A lot of the discussion about Backbreaker begins and ends with the technology that drives it. I think those discussions are a bit detrimental in the grand scheme of things, yet at the same time, those discussions are an advantage as well. People may get swept up talking about the technology far too much -- ignoring the fact that the game behind the technology still has to be strong -- but at the same time, the Euphoria technology guiding Backbreaker is a definable trait that clearly separates it from any other football title or sports game out there. It's a talking point, and it's a rally point for gamers out there who want to support the title.
Backbreaker is also a enigmatic title because there has been so much talk about the game, yet so little is actually known about it. I cannot think of another sports title during this generation that has generated so much buzz with so little public relations, media or whatever else driving the discussion. Perhaps it's because it's a football title, or perhaps it is because early videos for the game were shown nearly two years ago at this point. Nevertheless, whatever "it" is, it's sort of irrelevant. People are simply beguiled by Backbreaker.
And that's why I was interested to finally see Backbreaker at E3. I did not for even a moment get to touch the controls during my 30-minute meeting behind closed doors, but I at least got to see a game -- a real working game -- at a point when Backbreaker was close to being considered a blip in somebody's fever-induced dream.
Vaporware No More
Before going on, I first must preface what I am about to say by giving a quick backstory about NaturalMotion, the development studio behind Backbreaker. For those unaware, the developers at NaturalMotion created the Euphoria technology that powers the physics and animations in games like Grand Theft Auto 4, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and, of course, Backbreaker.
I mention those facts because I already knew NaturalMotion was a tech-driven company before I went to the meeting. In other words, I was a little apprehensive about seeing a game made by people who have only created tech, not entire games. After all, why should the people who just focus on technology in games immediately know how to make good games? Thankfully, within the first five minutes of the meeting, I found out that before the project even started new developers were hired to work on Backbreaker.
Beyond that initial concern, I wanted to know what type of football game this was going to be. It seems that the developers at NaturalMotion are shooting for a game with a "relaxed" gameplay style that is meant to fall somewhere between a game like Madden and a game like [i]Blitz[/]. There may not be completely over-the-top hits or powerups like in [i]Blitz[i/], but it also doesn't seem like the game will strive to be a complete simulation out of the box like Madden. The Blitz comparison is also valid because the developers clearly want this game to be considered "gritty" and intense.
The developers are aiming to accomplish that intense feeling by using a third-person zoomed camera that stays only with the player the user is controlling. So when you select a running play, you will come out of the huddle as the running back. If you select a passing play, you will come out as the quarterback. On offense that camera system seems fine, but on defense that system is still in flux. As of now, you cannot switch players on defense after the snap. The reason you can't switch players is because there is not a camera system in place yet that would work correctly (i.e., when switching players mid-play on defense, the camera system is not advanced enough yet to switch to another position on the field while also maintaining that third-person zoomed camera).
The third-person camera is an interesting choice because clearly the developers were influenced by Gears of War. The third-person camera is very close to the one found in Gears, and Backbreaker also includes the Gears of War "roadie run" (shaking camera when going into "aggressive" mode). But while the camera certainly helps you feel more deeply involved in the game, it also seemed less than ideal at points. The camera issues seemed most pronounced during running plays: When the running back ran towards the sidelines, it was really hard to see any oncoming defenders that were charging up the field to maul him.
At this point, the camera still has to evolve, but it also has its moments. As the quarterback, you have the opportunity to focus extra hard on a single wide receiver. When you do focus on a single wide receiver, the camera narrows and creates a sense of tunnel vision for the QB. So the QB gives up some of his peripheral vision to hopefully throw a more accurate strike. The downside is that the QB might miss the looming safety who is ready to intercept the pass.
Another "gritty" element that the developers have added deals with the sound on the field. While I was not overly impressed with where the audio was at this stage, I can definitely see what they are going for in this area. For example, during some of the bigger hits, there was a striking crunch that my ears appreciated. I could also hear the ball carrier's labored breathing as he ran down the field during a long run. Essentially I just hope that the audio element stretches out to something like the verbal back-and-forth between both teams at the line of scrimmage.
The Nitty and the Gritty
I mentioned the "aggressive" mode a little earlier, so I should probably explain the controls a bit. Most of the important controls are situated on the two analog sticks, and the two gameplay styles on offense are "evasive" and "aggressive." While in evasive mode, you can do jukes and so forth on the right stick; you can also do spin moves by spinning the right stick in a 360-degree motion. While in aggressive mode (initiated by pressing the right trigger on the Xbox 360), those jukes turn into power moves. So while sometimes you may want to finesse it, other times you may just want to put your head down and steamroll someone.
As the quarterback, you will have a primary receiver who glows before the snap -- pre-snap you can change who you want as your primary receiver. After the snap, you scan the field by moving the right stick horizontally. Each receiver will light up as you focus on him, and then when you throw the football -- by moving the right stick in an upward motion -- the football itself will glow as it heads towards the receiver. For those who do not want to deal with the glowing football, there will be an option to turn it off in the final build.
The bottom line is that when it comes to controls, it seems like the analog-stick revolution will continue with Backbreaker.
Graphically, I was less than impressed with this admittedly early build of the game. The crowds, the lighting and the two stadiums that I saw were impressive enough, but the textures, players and uniforms were subpar visually. If the game is going for a gritty look, then the graphical style needs to be dirtied up a bit to complete that vision.
There will also be a ton of fictional teams in this game. I did not receive a hard count, but it seems like the developers are trying to cram as many teams in as possible. If you're not into the default teams, the developers have also implemented a create-a-logo/end zone system that is described as "Forza-like." Just to be clear, though, the jerseys themselves will not be as customizable as the logos that are slapped on the helmets.
A Fermenting Dream
Moving beyond those elements, I must say that as boring and predictable as it is to write, what is most exciting about the game is still the promise of the technology. Whatever buzz word you want to use to describe it -- dynamic, static, divergent, limitless and so on -- the tech is why people care about the game. However, all of this is dependent upon the technology working correctly, which is still not a given at this point.
I loved that the developer demoing the game was genuinely excited when he was able to show off a player getting upended and completely flipped over -- apparently he had been trying to show that off all day and finally got it to work at that moment -- because it proved that every other tackle that had been initiated in a similar scenario had not created the result the developer wanted. So when I think about that, I get excited about being whirly-birded around like John Elway did against the Packers in the Super Bowl. That excites me not only because it would be cool to see, but also because I know that if it happens in real life, it should be possible in the game.
In a perfect world, the technology driving the game is equally as exciting because momentum and a player's footing is also built into the tech. You should not be skating around on the field because everything is tied back into Euphoria. During a stiff-arm situation, if you don't get your arm out in time and fully extended, you should not be rewarded. A fumble won't happen because of a rating crunch or a dice roll, it will happen because a player's helmet hits the football or a defender yanks down on the ball carrier's arm.
These are the types of promises that have been made, and these are the types of promises that I heard during the demo.
The problem is that not all those things might happen. While I witnessed many great things, I noticed instances where a ball carrier went down after barely being touched. I also observed instances where gang tackles were less than impressive. Simply put, during the demo I never felt like I was watching something that would be perceived as real. I never felt like if I looked beyond the graphics that this would be considered something resembling reality. Now, perhaps that is not what the developers want to pull off, but if the technology is supposed to represent something that is more realistic than anything out there, then I think its reasonable to want the players to move and interact like ones you watch on Saturdays and Sundays.
Either way, so much is still unknown about the game. Everything from the artificial intelligence to the playbooks and modes to how it actually plays while in someone's hands are all still simply question marks. I really wish I could be more definitive within this article, but the relatively short hands-off demo did not help to prove anything to me. On the other hand, it is also didn't make me believe that the game couldn't secure a spot in the football landscape. For now, more time will simply have to pass us by.
The version of Backbreaker I saw at E3 was still pre-alpha, and I thought it looked far from finished. There has been a rumor or two that Backbreaker would be releasing in 2009, but now all that is being said is that the game will ship "when it's ready." I would be very surprised if this game released in 2009. Then again, what do I know?