Reconsidering BackbreakerS

This past week I had so much fun tinkering around with a game that I'm almost embarrassed to go back and read my original review. Because I was very hard on Backbreaker.

I was far from the only one. Praised for its exceptionally realistic animations and luxurious visuals, Backbreaker was ripped, deservedly, on the building blocks of a football video game. Playing defense may have been a real blast - an uncommon thing to say about football, or any sport, really. But the design priorities that made it so also made a critical position that more people want to play - quarterback - more difficult and less enjoyable.

Something still keeps dragging me back to this game. I don't think Backbreaker has gotten enough credit for presenting a team sport as it is played as opposed to how it is experienced on the television. There are exceptions to such a blanket statement; Madden's camera angle doesn't conform to the standard broadcast, either. Nor does hockey's. But in replays, commentary, transitions and graphics, sports gamers are continually served the idea that this is something watchable, because when you can't relate to the acts performed on the field or court, that translates to realism.

Backbreaker boldly focused its realism on the acts themselves, and executing them in less-than-certain circumstances - the mayhem of real football - without god-mode awareness of the other 21 players on the field. That's why blitzing your cornerback untouched to the quarterback for a sack is always a thrill, whether you're leading by 14 or trailing by 21. The view it presents of a single player in a team game makes the action more intimate and personal than its contemporaries. And as a running back, shoving a defender to the turf in this game is the most gratifyingly manful expression of virtual athleticism I've ever made - and I think that's what keeps me coming back.

By itself, this may not be enough to recommend a game for purchase. But this could have a transformative effect on sports gaming down the line - especially as motion control comes aboard.

Not that it teases any new feature, or follows Backbreaker's lead, but the very popular "Blink" trailer for Madden NFL 11 definitely senses and indulges that desire to play the game on the field, rather than direct 11 players from an offensive coordinator's perspective. Madden creative director Ian Cummings acknowledged as much in this interview, while still cautioning that "there are tons of challenges with actually playing the game that way, and to most folks it's more of a gimmick than anything else."

Maybe that's because, in the generation of hardware capable of supporting such a presentation, it's been tried only abortively.

This week I got an old copy of ESPN NFL 2K5 for a couple of reasons, one of them being First-Person Football. It debuted in the previous year of the game, and even then, it wasn't truly the first to try it. Madden 64 - incidentally, the last Madden title without league licensing - attempted something like it with a helmet cam.

NFL 2K5 supported it as more than just a camera mode. But the view is taken up by so much of that clunky helmet-and-facemask graphic, and I didn't really feel connected to my player's agility, or any of his physical traits. Figuring out where other players were in relation to you was also rather confusing. You could also bullet-time the situation, to give an assist to those who don't have the fast-twitch decision-making instincts of an elite athlete.

Though it's a more difficult mode that many called gimmicky, what ended First-Person Football wasn't a design decision but the death of the title itself. So who knows how long this would have lasted or what adjustments to it, if any, were considered for a possible NFL 2K6. Maybe Visual Concepts could have, ultimately, made that connection. Maybe it would have backed things out to a close third-person camera, which is what Backbreaker did. The perspective was necessary to the purpose of that game -showcase the collisions rendered by the Euphoria engine - but it's also far more manageable than true first-person.

The other advantage of on-field perspective is how it gets a studio out of the common complaints of sports game presentation by removing the circumstances altogether. Namely, that the commentary is lifeless, or repetitive, or that between-play animations are drab. The dirty secret is that designers know this kind of interstitial stuff is something gamers click through to get back to the action, so it takes a real will - and money - to keep that part of a game fresh. That's why Madden NFL 11 deserves some respect for making that commitment this year.

While Backbreaker plainly didn't have the budget to build that in, it didn't matter. It would have been counterproductive to the experience. Perhaps by showing how unnecessary these expensive broadcast trappings are in an alternative presentation of a sports game, Backbreaker can encourage smaller sports developers to jump in with games more focused on the field.

Backbreaker's as-you-play-it innovation wasn't supported enough by solid football video game fundamentals to make it the kind of must-buy hit that a lot were hoping for. Still, it does question the establishment in ways vastly more meaningful than just being an alternative to Madden. That's not going to pay much of a dividend of thanks today. I think it will in the future.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.