Xbox 360 owners had the opportunity to give NaturalMotion’s Backbreaker a test run this weekend as the demo was available for download this past Friday. Does the game have the intestinal fortitude to compete with Madden? My initial thoughts:

Positives

  • Tackles, tackles, tackles. No football game has ever delivered such bone-crushing and unique tackling on every play. Of course, we already had a pretty good idea this would be the case.
  • Aesthetically speaking, Backbreaker clobbers Madden. The game conveys the frenetic pace and violence of the sport in a way Madden has not. While I’m not crazy about the player models (even the kickers look like indestructible machines), the game is a graphics beast. The blocking and tackling interplay are truly impressive to watch.
  • One of the common complaints about Madden NFL is that the game has become too complicated for casual gamers. Backbreaker, at least in demo form, does not suffer from this. The plays were fairly straightforward and easy to understand, and the R-stick is used for most special running movements.
  • Controlling a defensive player while facing the ball actually worked well. Holding the Left Trigger focuses your player on the football, which helps to prevent you from getting lost during the play. Rushing the passer has never been so much fun.

Negatives

  • The biggest problem I found was the passing mechanism. In order to throw the ball normally, you move the R-stick forward. To lob it, you pull the R-stick back and then forward. The problem with this is that you also use the R-stick to change receivers by pushing left or right. As a result, if you deviate slightly while attempting to throw the ball, you end up merely changing your receiver focus…and then your QB usually gets mauled by the oncoming linemen.
  • While all of the hype focuses on the new tackling engine in the game, Backbreaker had some real problems with displaying the basics of the game. Wide Receivers often failed to run smoothly through their routes. On one comeback route, my wideout floated laterally into position at the last minute, ala Tecmo Bowl. I can only imagine the frustration that would occur for gamers on defense. The fight for a thrown ball also looked really awkward and stiff. I also saw players running straight into the goal post for no apparent reason.
  • On one play, I completed a throw to a wide receiver at the back of the endzone for what I thought was a touchdown. Instead of awarding me six points, however, the scoreboard said “First Down” and the ball was placed just within the first-down line.
  • I’m a huge fan of rock music, but the generic heavy metal music used after every play during instant replays was very annoying.
  • The offensive and defensive playbooks that were presented in the demo were fairly simple and will not satisfy fans who prefer more depth.
  • Most of the time, the animations during the tackling sequences were well-done, but clipping did occur occasionally.
  • No announcers. Aren’t the 2K guys in need of work?

One area that I really could not categorize as positive or negative is the general gameplay offered in Backbreaker. The game offers a level of immersion that was last attempted in ESPN NFL 2K5‘s first-person mode. Thankfully, Backbreaker keeps the action in third-person, but the camera is right behind the selected player. For players who have grown up on the Madden series, this change can be daunting and I wonder whether gamers will have the patience to adjust to this new style of play. I don’t necessarily view it as a bad thing since Madden’s core gameplay is getting long in the tooth, but gamers may not be ready for such a shift. Especially since Backbreaker does not have an NFL license to showcase.

In any case, do keep in mind that the above impressions were based solely on the demo released for Xbox Live. Hopefully, some of the negative gameplay issues won’t show up in the full game, but since it has already gone gold, that may be wishful thinking on my part. Still, there is a lot to like about Backbreaker and it’s tackling engine alone may satisfy casual fans of the sport.

Backbreaker is set to release for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on June 1, 2010.

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