I’m a National Football League junkie. I buy the NFL Ticket every year with the SuperFan plan, religiously watch Monday Night, Thursday Night, and Sunday Night Football, and participate in fantasy football leagues. On Sundays during football season, I wake up, sit on my couch, and watch football from 1:00 p.m. until midnight.
One of the reasons I was initially attracted to gaming was because of football games, starting with Intellivision’s NFL Football (which let you run off one side of the screen and come back on the other side), Accolade’s Fourth & Inches, Tecmo Bowl, and finally, the now-dominant Madden NFL.
For years, Madden NFL was everything that we NFL fans wanted in a football game. But when Electronic Arts announced that it would not support Sega’s Dreamcast system, developer Visual Concepts introduced a new take on the NFL with the 2K series. NFL 2k was a hit with NFL fans, as many felt that the Madden series had become stale and that EA was simply issuing roster updates every year. When Sega chose to discontinue the Dreamcast, Visual Concepts went multi-platform with the 2K series and was the first major challenger to Madden‘s dominance.
After adding the ESPN brand to the franchise, ESPN NFL 2K5 was released in 2004 for only $19.99. For the first time, a football game without the Madden surname captured a competitive percentage of the football gaming landscape. To many NFL purists, myself included, the game had reached a new pinnacle of play. ESPN NFL 2K5 introduced much more realistic blocking physics than Madden, more realistic running and catching animations, and AI that was superior to Madden‘s. The incredible presentation of the gameplay approached broadcast quality. Sure, it wasn’t a perfect game, but ESPN NFL2K5 delivered a next-generation football experience prior to the next-generation actually starting (comparison videos of 2K5 vs. the latest Madden installment are prevalent on YouTube.) Apparently worried that its most successful franchise might be forced to share the marketplace, EA Sports bought exclusivity rights from the NFL for five years (recently extended until 2012) and that was pretty much the end of the 2K football series.
Since that time, Madden has been the only game in town. A few companies have attempted to break into the potentially lucrative football game market, but have met with little success. Midway Games released the ultra-violent, WWE meets football game, Blitz: The League, which was a mild hit, but the sequel’s cold reception likely killed the series. A similar fate met Visual Concepts when it tried to give it a go with a sequel of sorts, All Pro Football 2K8. While the game featured the popular run-blocking AI from the 2K football series, the lack of NFL players and franchise mode hurt sales. The title sold poorly and the series was discontinued.
Because of no viable alternatives to Madden NFL, many former football video game junkies have been left without an option for a number of years. Natural Motion and 505 Games are about to change that with the release of their new football title, Backbreaker, this year. If you haven’t heard of Oxford-based (as in United Kingdom) Natural Motion, you’ll probably recognize them from their previous work on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Grand Theft Auto IV. The realistic ragdoll physics that you observed in those titles were the result of Natural Motion’s “Euphoria” engine.
With this engine, Natural Motion plans on releasing an American football game that takes the physicality of the sport to a whole new level. The Eurphoria engine allows developers to create real-time animated tackles without using canned animation. Instead, the tackles obey the laws of physics that exist in the game world. This allows every tackle to be different and more true to form than what currently exists. You can see a good example of this in the below trailer:
Backbreaker will also utilize a third-person camera angle that is closer to the field than what has been seen in recent traditional football games. This will make the gameplay feel more brutal, explosive, and immersive, but may also limit the gamer’s field of vision. Recently, Natural Motion released some alpha-build footage of Backbreaker’s passing game, which makes you feel as if you were the quarterback calling the shots at the line of scrimmage.
As you can see, the tackles and player movement are revolutionary. Each tackle has a visceral and authentic feel, and the gang-tackling looks incredibly realistic. However, I do have concerns that the game may come off a little too much like a visually-improved Blitz, but without the entertaining drama or steroids. I wish Natural Motion would lose hokey gimmicks like the “airplane” sound effect when the quarterback throws a pass, and focus more on simulation rather than arcade play.
The game will come with 60 fictional teams, but you will be able to create your own team from scratch if you so desire. Some of the options that Backbreaker will include are local versus and co-op split screen mode, an online versus mode, a yet to be defined franchise mode, and a rather fun-looking mini-game called “Tackle Alley” where players will try to avoid oncoming tacklers on their way to the end zone.
Will the Euphoria engine be enough to elevate Backbreaker above the also-rans and allow it to capture a segment of the football-loving public? One point of concern is that Backbreaker may just ultimately be an impressive technical demo which fails to capture the essence of either the NFL or American football in general. The various penalties and player AI can be difficult to portray realistically (don’t even get me started with instant replay!), and CPU decision-making is often a problem in football titles. Can British game developers fully grasp and portray the intricacies of what largely remains an American sport? And there is still the problem of no NFL license. Some people refuse to purchase a football game without the official NFL players and teams.
Ironically, this title is set to be released to the masses at a time when the Madden criticism has died down some. Madden 10 finally offered some impressive new features and did not just feel like the same game with a roster update. Even die-hard 2K5 supporters had to admit that Madden 10 was finally the next-generation experience football fans were expecting back in 2006, though it still has not caught up with 2K5‘s blocking schemes. Additionally, Madden 10 gave us online franchises, a feature for which gamers had been longing and has worked surprisingly well.
As a football fan and video gamer, I am hopeful that Natural Motion succeeds with Backbreaker. Competition will only push the developers at EA Sports, and gamers always win in that scenario. Ultimately, if Backbreaker is successful and finds an audience, my suspicion is that EA Sports will seriously consider purchasing the licensing rights to the Euphoria engine. After all, the last thing EA Sports will want is another viable contender to its crown when its NFL exclusivity deal expires in 2013.
Backbreaker is set to release for both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on May 25, 2010 June 1, 2010.