Back in the mid ‘90s we’d sometimes get the chance to catch late night highlights of sports from across the Big Pond. American Football is a game that few people follow here in the UK. The constant breaks and drawing out of all proceedings general bores us – as a nation – to tears. These highlights thoughtfully skipped the intervals between the action, where fifty year old men with beer bellies would play a few rounds of noughts and crosses in front of the team while they got a breather, and showed you what mattered – the precision throws, spine shortening tackles and touchdowns.
Backbreaker Vengeance does a similar job in giving you the prime cuts. The premise is taken from the Tackle Alley mini-game from Backbreaker, combining it with the ease of use and pick up and play mechanics from the iOS series to create a bone crunching arcade title. Trouble is, when you have just the tackles it can become stale rather quickly.
My first time with Backbreaker Vengeance was through split-screen. What was meant to be a trial of the two player mechanics soon turned into a late night gaming session. The game is so much more fun when shared. By the end of the session we’d played through all the modes and close to every wave was complete. It was a one night stand.
The focus of Backbreaker Vengeance is on getting the most points. However, during local play this was discarded because you often need to work together to make it through each wave. Or at least play off what the other person does to get by. There should have been a dedicated co-op mode. Perhaps with a pass-the-pad mode for four players included, with the highest scoring player going first in the next wave and so on.
Taking time to plan your attack to divert attention from the other player as they sneak through the defence, or both running side-by-side, barging aside any incoming tackles was much more rewarding than selfish tactics. As such, we didn’t care who’d won the most sets, only that we were victorious once again, together. Having separate scoreboards for co-op teams would have been an incentive for repeated attempts, making this a split-screen must.
Playing on Xbox Live, however, makes more sense of the point system. You’ll push and shove each other to try and get to the next point zone first. But you’ll still need the other player to make it so far in order to distract enough of the opposing team. Trying to make it all the way on your own will end up in a rather unpleasant man sandwich. Unfortunately, with the game’s focus on pressing the right button at the right time, any slight lag can cost you the game; something that happened a few times.
Selecting any mode brings you to a screen where you can make slight alterations to your player; including name, colour scheme, skin tone and number. These are then saved, adding a nice personal touch to your champion. When playing competitive games locally the scores are temporarily stored, so you can see who’s won the most sets so far.
In total, there are fifty single player challenges – each with five waves across the three modes. That’s two hundred and fifty waves to play through, not including the multiplayer waves that are separate. When playing on your own, you have five lives to complete each wave. Failure results in you starting the challenge from the beginning. When playing through the modes it can be easy to lose the motivation when not sharing the experience with someone else.
Like in multiplayer, the main goal is to rack up the highest score possible without being flattened like an omelette or breaking an ankle. Throughout the waves are point zones. Run through one and you’ll get a bonus, or perform a set action against a stationary object for additional points; leap a barrier, for example. Showboating towards the touchdown will gain extra points, risking that last second tackle for a higher score. The scoreboards in the challenge menus then show how you rank in the world for that month.
The three game modes have a different core objectives. Tackle Alley has you sprint for the touchline, obtaining the highest score possible without being hammered to the ground by a running block of muscle. The opposing team’s players are out to stop you. To give this a twist, red areas are out of bounds and additional obstacles hamper your progress. Vengeance is a similar setup but this time the other team has the ball – an ethereal glow from the heavens on the ball carrier – and you need to land that vital tackle.
Supremacy has four players compete to make it to the touchdown zone first. The losing player then becomes the tackler, earning points for bringing someone down in the next round. The tackled player then becomes ‘it’ and so forth, with the points of the waves combined at the end to announce the winner. The first waves are dull in this mode, as it appears to be a stripped down version of Tackle Alley without the danger. Then you accidentally trip another player into the out of bounds area or knock them over as you leap an obstacle, putting them out of the wave and into last place.
Once that happens, it becomes enjoyable as you try to knock each other over but still suffers from being the most basic of the modes. Also, as the tackler, you can only take down one player, and then your turn is done. You lose control and sit watching the remaining players sprint for the end. Being able to get up and chase those players, cutting through out of bound areas as a shortcut, perhaps with a speed boost, would have made that last stretch to the touchdown an energetic rush.
All of the modes are variants on a central theme: tackles. By completely cutting out everything else about the sport there is a distinct lack of variation. Including occasional throwing or some more bizarre waves would’ve given this depth. And as an arcade title it has the licence to be a little more abstract and toy around with the sport. The foundations are here and now it needs some fresh ideas.
The Euphoria engine is a breathtaking piece of tech. Every collision has a real sense of weight and tackles never do look the same. Clipping your foot as you leap over an obstacle will send you tumbling, and there’s some gasps to be had at the particularly nasty falls. Seeing a replay of a crippling tackle is great; especially when you can see how every touch made an impact on your character. It’d be nice to see some reactions from the players though, as landing on the back of their neck with two 250lb men piled on top causes no discomfort. The engine is also backed up by impressive visuals.
Everything looks smooth and full of life. The green of the pitch doesn’t look flat and the lighting makes the players look formidable. The presentation of the game is to a high standard; the rain coated background images help to create the feel of being on the pitch. Although it does use stereotypical beats that sound stripped from some awful MTV programme that overdramatises everything. The camera is low and in the action, giving it an intense feeling but one that can make distances hard to judge. There’s an ambient low rumble as you sprint down the pitch towards victory; like the sound of a passing coal train.
The most important element of Backbreaker Vengeance is in the player movement. If this was inaccurate or unresponsive it’d cripple the game. Tackles can be dodged by ‘juking’ or spinning away from an incoming dive. A simple flick of an analogue stick will shift you to one side, inches away from the grasp of the opposing team. Sprinting is easily done and hampers your turning ability; it feels like a third-person shooter. The opposing team members also have a colour specific hue indicating what kind of tackle they’ll perform and you can earn extra points for pressing the corresponding button to dodge.
This comes together to create a fluid movement system, however, all the red highlighted players should have been green to coincide with the colour of the button required. As the later waves become more difficult, the available paths becoming tighter, it’s exhilarating to make each dodge with a hairs width, spinning and sliding under waves of bone splintering tackles.
Turning is awkward though, veering sideways feels more like a car than a human being. It suggests you’re only meant to move forwards, but sometimes you’ll want to turn around, run across the back of the pitch and around the out of bounds area to make that crucial tackle.
If my first time with this game wasn’t with a friend my impression would have been soured. To only play the game on your own would be dull, and at best somewhat tiresome. Playing with another person comes recommended; it’s much more fun. Like kicking a ball against a wall, it’s much better when someone else is doing it with you.