Monday, May 31, 2010

Backbreaker: Impressions (360)

I really want to like Backbreaker. Really, really, REALLY want to like it.

Wait. I do like Backbreaker. I like it quite a bit, actually. There are just a few things that are keeping me from actually playing Backbreaker.

If you don't want to muck about in the details, here's the most precise analogy I can give you: Backbreaker is like dating an incredibly hot woman who has a constant problem with passing gas.

You love to look at her, but you can't stand to smell her.

That's Backbreaker. Big chunks of this game are, hands down, the best ever seen in a football game. Big chunks of this game are so brilliant that they defy description.

The bad parts, though, are crippling. They're brutal. And they take a surpassingly brilliant game and essentially make it unplayable, at least in single-player mode.

Let's take a more detailed part, and let's start at the pretty. I always like to start at the pretty.

First off, even before kickoff, this game stands out. The menus are well organized, and the game options are well chosen. In particular, the designers have included the option to remove all visual indicators from the player you currently control, which is something I've been wanting for years. I know what player I'm controlling--I don't need a spinning circle or star to tell me what's going on.

The create-a-team feature is, bar none, the best I've ever seen. I spent almost three hours in the team creation feature yesterday, just fiddling around with logos and jersey designs. The tools are nothing short of spectacular, and it's possible to perfectly recreate every team logo you can imagine. The uniform creation tools are just as good, and if you wanted to exactly recreate the NFL logos and uniforms, you could do it with 99% fidelity.

In terms of players, there isn't as much flexibility. It's possible to choose how many "gold" players you have on offense and defense, but you don't get to choose the positions, and individual player ratings are not editable (although names can be edited).

Not being able to edit player ratings is going to make it more difficult to troubleshoot the game's problems, which I'll discuss in more detail later, and it violates the prime directive for development: never stop the community from helping you. This particularly matters in sports games, which rarely ship in a finished state and are notorious for having balancing issues.

Let's move on to kickoff, and boy, does this game shine on the field, at least at the play level. Individual plays are like highlight reels of absolute wonder--the animation system is so spectacular that it has to be seen to be believed.

It's not just the animation, though. In many ways, the A.I. in Backbreaker is far better than Madden, and Madden has been a football franchise for over twenty years. I've seen some some spectacular moments, A.I. wise, and because the animation is so stellar, these momens look absolutely and totally real.

I should mention the camera angle. There's only one, and it has been the subject of many complaints from people who are used to the angles traditionally found in other football games (in general, higher up and further back) . What this camera angle does, though, is create a tremendously visceral sense of the action. It's fierce. Hits are bone-rattling. It's generally terrific, and while I'd like to be able to raise the camera at least a couple of feet, it's not a problem.

Okay, after hearing about all the pretty in this game, you may be ready to drive off to the store and buy five copies.

Not so fast, my friends.

Here comes the gas, and believe me, the gas smells as bad as you can possibly imagine.

There are various kinds of fidelity required of a sports game, and it's required at different levels. In terms of individual play fidelity, Backbreaker is spectacular, because individual plays look very, very real, and players act very "real" as well.

However, per-play fidelity is only a subset of what a great sports game needs. Above the per-play level is the game level, and it's here that Backbreaker collapses. I'd like to think of a nicer word than that, but I can't, because "collapses" is accurate.

In a nutshell, the CPU A.I. is utterly incompetent on offense. They cannot consistently mount a credible attack--more accurately, only rarely do they mount a credible attack. Even on "Hard" difficulty, the highest level, the CPU offense is totally incompetent.

Teams have overall ratings as well as individual ratings for offense and defense. Anyone should be able to take a team from the lowest division, with an overall rating in the mid 40s, and beat the highest-rated teams (mid 70s), because even at that level of disparity, the CPU offense can't attack properly. Hell, I can run a simple Cover Two all game and beat those teams. There is zero sense of danger when facing the CPU offense, and there are no zero-sum choices to make.

In real football, defense is generally a zero-sum proposition. Every positive in a defensive scheme has a corresponding negative, and in many ways, it's a pick your poison situation. That's the way it should work, too: every choice must carry risk.

In Backbreaker, though, the CPU offense is so bad there there are no corresponding risks. I can sit in a simple Cover Two coverage all game long and the A.I. won't adjust.

Statistically, at the surface level, it's easy to spot the problem: interceptions and sacks. It's common to see 4-5 interceptions by the CPU offense, and another 4+ sacks (or more). Actually, the CPU ground attack isn't much, either. It's an offensive disaster.

What's more difficult, though, is accurately finding the cause at a more fundamental level, and here's where the lack of editable player ratings and a decent replay system hurt our ability to analyze the game (and in the process, possibly help the developers find the problem).

First off, the replay system doesn't have a camera angle that makes it possible to see everything that's going on, and it's not possible to move the camera. That makes it relatively impossible to find out how a play broke down. Was it pressure? Was it a bad read by the quarterback--did he have open receivers that he just ignored? Or was everyone covered and he threw the ball anyway, instead of trying to buy more time in the pocket?

Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.

We do know that sacks and interceptions are too high, which leads me to believe that the offensive-defensive line balance is uneven. Now, if I could edit player ratings, I could create a team with 99 rated offensive lineman, or edit an existing team, and then play an exhibition game against them. If the CPU offense suddenly started tearing me up, and I would know right there that the ratings could be tweaked to provide an exciting game.

Really, all these games have to be tweaked. I've never played a football game that was great out of the box. They don't exist. In this case, though, the toolkit to do anything about the problems is almost nonexistant. I can't even watch CPU versus CPU games, which is always a GREAT way to identify and isolate problems.

So I know that the CPU offense is so poor as to break the game, and I think the root cause is probably the offensive line, but I can't be definitive.

By itself, that's a game killer, but there's more. There are cases where the rules are just wrong. As one example, if the CPU team downs a punt in your end zone, you'll be starting your drive from the one-yard line, not the twenty. There are small rules mistakes and big ones, and that one is an elephant.

There have been other issues with rules reported, but that's the one I've seen personally, and it happens often enough that it's unbearable.

Another issue, and Backbreaker isn't the only game with this problem, is the lack of an accelerated clock feature. Madden, after decades of fail in this regard, finally got it right last year (thank you, Ian Cummings). It's simple, really--start with the standard 40 second play clock, and when a play is selected, run the play clock down to 15 seconds (or 20, if the user so desires). That lets you use 10+ minute quarters, and more importantly, it makes the two-minute offense, which is a huge part of the professional game, properly challenging.

With the automatic runoff, players can't afford to call plays in the huddle when they're in a hurry. They're forced to use the no-huddle offense, which is an entirely different environment, and it's very difficult, like it should be. The two-minute offense is a game within the game.

In Backbreaker, though, there's no run-off, so there's never a reason to even run a hurry-up offense. There's no time penalty for huddling. That entirely flattens what should be the most exciting part of the game.

It also breaks the two-minute period as used by the CPU. Since an entirely unrealistic number of plays can be run by the CPU in the last two minutes, there's no real reason to call a timeout unless there is less than thirty seconds left in the half. The CPU A.I., though, will take its timeouts much earlier. That wouldn't be unreasonable in the real word, but the way the clock works, there's no real reason to do so. And the CPU is also entirely willing to use up all three timeouts, without holding one in reserve for the last few seconds.

How is the CPU A.I. in the last two minutes of the half/game? It should give you an idea of how bad the CPU offense is that I didn't even pay particular attention to the two-minute A.I., which is usually one of my primary areas of focus.

In summary, it's disappointing. Seriously, this chick is SO HOT, but the gas is SO BAD.

I am slightly encouraged, at least, by the active role taken in the Backbreaker forums by the development team. They're noting issues properly, and they're not ignoring anything or denying that there are issues with the game. This makes me hopeful that they'll be able to release a patch that will make the game playable.

Seriously, I want to play this game more than any other football game I've seen. And the CPU offense doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be credible.

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