For the last five years, there’s only been one player on the NFL video game field: EA’s Madden. But with sales on a downward trend, the series is showing rare signs of weakness. Enter Backbreaker – a hungry, new breed of game intent on changing the way we play football. But how is it different from Madden?

The first thing you’ll notice about Backbreaker football is that it uses an up close and personal camera perspective to put you right in the middle of a given play. Instead of following the action from a bird’s eye view a la Madden, you’ll look right over your player’s shoulder. Rob Donald, the game’s Associate Producer, put it in perspective for us: “If you are running down the sidelines and into the endzone, then for the first time you SEE the crowd cheering you on.”

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This up-close perspective will add a lot of oomph to the game’s hits. And so will developer NaturalMotion’s proprietary Euphoria Engine. Instead of relying on motion capture, the Euphoria engine uses physics to figure out how every collision would actually happen. As Donald puts it, “We’ve managed to do away with tackle animations entirely.” Instead of canned sequences, Backbreaker will just open cans of you-know-what.

Despite the name Backbreaker, these impressive collisions will never lead to actual injuries. Unlike Madden and other football games that use a statistical model to randomly create concussions, sprains and breaks, Backbreaker will do away with injuries entirely. While this certainly creates a bit of cognitive dissonance (what could Backbreaker possibly refer to?), Donald says the team “decided to wait until we could properly represent injuries,” noting that “it’s not a big step from where we are right now.”

While it will be impossible to break a player’s back, it should be easy to deliver a big hit, thanks to the game’s commitment to simpler analog stick controls. Instead of relying on lots of face buttons (the Xs, Triangles, and Os of modern controllers), Backbreaker puts most of its moves on the right analog stick, and then uses the L and R triggers to modify the commands. For instance, if you’re a running back then you’ll be able to juke by tapping the R stick left and right. However, if you hold the R trigger down, you become aggressive, run faster, and deliver stiff arms with the same left and right movements of the R-stick.

Of course, another thing that separates Backbreaker from Madden is the lack of an official license. But Donald and company see this as an advantage. Says the producer, “Without a license you get to do what you want. You can be creative and are free to bring in your own ideas without being tied to the same thing year in year out.” In the case of Backbreaker, this means building your own team from the ground up and then competing with it. Just because the Dallas Cowboys aren’t in the game from the start, doesn’t mean they can’t be.

From there, you can use your custom team in Road to Backbreaker mode. This mode is unlike anything seen in a modern football video game, because it follows a format totally unlike the NFL’s. Notes Donald, “We wouldn’t have been able to do it with a license on board.” In Road to Backbreaker, you start in an easy league, then play your way into ever more advanced ones. It has more in common with progression in Mario Kart than Madden.

Of course, the big question is whether or not Backbreaker is better than Madden, for all its interesting angles. Will its unorthodox approach and innovative engine score points with football fans? And are they hungry enough for the gridiron that they can overlook the lack of a real NFL license? We’ll find out on June 1, when Backbreaker takes the field for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

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