NaturalMotion has made a name for itself on the iOS platform with its Backbreaker Football series, which puts you in the cleats of a gridiron superstar. Whether you’re talking about the original Backbreaker Football or its recent iPad-only sequel, the games are notable for offering console-style graphics, a frenetic player’s-eye view, solid accelerometer-based controls, and bone-jarring hits. But you won’t find any name or logo of any actual team. Backbreaker uses fictionalized team names like Pioneers, Assassins, and—my personal favorite—Amberjacks.
That changes with NaturalMotion’s latest iPhone and iPod touch game, NFL Rivals. The developer has struck a deal with the National Football League, allowing you to play a Backbreaker-style game as one of the 32 NFL teams.
But NFL Rivals is about more than just slapping an officially licensed uniform on your virtual player and plastering a metric ton of NFL logos across the screen. The game also adds a social component by letting you rack up points for your favorite NFL team. Say you opt to don the uniform of the San Diego Chargers, as all right-thinking football fans should: Every time you play NFL Rivals, the points you accumulate are added to a global ranking along with all the other scores of your fellow Charger fans. So the more you play, the higher you can push your team up the NFL Rivals scoreboard.
The game features another NFL tie-in as well: The schedule of opponents you face in NFL Rivals matches the actual schedule of the 2011 NFL regular season. The game’s Gameday feature matches you up with your team’s actual opponent for the week; for instance, this week, if I tap Gameday, my Charger-festooned NFL Rivals player would be taking on some inferior football squadron from the New England area.
The schedule component has a couple notable quirks. If you play ahead, you’ll notice that the schedule in NFL Rivals only extends out to Week 10 of the NFL regular season. There’s no indication on the game’s App Store page that a full season’s worth of games will be added in a future update; I’m awaiting word from NaturalMotion to see if such an update is planned. (Update: NaturalMotion tells me that it’s planning to update the game to include the full season of games.) Also, NFL Rivals accounts for the bye week in the NFL schedule by having you play your own team—it’s a little confusing to operate a Charger running back trying to elude Charger tacklers, but that’s a minor criticism.
If you’ve played any of the Backbreaker games—particularly Backbreaker 2: Vengeance—then you’ll feel right at home in NFL Rivals. As in those other NaturalMotion games, you control a running back trying to sprint down the field and into the endzone without getting tackled. Tilting your iPhone or iPod touch changes your running back’s speed and direction, while onscreen controls help you deke, spin, jump and bulldoze your way through defenders. In a Defense mode, you’re the hunter, not the hunted, with the on-screen controls helping you avoid enemy blockers. All the praise I’ve had for previous versions of Backbreaker Football applies to NFL Rivals: I really appreciate how the game puts you right in the action. My criticisms stand, too: I wish the jump control were more clearly defined so that I don’t tap another on-screen control by mistake.
A glance at the App Store page for NFL Rivals reveals some users have reported problems with crashing. I never had a hint of an issue during my tests. It’s worth noting that the graphics for this game, as with many of NaturalMotion’s iOS offerings, are pretty demanding—you’ll need at least an iPhone 3GS or third-generation iPod touch to play the game. (And as I said, NFL Rivals ran smoothly on my iPhone 3GS.) Earlier models of either the iPhone and iPod touch just don’t have the processing oomph, which may explain some of the negative App Store reviews.
Is the NFL tie-in enough of a differentiator from the other Backbreaker Football games? That depends on how much you want to don the colors and logo of your favorite team. Die-hard fans will probably love to see the Colts’ horseshoe, the Saints’ fleur de lis, or the Raiders’ eye-patch-wearing reprobate on the helmet of a video-game character they control. For me, the official uniforms and global rankings of NFL teams didn’t add much to the experience; in fact, I rather prefer the virtual teams of the other Backbreaker-style games. But for iOS game-loving NFL fans, NFL Rivals is another way to let you true colors show.
[Like the San Diego Chargers, Macworld.com editor Philip Michaels has a plan and is going to do it for his super fans.]
Updated on Sept. 23 to note that NaturalMotion plans an update which will include a full NFL season’s worth of games.