total team customization when it was released in 2009.

The main selling point of the game was its unique physics engine, called “elation,” which promised uniquely different tackles on every play, something its then-competitors “Madden” and “Blitz: The League” (amongst others) were unable to offer at the time.

For all its defining features that make this game potentially worth a buy, there are just as many flaws that absolutely make playing Backbreaker a miserable experience.

Let me explain.


The Good:

Customization

Backbreaker certainly isn’t the first game to offer you create-a-team options. In fact, such an option was fairly standard years before Backbreaker’s release. But Backbreaker manages to take that to a whole new zenith.

Not only are there 32 (!) spaces for create-a-teams, but there are plenty of logos, shapes and fonts to choose from in order to give your team the feel you want. The game even provides layering options and gives you ten different customization options for each layer.

The color wheel is also a welcome touch. You can spin the color wheel and get a big square of smaller squares with varying hues of the color you’ve chosen. To the side,  you can even look up “color concept” ideas to organize your uniform look.

This is what I did with my create-a-team, the Detroit Heralds. I chose red and went with one of the “concept looks”, and it came out pretty well, I’d say.

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My only gripe with the uniforms are that you can’t adjust the number and name font, which is frustrating and makes your options artificially limited. Helmets are also all one format, but the fact you can customize both sides of the helmet with created logos and such makes that less of an issue.

You can even customize the field’s look, which I’ve never seen in any other football simulation game. Usually in a game like Madden, they either have pre-made patterns or just create one for you.

Here’s what I did with my options (the team logo appears on the 50-yard line):

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Road to Backbreaker

Sometimes, not having a pro league’s license allows the developers to create a more unique experience and in at least one case, Backbreaker executes this to perfection.

Backbreaker’s “franchise mode” is an incredibly well thought-out project that combines familar features while adding some riskier ones.

The free agency system is fairly interesting, in that you have to earn in-game credits and then use those to spend on new players. There’s no trading system though, which may drive some more serious gamers up a wall.

When you create your team for RTBB, you start in the eight-team CPF League and have to work your way up the Backbraker ladder to get to the 32-team BBFL. It’s essentially the English soccer ladder, but football version. It’s a novel idea that works and is perhaps what saves this game from the dumpster.

CPF League

Welcome to the Crappy Pro Football League! Enjoy a trip to beautiful Hartford, Connecticut.

As you progress in RTBB and Season modes, you can unlock new football stadiums to play in, which is a pretty nice feature. Beating RTBB also gets you an all-star roster to play with, while Season mode and the tutorial also dole out new teams.

(I should warn you that you have to play every second of every game in order to advance in the season. There’s no sim mode.)


The Bad:

A terrible case of identity crisis

For all the talk about “real” football, this game certainly doesn’t feel “real” in any sense of the word.

From the start of play, the presentation is very staged. Multiple camera angles are in play for the opening entrance and kickoffs can also be given “cinematic” camera angles, which while looking nice, does nothing to add to the experience.

When you’re playing the game, the camera is an uncomfortable, third-person zoom that’s just a little too close to the action for comfort. The camera takes the perspective of the ball whenever it’s thrown, so it’s very hard to figure out where you are on the field when that happens.

Also a concern is that all the characters are hulking, faceless and cartoonish monsters with no discernable features other than the occasional sleeve or elbow pad. That screams “ARCADE MODE,” which is fine. But the game doesn’t know if that’s what it wants to be.

PA Pass

This is pretty patronizing even for an arcade game.

When you switch to “aggressive mode” controls, you get full playbooks and slightly more control of players. Problem is, every team has an identical playbook and players move entirely too slow or too fast to make much of a difference.  The aggressive mode controls are still unnecessarily limited, which I’ll get to in a second.

The control scheme

This was perhaps the most confusing control setup I’ve ever had to deal with.

In “Arcade” mode, you snap with triangle (instead of X) and then have to go into “focus” (L2) to go through your reads in that awful camera mode. To go through your reads, you have to flick the R3 stick to the left or right and then flick R3 up quick for a lob or hold for a throw.

(“Pro” mode allows you to cycle using square or circle and to pass by using X.)

It’s a terrible multi-step process and because of the game engine, you normally only have two or three seconds (even in ‘focus” mode) to make a decision. It’s literally the worst.

As a runner, your spin is the circle button, while juke is flicking left, right or down on R3, which works maybe half the time. On defense, you pretty much mash R2 (“aggressive” mode, which is essentially turbo) and kinda run around until you tackle someone (using X) or vice-versa. As a safety or corner, you want to hold L2 to bat or intercept the ball.

It’s an aggravating scheme that makes the fast-paced gameplay miserable.  Which is a major problem because you have to play in every mode.


The Ugly:

Presentation:

I’ve mentioned the physics engine a couple times here, so I should probably explain my qualms with it a bit.

The players are extremely touchy. Line play is actually the most challenging and best part of the game play, as players hold and shed blocks with brutal efficiency that rivals or even bests Madden. Any other position though and you’re at the mercy of a chaotic engine.

Sometimes, just touching a lineman will send your player into a ball on the ground or crumbling unrealistically over their own ankles or (my favorite) a player just standing rigidly at attention while flying through the air after a sack, like in the first play on this video at around the one-minute mark:

Also, notice anything missing? No announcers. Or atmosphere, really. It’s literally a world where the only music known to the Universe is P.o.D.’s “Here Comes The Boom,” which plays during every kickoff.

Every. Single. Kickoff.

Whatever the living hell this is:

Nope. Nope nopeity nope. Nightmare fuel. WHY?????????

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