You've got to hand it to the folks at NaturalMotion, developers of the new football game Backbreaker: They've got stones. After all, with EA Sports having wrapped up the NFL license for the foreseeable future, there doesn't seem to be much room in the market for a relative unknown, much less an unknown, with no previous track record for sports game development. However, you won't be so quick to write off Backbreaker's chances once you see the game in action, as we did yesterday during a meeting with company reps.
The game is being developed jointly in Oxford, UK, and San Francisco, California. While we still don't know a lot about the nitty gritty X's and O's of the game's football gameplay, we do know that, once in motion, Backbreaker is different from any other football game you've ever played. The secret is in the Euphoria engine that's powering the game--technology that basically simulates the human body and its motion from the skeletal system outward. The result is that, when two bodies collide in Backbreaker, they react just as real bodies do--these aren't the canned animations you'd find in Madden, NCAA, or Blitz: The League, for that matter. These are procedurally generated, physics-based tackles that manage to rarely repeat themselves and also look great at the same time.
Consider Tackle Alley, a small feature that was the only playable part of Backbreaker today. Initially meant to be a simple tech demo, the feature grew in popularity and now will be included in the final game as an additional minigame. The idea is that you play as a lone runner, whose goal is to make it from one end of the field to the other while avoiding a host of psychotic defenders looking to cripple you at every turn. The running controls in the game are simple as can be--left stick moves the player and right trigger controls turbo. Juke moves and jumps are controlled by moving the right stick left, right, and up.
Throughout our time with Tackle Alley, we tried every juke move we could think of to get away from the defenders, from sidesteps and running backward to trying to leap over them. While we managed to avoid a few, it wasn't long before we were leveled by one or more defenders. It was impressive that no two tackles ever seemed the same. We saw a full-on blast that would knock the helmet off a real NFL running back and two-man tackles that sent our runner's body twisting at painful angles. We even managed to elude a few tackles or step out of a few ankle grabs to continue our march upfield. We never found the end zone, mind you, but we enjoyed trying.
Unfortunately, beyond that next-generation animation engine, we don't know a lot more about Backbreaker. A lack of a proper NFL license means that the dev team can take liberties with such things as team names, color schemes, and stadiums (indeed the huge stadium showed off during the demo held approximately 90,000 and looked like no other stadium you'd find in real life). We also know that the team is aiming for a "you are there" feel to playing football--evident in the Gears of War-like "roadie run" camera that is shown when you run while holding the turbo button down. Whether that immersive focus on the single-player will continue in the final game--as opposed to Madden's more elevated camera--remains to be seen.
Game modes, number of teams, playbooks, offensive/defensive control schemes, and even online plans were all subjects that NaturalMotion wasn't ready to talk about during today's demo, though we hope to learn more about all of these aspects of the game in the near future. While the technology behind the game is quite obviously impressive, it's in those other details that the commercial success of Backbreaker will be measured, especially in today's highly competitive sports gaming market. The game is currently on track for a 2008 release, and we'll be bringing you more on Backbreaker's progress in the coming weeks.