Jul 12, 2011

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Review: Backbreaker Vengeance

Review: Backbreaker Vengeance

There doesn’t seem to be much room in the EA Sports dominated sports genre.  Aside from a few 2K titles, there aren’t many developers looking to overthrow EA’s dominance.  Of all the franchises under the EA Sports banner, Madden is easily the most recognizable and longest running.  NFL 2K and GameDay both fell years ago, and aside from a failed reboot of Midway’s Blitz series, no one has tried to challenge the juggernaut that is Madden.  Last year, NaturalMotion released the promising looking Backbreaker football game for the Xbox 360 and PS3.  Trailers showed a Euphoria-powered engine producing some of the most fluid animations ever seen in any sports title.  Sadly, basing an entire game around an engine failed, and while the game had enjoyable moments, overall it felt very sloppy. Has NaturalMotion fixed their issues with the new downloadable Backbreaker Vengeance?

Backbreaker wasn’t a horrible game, but definitely not a great one.  The camera was zoomed in too close and oftentimes it felt like you weren’t controlling your players.  Although playing through the actual games were a mess, the Tackle Alley minigame kept players coming back for more.  In Tackle Alley, it was just you attempting to get from one endzone to the next.  Each level produced different waves of defenders that you were forced to dodge, weave, and stiff arm while racking up high scores and attempting to stay inbounds.  NaturalMotion saw the popularity of their minigame and released it, as well as a sequel, for the iOS store.  After becoming a million-selling title, NaturalMotion decided to try their luck again with home consoles: Backbreaker Vengeance is a collection of their popular minigames.

Once again players can dodge tacklers in Tackle Alley as well as become the tackler in Vengeance Mode and enjoy the mixed up Supremacy Mode.  Each mode has 20 different challenges, progressively increasing in difficulty.  There are five waves per challenge and players are given five lives for each wave.  Failure to complete every wave in a challenge results in an overall loss, and the entire challenge must be restarted in order to advance.  Successfully completing challenges and gaining higher scores will unlock new stadiums as well as different teams to choose from.  The teams and stadiums really make no difference since you only control one player and all the stadiums pretty much look the same, though.  As I stated above, Tackle Alley is fairly straightforward, although the actual gameplay is anything but.  Harder levels create stricter boundaries and players will constantly be weaving and bobbing just to avoid stepping out of bounds and being disqualified.  Vengeance is practically the same, except your goal now is to tackle the ball carrier while avoiding his blockers and boundaries.  In Supremacy, it’s a four player free-for-all in which players must score the quickest while gaining the highest score.  Whoever scores the lowest will become the tackler for the next round and must stop one of the three remaining players from scoring.

Each of the modes supports local or online multiplayer.  Unfortunately, only two players are allowed to play at one time, which is odd, since Supremacy supports four players.  Sadly, they fill the final two slots with bots.  The multiplayer maps aren’t exactly the same as those found in single player, though they’re very similar.  You probably won’t even realize it because you’ll be having too much fun going head to head with a friend.  Whether you’re racing to the goal in Tackle Alley or attempting to demolish the ball-carrier in Vengeance, playing against a friend will provide you with some of the funniest moments you’ve seen in awhile.  Although humor isn’t really the game’s intent, it’s hilarious seeing your friend spill over a hurdle or collide with a defender directly in front of you.  Oddly enough, there is no way to play opposite sides unless you jump into the Supremacy Mode.  This omission is sorely missed and hopefully if there’s a future Backbreaker they’ll provide a way to pit human tacklers against human ball carriers as well as provide four-player support.

As much fun and laughs you’ll have during the multiplayer, the single player quickly changes from enjoyable to frustrating.  It’s fun dodging and weaving through defenders and even more so when you’re the tackler, but the space provided to perform these moves grows increasingly smaller.  What makes matters worse is that after you juke a defender, he can get back up and proceed downfield to tackle you without the need to stay within the boundaries.  This leads to constant blindsides from defenders thought to be left in the dust.  It’s simple enough to dodge defenders during the initial meeting, but afterwards it becomes any man’s game.  Regardless of how difficult it becomes, however, it’s still pretty satisfying going 90 yards downfield while juking multiple defenders and barely escaping the fingertips of a tackler.

The biggest selling point for the Backbreaker titles are the huge hits you can inflict and endure.  Tackling and big hits are typical in football titles, though what really makes Backbreaker’s stand out is the Euphoria engine.  Every grueling hit and motion looks incredibly realistic, painful and bone crunchingly satisfying.  For as realistic as the animations look, there are a couple things that don’t seem to make sense.  In Vengeance mode, if you attempt to hurdle into the ball carrier, a good majority of the time you will be shrugged off as if you were a fly.  This doesn’t make any sense, since you’re literally throwing your 200+lb frame at another man’s head, and he can dust you off as if you were lighter then a feather.  Also, at times your player just seemingly trips out of nowhere.  This could be understandable in real life, but random slips don’t seem to make sense in this game, and seem more likely to be an error.

In general, there are a lot of technical issues that prevent Backbreaker Vengeance from being a true contender.  The camera is still too close, and while I understand it’s designed that way to provide more “action-oriented” shots, it creates a ton of mechanical problems.  As stated above, the camera impairs your peripheral vision, causing you to be blind-sided very frequently.  It becomes worse when using the turbo button because the camera pulls in even closer to your player.  Also, with the variety of colors on the field, it’s common to not see what color an incoming defender is.  The colors are crucial, because they determine how the defender will attack and what your counter move should be.  While it should be easy to slow down and determine the color, the game won’t even allow you the opportunity, because your player is forever progressing forward.  You literally cannot ever stop moving, and this leads to constantly stepping out-of-bounds or completely passing up the ball-carrier when attempting a tackle.  With this odd set-up, sometimes your player will begin a wave and automatically turn and run out of bounds.  While not game breaking, it makes finding enjoyment quite difficult at times.

Another odd omission is the lack of saving replays.  There will be tons of replays that you’ll want to save and show off, but you don’t get the opportunity to do so.  It’s sad enough that you can’t share them through Xbox LIVE, but it would have been nice to save them for personal use.  Still, it’s fun to see different angles, speed up or slow down footage, and pan the camera around during memorable hits.  The same cannot be said for the multiplayer replays though.  In multiplayer, not only is there no way to view and control the replays yourself, but what you’re given are some horribly edited clips of the action.  Often times instead of showing a hilariously missed tackle, we’re shown extremely slowed down jumps over hurdles or missteps out of bounds.  If a proper replay system was implemented it could have easily added to sales and popularity.  While replays aren’t a major issue, this is just another simple way the game could have improved.

Backbreaker Vengeance is truly tons of fun and downright hilarious when playing with friends.  The brutal hits and memorable runs will keep football fans and casual ones excited.  NaturalMotion has found a niche with downloadable versions of their game, but they still need to work on the fundamentals.  The obstacle-course-like waves have an addictive nature similar to Pac-Man CE or Geometry Wars, but unlike those two games, Backbreaker Vengeance can’t be recommended to all.  With some mechanic tweaking, a cheaper entry price, and more variety this would be a great alternative to the Madden franchise.  While in it’s current state it’s not, perhaps NaturalMotion will get it right the next time.

Backbreaker Vengeance
Platform: Xbox 360
Genre: Sports
Release Date: 06/22/11
Developer: NaturalMotion Games
Publisher: 505 Games
ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
MSRP: 1200MSP ($15)