Backbreaker Vengeance Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on Sony PlayStation 3
Backbreaker Vengeance is inspired by the sport of American football but ironically, this game is more suited to people who don’t want to play a simulation of the sport than to those who do. The simulation and complexity of American football has been completely stripped away. The gameplay has more in common with Stuntman Ignition, Joe Danger or Trials HD than a fully fledged feature packed simulation like the latest Madden game. The gameplay is so streamlined and focused that you will never even kick or throw a football.
In the game you will be running through obstacle courses, trying to build up your point scores and multipliers. In most cases your aim will be to reach the other end of the field (the end-zone) before time runs out while avoiding bone crunching tackles from rival players. You will be looking for opportunities to maximise the points that you score in order to earn bronze, silver, gold or backbreaker (the game’s equivalent of platinum) awards, to unlock the next challenge and to compete with your friends and the rest of the world on the leaderboards. It is an American football game for people who don’t like American football because it has simple arcade gameplay that anyone can pick up and play.
Backbreaker Vengeance is published by 505 Games and developed by NaturalMotion Games. Their previous game, just called Backbreaker was more of a simulation of the sport but it had its share of issues as well as the handicap of not having access to the official licenses. While the season mode in Backbreaker wasn’t met with universal praise it featured a very addictive minigame called ‘Tackle Alley’ which was well received. NaturalMotion Games took notice and ran with it, if you’ll pardon the pun and they have expanded on the concept to make Backbreaker Vengeance which is available through Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network.
NaturalMotion are based in the UK and are the same clever people who made the Euphoria physics engine. You’ve probably seen Euphoria at work in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. Euphoria offers “unique game moments” by simulating how objects and characters realistically interact with the environment they are in. This game certainly showcases this technology to great effect and it also uses their own Morpheme animation system and together they provide very life-like and unscripted gameplay experiences. These inject an element of unpredictability as you play where it seems like anything can happen but thanks to the responsive controls it always feels like victory is within your grasp.
Even moments when things go horribly wrong can make you smile rather than frustrate you. Get the timing of a jump wrong and you’ll catch your foot on the top of a hurdle and go cart wheeling forward and bash your head into the ground at a speed that looks extremely painful. Miscalculate barging into a tackle dummy and it can sometimes bounce back and send you flying base over apex to hilarious effect.
However, it is the player vs rival player interactions that provides the most adrenaline fuelled, heart pounding action. Each rival player is highlighted with a colour. I have been playing the Xbox 360 version so a yellow highlighted player indicates that pressing the Y button will make you slide beneath them as they try to make a diving tackle; blue indicates that you can press the X button to barge tackle/strong arm them and a red highlight means you can jump over them with the A button as they barge towards you. Picking the right move is the key but timing is just as important. Dealing with tackles head on like this will always earn you the most points (500).
Additionally, you’ll be able to juke (sidestep) or spin out of the way of rival players without losing forward momentum. These moves are performed with diagonal movements of the right analogue stick and soon become second nature but you will earn fewer points than dealing with players head on. As you make progress through the game the odds will increase against you and you will start to rely more on these moves especially when you are dealing with multiple players trying to bring you down.
Your multiplier will increase each time you interact with a player, jump over a hurdle or barge into a tackle dummy. Hurdles and tackle dummies are also worth 250 points. The higher your multiplier the harder it is to maintain it because you have less time before it resets and banks your score. Running through strategically placed score patches of 100, 200 and 500 point values will help build up your score and while these won’t add to your multiplier, they will stop it from resetting as quickly.
Brown dirt coloured ‘out of bounds’ areas contrasting with the green of the playing field make up the boundaries of each wave layout. There are often multiple routes through the playing field with a risk vs reward element to them. Each challenge consists of five waves with five completely different obstacle course configurations to master and you have five chances or lives for each wave. You need to earn at least a bronze score to unlock and move on to the next challenge, but to get the best scores you’ll want to be consistently good throughout all five waves and try to string all your moves together with a high multiplier.
The game features three single player modes: Tackle Alley, Vengeance and Supremacy. In Tackle Alley you’ll be carrying the ball and trying to reach the end-zone just as I have already described. In Vengeance mode you will be trying to bring down the ball carrier but all of the same rules still apply and you’ll have to navigate the course and intercept the ball carrier before he completes his run and reaches the end-zone. Supremacy is simply a race between you and three other players to reach the end-zone. If you come last out of the four you will start the next wave at the opposite end of the field with the goal of intercepting the player in 1st place who will be highlighted in gold. This is the only time in the game when you are allowed to run across the ‘out of bounds’ areas. In total these three modes encompass 50 challenges or 250 waves for you to master in single player or local split-screen play.
Backbreaker Vengeance supports online multiplayer with the standard quick match, ranked match and private match options. These use the single player modes of Tackle Alley, Vengeance and Supremacy but are limited to 10 challenges for each mode. Unfortunately, lag was a problem when playing these multiplayer modes online. It wasn’t the stuttering sort of lag but the game seemed slower and much less responsive. Since this is a fast paced arcade game that demands precision and quick reflexes this is a major issue for online play, but it does appear to affect everyone equally judging by the number of mistimed hurdle jumps I’ve seen online.
I have also experienced what appears to be a rare bug which prevents my single player scores from being uploaded to the leaderboards. The game thinks I am not online when playing single player modes but multiplayer rankings work fine. I have posted on the official forum and nobody else has mentioned experiencing this problem and I have tried downloading the game again and starting a new save file without correcting the issue.
The presentation is slick and on the field the game looks as good as a full-priced American football game but thanks to Euphoria and Morpheme technologies the player movements are even better than those in Madden. The stadiums look great and pyrotechnic fireworks accompany your victories as you showboat into the end-zone. The game has a good replay feature that either automatically shows your player’s weaving runs in slow motion or provides more in depth replay controls – but the lack of a feature to save/upload replays or screenshots is a missed opportunity. The game’s camera is much lower down and more like a third person perspective action game. When holding the sprint button the camera drops even lower behind the player and this can cause an issue where your player’s head obscures a player who could soon be trying to tackle you. You’ll learn to get round this by approaching at a slight angle or slowing down. I have also read complaints that the players don’t turn quickly and while this is true when you are sprinting, you will turn much more sharply at slower speeds.
The game does a good job of communicating time remaining, your score, multiplier and any points you earn are clearly displayed. These are accompanied by the appropriate and reassuring sounds as your multiplier increases and the less reassuring ticking of the multiplier as it is about to reset. When you sprint the surrounding atmospheric sounds muffle as your breathing takes over; only to be broken by the bone crunching sounds of tackles that never sound like they don’t match what is happening on the field. Aside from a rather loud and intrusive opening credits song the sound fits the game perfectly.
Backbreaker Vengeance has compelling reasons why it would be enjoyed by the wider gaming community, but it isn’t difficult to see why it might be overlooked or misunderstood. On the one hand its lack of features or any attempt to simulate the sport it is inspired by will alienate fans of American football. While on the other hand those put off by just the idea of American football are unlikely to go anywhere near it. It is to this second group of readers that this review has mostly been aimed at and why a more detailed description of the gameplay was included.
What is on offer in Backbreaker Vengeance is very well implemented, in single player at least, offering core gameplay that is very addictive, rewarding and eventually challenging. The game looks, sounds and plays extremely well and is a also superb showcase for NaturalMotion’s Euphoria and Morpheme engines. Yes it is limited in scope, it has some obvious issues in online multiplayer and it would definitely benefit from being sold at a cheaper price than 1200 Microsoft points. I have been playing this game on and off for months because it is so easy to pick up and play for a few minutes but tricky to master. It does one thing and does it extremely well. It can be a very addictive game if you let it get its hooks into you, especially if the idea of getting that perfect run through an obstacle course is the kind of challenge that you just can’t turn down.
Backbreaker Vengeance might be a one trick pony, but it’s a really good trick and man, you should see that pony run . . . and then get its legs broken in a bone crunching collision.