If the XFL was still around today, Backbreaker would be its videogame incarnation. It feels as though Natural Motion's first venture into the sports arena is trying to be over the top but isn't sure if it wants to leap head-first into the arcade realm. I think I would have been fine with the blend of arcade and simulation-style gameplay, but it's some of the game's poor design decisions that ultimately tackle it for a loss.
It's clear from the get go that Backbreaker has no intention of trying to be the next Madden. It doesn't feel like Madden, it doesn't look like Madden and it sure as hell doesn't have Madden's coveted NFL license. But not having the NFL license isn't Backbreaker's real problem. Instead, what hurts it is its insistence on deviating so heavily from the formula that has worked so well for past titles. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for switching things up from the norm, but there are tons of other ways to do it besides the methods attempted by Backbreaker.
First of all, these pro football players don't feel the way professional athletes should. Unless you're a defensive or offensive lineman, which are as sluggish as you'd expect, the rest of the players feel pretty much identical. Juking with a wide receiver should feel different from juking with a running back, but it doesn't. What's more, when you do juke with your running back, the moves take a split-second too long to pull off.
All of that would be fine if Natural Motion's euphoria physics engine was able to generate enough entertainment to keep things moving along, but it doesn't. That may or may not be the fault of the engine itself, I really don't know. For whatever reason, the guys at Natural Motion gave players one camera angle to watch all of the wonderfully physics-driven action play out. You'd think that once you select 'Instant Replay' from the pause menu you'd get to spin the camera around and check out all sorts of angles to show the zany physical interactions as they play out. That's not the case. Instead you get the same camera angle in replays as you do on the field with no abilities to upload your clip anywhere on the Internet or change viewpoints.
Thankfully, at least from what you're able to see from directly behind your player, the physics do live up to their billing as no two tackles are the same. Some are more impressive than others, but seeing the physics carry out never gets stale -- though sometimes it does falter. Every so often your running back will crumple into a ball of goo at the first sign of contact with another player. Sometimes I'd touch the back of one of my offensive linemen who was blocking a defender, only to have my running back fold up into a little ball. It's a very strange occurrence. The same goes for arm tackles which happen entirely too often. I understand if wide receivers are being taken down by safeties with a simple grab of the hand, but there's no way my fullback should be brought down by a defender who simply grabs on to my hip with one hand.
But before you start noticing any of these frailties, you'll first have to wrap your head around the control scheme that Backbreaker tries to present. I like the fact that Natural Motion tried something totally different from Madden's face button-focused controls, but I couldn't help but feel like I lost some of the abilities to which I had become accustomed. Take leading a receiver, for instance. Backbreaker's instruction manual says that I can do so, but fiddling with the right analog doesn't feel nearly as accurate as using a pressure sensitive face button in conjunction with an analog stick (this only applies to the pro play style). Thankfully other moves like juking to the left or right, stiff arming, and spinning would all feel fine if it weren't for the sluggish players.