As strange as it sounds, the full-fledged football action that last year's Backbreaker was built around was its weakest aspect. Thankfully, in this downloadable spin-off, the restrictive rules of the sport have been removed in favor of focusing on what Backbreaker does best: big hits. Vengeance is an expanded version of the original's violence-driven minigame, Tackle Alley. The startlingly realistic animations make you cringe with sadistic glee when you see ankles, arms, and even the titular backs bend in grotesque ways, and it's a riotous joy to slam these digital warriors into each other to see how their battered bodies will react. However, there's little else to Vengeance other than these catastrophic hits. Once you've seen the numerous ways a body can contort, the thrill dissipates, and you're left with little else to occupy your time. Vengeance is an entertaining showcase for spectacular animations, but the shallow action loses its appeal rather quickly.
Vengeance does away with the minutia that encompasses typical football games. The action still takes place on a regulation field populated by humongous players donning typical protective gear, but that's the closest this game comes to the real thing. Instead, you compete in a series of increasingly difficult obstacle courses that highlight big hits over strategy. Tackle Alley is the focal point of the chaos. In it, you start back at your own goal line with a field of defenders in front of you, and you have to score a touchdown. Spins and jukes are mapped to the right stick, and you use them in a pinch when a tackler is breathing down your neck, but to excel, you need to perform specific moves, depending on the color that surrounds your attacker. Yellow means you should slide under him, red indicates that you should hurdle him, and a purple hue demands a healthy shoulder charge.
In addition to these aggressive defenders, out-of-bounds sections placed on the field dictate exactly where you can run. Courses weave and snake along a specific path, and if you place even a single toe in the forbidden zone, your turn is over. Layouts funnel you along intricate routes, and you have to time your dodges to stay on your feet against the unrelenting pack chasing you down. Iffy controls do get in the way of the excitement. Your player corners like he has cement cleats bolted into his shoes, and it's maddeningly difficult to complete some of the tougher turns without stepping out of bounds. The pulled-in camera is great for highlighting the devastating hits, but it can be difficult to grasp your bearings at times. Despite these problems, Tackle Alley provides short-lived fun. Once you learn the patterns, Vengeance more resembles a puzzle game than football. Getting a high score means you have to run the most efficient route possible, and figuring out exactly which path to take while avoiding defenders requires dexterity and ingenuity.
Vengeance mode switches you from the offensive side of the ball to defense. It's still li'l ol' you against a bunch of angry players, but this time, you have to tackle the man with the ball while avoiding his angry teammates. There's a fine balance between building up your points and still making the game-saving tackle that gives Vengeance mode a different feeling from the other modes. You want to wait until the last possible moment to make the tackle, but if you dawdle too long, you end up conceding a touchdown and have to replay the level over again. In Supremacy mode, four players compete at once. You all begin on offense and whoever scores the fewest points is switched to defense. This is the weakest of the three modes because the course design isn't nearly as interesting. Though performing well is rewarding because playing offense is more fun than defense, the thrill pales in comparison to the other more-focused offerings.
Much of the appeal in Backbreaker: Vengeance comes from the over-the-top violence. Players crumple with disturbing realism, which makes even simple tackles a gruesome affair. What's really entertaining is just putting your player into horrible situations and seeing how he reacts. For instance, a padded hurdle is supposed to be jumped over, but it's even more fun to jump on it to see how long you last before toppling over. With every failed attempt, your player crashes to the ground in a new and painful way, and it's a blast to see what kind of misery you can make him endure. And at the end of each run, you can view the details in all of their excruciating glory. His ankle may bend clear backward, with his knee twisting in an unnatural way, and it's hard to keep your delighted squeals in check when you see your flexibility tested. Unfortunately, this is the best part of the game. And as fun as it is to crash headfirst into the ground with a vile neck bend, it's not enough to make Vengeance enjoyable for a long time.
When you tire of the single-player offerings, multiplayer spices things up. Two-player levels (online or local) are laid out in a different manner from single-player to increase the difficulty and force players to work together. Vengeance mode is far more enjoyable with another player by your side. You may be placed in seemingly impossible situations that require careful planning to complete. For instance, a gang of tacklers may stand before you, and you have to send one player out as a decoy while the other rushes in from behind to finish the play. Despite the fact that you need to put your heads together to come out on top, only one player actually receives points. This conflicts with the whole purpose. Without sacrifice, it's almost impossible to complete some of these challenges, but who wants to be the sacrificial pawn while someone else scores the checkmate? Even with this fault, two-player competitions are a lot of fun, and comparing injuries after a particularly nasty attack is a large part of the appeal.
It's a shame there isn't more depth to Vengeance because the core action is quite enjoyable. Putting football players through barbaric obstacle courses elicits sadistic thrills, and a handy replay feature lets you review the events in excruciating detail. But small problems, such as troublesome control and a restrictive camera, derail some of this fun, and a cloud of shallowness blankets the entire game. Once you understand the basic concept, there's little to Vengeance other than pushing the correct button when an opponent attempts to tackle you, which loses its appeal after a few hours. And, 1,200 Microsoft points is a lot to ask for what boils down to little more than a technical demonstration of the awesome animations. Backbreaker: Vengeance certainly fills the void if you love painful and realistic injuries, but the surrounding game leaves a lot to be desired.