Backbreaker's Team Checks In Again With Icebreaker

In real life, I skate like a waddling five-year-old forever on the verge of crapping his pants. In Icebreaker, I'm light on my feet, spinning, deking, and sprinting away from the bowel-loosening checks coming my way.

At the end of it all, there's a shot on goal that always goes in. Icebreaker (99 cents), like its American football cousin Backbreaker on the iPhone, isn't about the scoring as much as how you play the game. This sometimes requires treating the threat with a little more seriousness than it deserves, but if you toy with the opposition, it will deliver some compact, satisfying, highlight-reel gameplay on all iOS devices.

Case in point: When I learned that tapping anywhere on the screen jammed my skates down and brought my player to a hard stop, it became my preferred tactic. It delivers a huge bonus to the performance review appended to the end of each round, in which you negotiate a rink stocked with defenders on your way to a one-on-one shot on goal against a hapless netminder. Hard stops are best when your pursuer's angle is close to 90 degrees- they fly right by. I deliberately picked up two defenders from the wings, let them get close, dug in my skates and watched them slam into each other like cartoon characters. I then laid on the showboat button, a staple of the Breaker games, and rode my stick like a pony toward the goal before shoveling in a backhander.

Icebreaker is the hockey version of the addictive "Tackle Alley" minigame that debuted in last spring's Backbreaker on the Xbox 360 and PS3, later ported to the iOS. In both you have an array of fakes and evasions to avoid contact, but where Backbreaker's object had you running to an end zone, in Icebreaker once you get there, you must also score.

This final act is not as exciting as it sounds; scoring is practically automatic once you get within a certain distance from the goal. Indeed, once you cross that threshold your skater will automatically move to the center of the ice for a better angle on the shot, and if you hold your windup too long, he'll eventually take it. The goalie is mostly for show; only if you deliberately run into him will he stop your shot. But the act of shooting is there to provide an exclamation point if nothing else.

The fun, then, is in the journey. In addition to the hard stop and simply steering away from trouble, Icebreaker provides spins and dekes in both directions, and successful evasions accrue points toward an overall round total that scores your performance from one to three stars. You get five runs to a round and 10 rounds to each of three difficulty levels. The rounds get progressively difficult with more defenders and red boundaries cordoning off your movements. The difficulty level both improves the defender AI and increases the likelihood his hit will flatten you. Any hit takes away a "life," and you start with four on the easiest setting.

Unfortunately, the hitting is where Icebreaker is a bit of a disappointment. It uses NaturalMotion's Endorphin engine, a real-time collision system that produces some spectacular blowups in Backbreaker. In Icebreaker on the iPhone, there were many hits that sent my player helicoptering across the ice with more force than the defender's momentum suggested. There's plenty of clipping, through characters, the boards or the ice, too. On the whole, the contact is less natural-looking than its studio's namesake suggests.

So the lack of contact, then, is where Icebreaker supplied satisfaction. On Pro difficulty, unlocked after the fifth level, defenders take better pursuit angles, start their checks later and finish them heavier, requiring more precise timing on your spins and dekes. The result is more satisfying and graceful than the easy difficulty, in which a spin or a deke triggered just about anywhere will get you out of danger, and some hits are shrugged off. I would have preferred pro mode to be available at the outset.

The game offers the 10-wave challenge mode in addition to an unlimited-play endurance mode. Team uniforms (many borrowed from Backbreaker's insignia) are unlockable and your player is modestly customizable. Leaderboards and achievements supply the bragging rights.

If you enjoyed Backbreaker or Backbreaker: Vengeance on the iPhone, then Icebreaker is a familiar fun experience. For hockey fans who haven't played Backbreaker, just know this focuses more on skating ability than scoring talent, as the goalie is pretty useless. But it does distill its sport's most exciting play, the breakaway goal, into a repeatable, replayable challenge that wrings a lot of value out of the buck it costs.

Icebreaker Hockey [iTunes]