Screenshot via Operation Sports
I has been nine days since the release of EA Sports's latest iteration of their NCAA Football series. It speaks to the power college football holds over my soul that, for the ninth day in a row, I will play this game for an extensive period of time.
You see, NCAA Football 13 is not a great game. In fact, it's not even a particularly good one. For every advancement from last year's edition, there's a new glitch or gameplay issue that mars the playing experience. This isn't new, of course—you could say the same about every edition since NCAA 05—but it's especially true for a game that had so much initial promise but once again fails to completely deliver.
Then again, I'm still playing, with two active dynasties and a burgeoning Heisman Challenge that weds my favorite NFL player of all time to the school I attended. For me, it's an impossible-to-shake relic of my childhood: eager anticipation, the midnight release (yes, I went there), the first sleepless night (always starting with a Michigan dynasty), the download of fully-named rosters, the ritualistic ass-kickings handed to my little brother, and so on. For me, NCAA is as much a staple of summer as hot dogs and baseball, and I've come to terms with the fact that the game will inevitably disappoint, and I will inevitably spend countless hours playing it anyway.
I know I'm not the only one like this, so this review will be a little different; yes, I'll lay out the positives and negatives, but much of this post will be dedicated to finding ways to enjoy this game in spite of itself. Because let's be honest: if you're reading this, you probably bought the thing already.
The hallmark advancement of this game is the long-overdue overhaul of the passing system. No longer do all your passes fly on the same trajectory, begging to be intercepted by a leaping linebacker or that corner who's not even looking. Now touch passes actually have—wait for it—touch, allowing you to drop a slick pass in between zones or launch a bomb over everyone. I love to run a passing spread or air raid offense, so to say this is a welcome change would be an understatement.
Another long-overdue tweak is the elimination of superhuman defenders; the linebacker playing the short middle zone doesn't climb the ladder to pick off a wide-open post route, and that cornerback whose back is facing you won't stick his hands over his head and somehow intercept that fly route when he's beaten by a good three yards. Again, this is a huge step in the right direction.
On top of those changes, this year saw the addition of hundreds of new animations for the receiver. This is not a video put out by EA, but a highlight I saved from one of my own dynasty games:
The height of realism? Okay, probably not, though it's worth pointing out that I've seen that animation exactly once in the time I've poured into this game. There are many others, including Calvin Johnson-esque one-handers that will make you rise from your recliner before pausing to check out the instant replay in super-slow-mo. This game has its moments, to be sure, and many of them occur when you're airing it out downfield.
The game encourages a far more disciplined approach to playing quarterback, as well. Receiver icons don't appear until the player is "looking" for the ball; an immediate throw after the snap results in an ugly incompletion at best, an interception at worst. The game now executes a 3-, 5-, or 7-step drop for you, and throwing in a rhythm with your drop really does produce the best results. Recklessly rolling out when the play doesn't call for such will usually end in a sack; if you want to take advantage of your mobile quarterback, learn how to step up in the pocket and get under an edge-rushing DE to break a play open. These changes make the passing game not just a new experience, but a very enjoyable one, though there's two large drawbacks that I'll cover later.
In past games, running out of the shotgun was out of the question. In this year's edition, the zone read can be very effective, and all that separates you from a potential big play is correctly reading the defensive end. The "gotcha!" feeling when you correctly keep as the DE crashes down the line will have you strongly considering a move to RichRod's playbook (okay, maybe not).
Then there's the lynchpin of the series, dynasty mode, where you take the reigns of any NCAA team as the head coach or either coordinator and grind your way to the top (or at least a new contract). This year, it's deeper than ever, which should greatly appeal to those who take a more strategic approach to playing the game.
Recruiting is much-improved thanks to the new scouting feature, which gives you three hours a week (plus an extra 20 when setting up your recruiting board before the season) to unlock player ratings before divvying up your available phone call time. This adds to the realism—coaches have much more information in real life than star ratings and an approximate 40 time—and also makes it much easier to choose between multiple recruits at the same position.
ESPN is more integrated into the game than in previous years, with in-game score updates from Rece Davis and a bottom line with scores from all over the country. The updates do get repetitive after a while—Rece only has so many pre-programmed statements—but they're easy to skip if you find them a bother. I appreciate the efforts to make dynasty mode more of a story; they capture the scoreboard-gazing dramatics of college football quite well.
The big gameplay mode addition this year is the Heisman Challenge, and if you've seen the commercials you know you can take players like Desmond Howard, Eddie George, and Barry Sanders and put them on any team you'd like. The presentation here is also solid, as frequent videos featuring the Heisman winners discussing their careers are interspersed into the gameplay. You'll have to decide for yourself if you prefer playing as a receiver, running back, or quarterback; all have their merits and demerits, but it's possible to enjoy yourself at any of the positions.
Issues with computer AI abound and threatened to ruin what should be a great game of virtual football. While the passing game is much-improved, two issues need to be addressed. The first is the rampant prevalence of sacks; if you don't tweak the sliders, expect the DTs to have an absolute field day for both teams. All too often a DT is able to blow right by the interior line and destroy a play before the receiver icons even appear, and it's not unusual to see both teams approach double-digit sacks in a game with five-minute quarters.
Those sacks, however, are rather necessary considering the passing game's other issue: safety play that makes 2010 Cam Gordon look like Ed Reed by comparison. Streaks and posts from the slot are nearly unstoppable as safeties routinely stand still while the receiver gallops past, regardless of the defensive playcall. If you want to win just about every game, all you need is a cannon-armed QB and one tall, fast receiver; the rest is just exploiting the glaring holes in the defense.
It's asking too much of EA to expect them to overhaul the running game and defense in a year where they did so much with passing, but I still have to stick those two categories here. It's difficult to run in the game, though not because the defense is remarkably stout; instead, the running back regularly gets stuck behind the offensive line, helplessly churning his legs while his torso remains unmoved. There are very few unique interactions between the offensive and defensive line, as well, and none of them are particularly authentic.
As for playing defense, it's the same as it was for the last several years of this franchise: completely, utterly meh. I've toyed around with playing every position, but 95% of playing effective defense is still in calling the right plays and not totally screwing up your assignment. When the best you can hope for is often not being the primary culprit on a long touchdown, change is needed. Since so many players default to controlling one of the defensive linemen, I'd love to see EA turn their focus to making that part of the game more realistic and nuanced.
Yes, there are glitches, and they are annoying. These mostly involve defenders simply standing still as the play goes by. Here's a few screenshots of me playing as Michigan against Ohio State as the Buckeyes decide to call an option on 3rd-and-24. Keep your eye on the playside cornerback:
So far, so good; the CB is maintaining the edge.
Sweet, I forced the pitch! That CB should be right there to...
As you can see in that last screenshot, virtual J.T. Floyd—sorry, CB #8—stayed rooted to his spot at the 13-yard line, though he at least turned to watch the play go by.
That's not the only glitch, of course. Defenders often take pursuit angles that will trigger your GERG-related PTSD, even running right next to the ballcarrier for upwards of ten yards before finally taking one step sideways to lay a hit. The play above represents the only time I've seen the computer successfully run the option; most of the time the running back ends up running a good 5-10 yards directly behind the quarterback, making for both a very awkward pitch and a big tackle-for-loss. On occasion, a play will be blown dead as soon as a receiver or returner catches the ball, despite the fact that they're still standing (this one has only occurred a couple of times, but you can imagine the frustration when it does).
Computer playcalling is also an issue. For one, they're far too reliant on screens, calling them seemingly every third play; this does not go well in conjunction with the unstoppable pass rush. Clock management was apparently programmed by Les Miles. In one game, the CPU was driving, down seven in the waning moments of the game but with all three of their timeouts; after a first down stopped the clock with one second remaining, the CPU... tried to hurry up and ran out of time.
Seven Ways To Enjoy The Game Anyway
So, yeah, this is a very flawed game; I have another page of notes detailing various annoyances. But again, I've still spent hours playing and will play far more before summer ends and actual football fills the gaping void in my life. To salvage my gaming experience, and hopefully yours, here are seven ways to either improve the gameplay or enjoy yourself in spite of its myriad issues:
- TWEAK THE SLIDERS: While you'd like the game to get it right the first time, the gameplay sliders are there for a reason, and they can go a long way towards fixing issues like the pass rush and brutally efficient quarterbacks. I started playing with these sliders a couple of days ago and they make for a much better, more realistic game. Keep making little tweaks with those until you've found the sweet spot for your game.
- THE RECLAMATION PROJECT: We've all fired up the game and launched into a Michigan dynasty; it's only natural. Unfortunately (for gaming purposes only), Michigan is a freakin' juggernaut, and recruiting is cake at a school like that. Instead, go for the reclamation project; right now I'm trying to resurrect Ole Miss, no easy feat in a stacked SEC. Or you could go for, as my buddy Noah coined last night, the "Exclamation Project"—take a Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe, or Eastern Michigan and turn them into a national power. This is a great way to keep dynasty mode interesting after a few years, especially with the coaching carousel feature that lets you have a very realistic coaching career path; start at Eastern with the hopes of catching Michigan's eye, for example.
- CREATE A PLAYBOOK: Part of the great fun of college football is the wildly variant styles of play. The create-a-playbook feature is woefully underutilized, in my opinion, as it's great fun to devise an offense all your own and unleash it upon the world. Want seven different Wildcat formations? They're in there. Want to create a hybrid between the spread and the flexbone? As you wish. Want to feature your remarkable depth at tight end and fullback? The wishbone and Maryland I call to you.
- START YOUR DYNASTY AS AN OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: I won't argue with you that defense can be a bit of a drag, and if you agree, why not eliminate it? Head coaches may get all the glory, but you can start a dynasty as the offensive coordinator, as well; while you'll still recruit for your team, when you play the games you'll only control the offense. This is a great way to not only makes the games go by faster, but eliminate the part of the game you enjoy the least.
- TRY A NEW DEFENSIVE POSITION: If you don't like the idea of avoiding defense entirely, try to spice things up a bit by playing a new, more difficult defensive position. If you're usually running as a DE, try middle linebacker, where you can make more plays but also have greater responsibility. If you mostly play linebacker, take a stab at safety. And if you want to get hardcore, man, try your luck at corner; trust me, it's possible to not only survive, but excel there. The game is only as stale as you allow it to be.
- CUSTOM CONFERENCES: Last year, with conference realignment madness in full swing, EA introduced the option of customizing conferences and their BCS bowl tie-ins. That feature appears once again this year, and it's still great; you can recreate the old Southwest Conference, take the Big Ten back to the days of ten teams, or stick all the national powers in a superconference and see who's left standing when the dust settles.
- PUT BARRY SANDERS ON MICHIGAN: Self-explanatory, I hope.
NCAA Football 13 may have its fair share of AI issues, glitches, and shoddy gameplay, but it's still college football, fergodsakes. If you're looking to have have fun while passing the time until September 1st, there are far worse ways to accomplish that end.