Developer: NaturalMotion Games
Publisher: 505 Games
Available on: Xbox LIVE Arcade
American Football is, as Jimmy Greaves might say, a funny old game. To a lot of Brits, the stop-start nature of the action and often impenetrable array of stats can be a bit daunting. However, much like cricket (which remains similarly mysterious to our chums over the pond), upon further immersion and investigation, gridiron is a fascinating sport. A tactical masterclass and perhaps one of the ultimate team sports, seeing two accomplished sides throwing it down is a real thrill if you understand what is going on, which is why so many of us Limeys stay up until stupid o’clock to watch the Superbowl every year.
The sport has been well represented in the video game medium over the years. Even early efforts like the much beloved Tecmo Bowl succeeded because they nailed the basic premise and “physics” of the game, even if the visuals were dodgy. Legendary coach and US broadcaster John Madden then lent his likeness and unmistakable voice to his own franchise in 1988, and save for a few challengers to his throne (like the excellent NFL Blitz), Electronic Arts and the man who led the 1976 Oakland Raiders to glory have had a stranglehold on the pigskin-chucking games market ever since.
This does not mean that some developers aren’t prepared to have a crack at their own Yank sports games, and that is exactly what British developer NaturalMotion did last year when they Hail Mary’d their Backbreaker simulation into the fray. While not a terrible game by any means, it was no Madden. The passing game was weak, online modes were poor, there were no official licenses and there was little in the standard gameplay package that would make you select it in favour of EA’s officially-licensed powerhouse.
What it did have, however, was the excellent “Euphoria” animation system, which effectively meant that no two-player interactions were the same, and that rather than draw from a limited stock, facial expressions and other animations were created on the fly. This intriguing feature also meant that the running game was exceptional, giving a real sense of realism as your player attempts to reach the endzone, negotiating crunching tackles and blocks from your opponent.
The other big plus was the addition of the Tackle Alley mini-game, which involves attempting to run the length of the field toward the endzone whilst evading a series of opponents and racking up scores by performing spins, jukes and handoffs. With 100 levels, Tackle Alley was so ace that NaturalMotion decided to limit the iPhone OS and Android release to just the winsome side-game. As such, it recieved glowing reviews for its compulsive gameplay, sold a staggering 5 million download copies for iOS alone, and recieved a sequel of side-game tomfoolery which added more modes to the whole bone-crunching oeuvre.
Taking on board the fact that their full simulation game did not really cut the mustard, and counting the wads of cash the mobile phone apps netted them, for this downloadable Xbox Live Arcade sequel NaturalMotion have decided to concentrate solely on the minigame side of things. With three such game modes to choose from (some of which are upgraded versions of previously released iOS content) and well implemented online options, the resulting package does not spread itself too thinly, and is a far superior effort than its predecessor.
New to this iteration is the Supremacy mode. You would probably laugh if someone described a game as an arcade-style racer which replaces cars with hulking American sports monsters clad in helmets and armour. But that is pretty much what is on offer here, as you race three CPU opponents to the end zone, attempting to smash them out of bounds along the way to increase your score. You can also play with a buddy, and the losing entrant in each race returns in the next level as a tackler attempting to brain you as you sprint around the “track”.
Tackle Alley is as fun as ever. With the goal being to reach the endzone for a touchdown whilst avoiding enemy players and obstacles or running out of bounds, you soon forget that you are playing an American Football-based title, as you attempt to maximise your score on your way to touchdown glory. Opposition players come in different colours, and you recieve varying amounts of points depending on how you avoid being pummeled into the astroturf.
Some of them need to be vaulted, and others skittled out of the way, whilst some require a dexterous slide to get past. Incredibly, having to think about what button to press to pass various colour-coded obstacles reminded this reviewer of oddball side scrolling rhythm actioner Vib Ribbon, something I never thought I would find myself uttering whilst reviewing what is ostensibly a US footy release. There are a shedload of levels which get increasingly more difficult, and the end product is more reminiscent of the stellar likes of Trials HD than Madden.
Finally you have Vengeance mode, which is basically the opposite of Tackle Alley in so much as you control one of the gridiron behemoths as they attempt to tackle the shit out of a rival who is looking to score a touchdown. You are awarded extra points not just for hitting the ball carrier with a pelvis-exploding mega-tackle, but also for running over enhanced areas of the pitch that up your score. To progress through the levels you need to meet certain score criteria, so planning the best route across the pitch before trying to commit legal homicide becomes a strategic affair and requires, like Kung Fu Fighting, expert timing.
The three modes contain many, many waves to work through, and are supplemented by on and offline split-screen two player action, including some excellent leaderboards that let you glimpse the stats of other Backbreaking players around the globe. The franchise also continues to benefit from the quite remarkable Euphoria technology, which creates some truly incredible animations, including eye-watering tackles the likes of which legendary NFL Linebacker Lawrence Taylor would have been proud during his Hall Of Fame-level career.
VERDICT: First of all, do not consider purchasing this title if you are expecting to play a traditional game of American Football. Your first port of call in that respect is, and always should be, Madden. This is as far removed from the world of the NFL as Super Mario Kart is from Formula 1. And it is this ludicrous fact that makes this minigame package seem so fresh, fun and, well, mental. It looks superb. Running the gauntlet of obstacles and tackles feels devastatingly real, and despite the fact this is not a straight sim, I would go as far as to say the running game on display here is far superior than that in any other American Football game to date, even if you are running into tackle bags, jumping hurdles and sliding past different coloured defenders rather than taking stock of a complex tactical manoeuvre out of your coach’s playbook.
Conquering the many levels is a real challenge, and there are unlockables such as player uniforms that give added incentives to continue playing. On top of all of this, it is a right laugh playing against a human opponent, and is ideal casual fare in, for example, a post-pub setting.
It will certainly be interesting to see whether the clearly talented Oxfordshire developers continue to explore the world of this bewitching sport. They have a lot of work to do if they are going to produce a full-on Game Day experience, but clearly have the tools to do it if they can produce a passing game to match the rushing game they have mastered so well. If not, then we will be more than happy with some more outrageously entertaining minigames of this ilk.