Last year's NCAA Football was a significant improvement over the previous years. It brought us better visuals, deeper gameplay and, more importantly, it wasn't merely a primer for the real deal of Madden.
This year, EA Sports and EA Tiburon bring us more of the same, but with a few changes. So, if you're looking for a continuation of the large upward trend the series created anticipation for, you may be a little disappointed.
But that doesn't mean that game is bad. No sir, not by a long shot. Come see why.
One of the best upgrades from last year's version of the game has to be with QB animation and receiver reactions. Starting with the QB animation, you now have 20 new QB drop back animations, which is fantastic, considering how easily it was to be trapped in a O-line breakdown in the midst of your QB going through the motions when the ball is hiked. For example, you will find less moments during a play-action-pass where the defense absolutely obliterates you. I can't tell you how many times last year in NCAA Football and Madden where this was an issue. My QB would slowly run back, fake a handoff to the RB and then start setting up for a downfield look. By the time he had rolled back into position he was promptly destroyed by the opponent's defense. Heck, it's been this way for years and I'm not sure why they haven't corrected it until now, but I'm happy they did. That's one of the benefits with the QB animation, as the game now has more choices for your QB to move and isn't stuck in a slow pattern.
QB animation is also good with the 1, 3, 5 and 7 step drops. Beware of this, as most of us are use to pulling the QB back in position. You might find your QB 20 steps back from where you should be instead of the allotted amount of numbers above. Also be aware that EA Tiburon has made your life more difficult with the accuracy of your QB's position. It's worse to throw off the back of your foot in the game. You end up floating the pass instead of zipping it. Throwing on the run isn't as easy as it use to be, especially if you're receiver is on the wrong side of the field. Little 'outs' in the game that most players are use to, like the ones I just mentioned, have been sewn up in this year's version of NCAA Football. You will find more accuracy to the game, less give and probably a more competitive style of play. All of these things are frustrating, but guess what? All of these things belong in football, as most hardcore fans of this and Madden demand the most authentic version of the sport. Quite frankly, NCAA Football 13 delivers it.
Shifting gears, let's talk about the receivers. Instead of receivers that magically catch the ball they are thrown without even looking for it, EA Tiburon has made it more complicated to get your receiver to respond. When I say 'more complicated', I just mean that they have eliminated the chance for a receiver catching a ball if, and this is vitally important to the real game of football, they aren't looking. There were more than a few times where I threw the ball at a receiver running a route and it either hit them in the helmet or zipped right by them. The reason they didn't react is because they didn't see it. That's completely valid. Getting back to an earlier comment of 'real football', this is a step forward for football video games. You want an authentic feel and this can't get any more authentic, as it makes complete logical sense that a receiver couldn't catch a pass that they didn't know was coming. Granted, once the receiver sees the pass (their button icon goes from grayed out to solid to indicate visual confirmation of the football), he will do everything in his power to catch it. I had a player dive for a ball I threw five feet in front of him, and I've never seen that in an NCAA Football game. It was nice, refreshing and it was accurate (the reaction, not the pass).
Having said that, the system isn't completely flawless. While I aspire to be Tim Couch every time a new NCAA Football arrives at our doorstep (yes, I'm still stuck in the 90s), there are times where the pass is timed wrong or thrown into double/triple coverage. Instead of my receiver stopping, estimating where the ball is going to land and adjusting, typically the pass ends up blocked or an interception. This aspect of the game has been firmly planted into previous NCAA Football titles, and it's something that needs to be corrected. Better receiver AI should be accounted for when the QB makes a mistake. I'm talking about a pass where I'm zipping it to a receiver and he doesn't have time to react. I'm talking about a pass that is floated downfield, the receiver and defensive player stops and waits, and the receiver basically doesn't do anything to disrupt the awful pass. Eighty percent of the time my receiver will do nothing to help out this play, which is sad. This is especially frustrating when you have no control over your receivers in modes like Road to Glory. EA Tiburon needs to improve this aspect for next year's game and they'll end up with nearly perfect title.
Moving on, let's discuss AI. The computer AI in NCAA Football 13 has been vastly improved. The days of running the same play over and over and over again are through. You will have to expand your offensive and defensive planning a bit more than just 2-3 plays. The computer AI will catch on to repetitive offensive play calling. You will find yourself struggling to find receivers if you decide to call a Shotgun Vertical Out play constantly, which sends 3-4 receivers up field. You might have a 47-yard catch the first time, but the safeties and corners compensate for it if you call it again. It's intelligent and it helps you to explore other plays you may not have run. It also makes you balance out your throw/run play calling. I know that Madden and NCAA Football have struggled over the years with balancing the two play styles, with the run play being the most dominate. Thanks to improved AI you will have to switch back and forth between the two styles, and you're going to have to be clever with what you do.
Speaking of running, I have to give props to the improved option and pitch plays. Tiburon has done a fantastic job making both styles a bit more realistic and accessible in the game. Gone are the days where your QB runs up the middle and is destroyed. Gone are the days where your QB rolls out for a pitch or run and ends up getting pancaked or fumbling the ball during the pitch. There are great blockers and appropriate O-line movements that allow for such things to go over smoothly. Like I stated above, don't run these type of plays constantly or you're going to find yourself on the ground. They work damn good and they will help build your play book for when you go head-to-head against a friend (or non-friend).
On the defensive side of the ball, the computer can read and detect repetitive defensive plays you might be calling. Much like how it reacts to offensive plays, the computer will find out what you're doing if you've done it multiple times in the game. For example, I enjoy running 3-4 Engage Eight call. It brings the house on a nervous QB and generally ends up as a sack. I called this play multiple times in a row in last year's version of NCAA Football and found resounding success. This year, nada. I can run it 3-4 times a game at best. The computer's offense has done a better job with reading defenses and will make gamers work for their sacks and stops. I like that the computer can actually make life more difficult, as that expands the very nature of the game.
All of these gameplay improvements are a plus for the most part. I think there should still be a few more tweaks before NCAA Football 14. I'm pleased with the upgrades from last year, though they're not huge leaps. They do make the game far more accurate, though.
As for the glitz and glamor of NCAA Football 13, they've taken two steps forward and one step back.
The ever changing presentation of this series has been one of the biggest reasons why it has succeeded over the last few years. Starting with Tim Tebow's cover, the visuals have been severely upgraded to go head-to-head with the likes of its older brother Madden Football. The players no longer look like they belong on the Playstation 2, the uniforms and stadiums have been improved significantly, and the overall look and feel of the crowd has been upgraded to this point. Hell, I was booed for running up the score in Road to Glory. Who boos at a high school game? I was playing for an Alabama scholarship, people! I did get the scholarship, but I digress. The presentation of the game feels like a college environment, looks like one and is one. One of the bigger updates for this year's game is the true progressive lighting that has been enhanced (I always loved this portion of Madden -- as it felt like a Sunday when the sun was setting in the background and affecting the shadows on the field) and the replay animation has been vastly improved. You will see the replay animation right off the bat, and it looks darn sharp.
Having said that, there are still moments of choppiness where animation breaks on the sidelines or repetitive animation in the crowd. It's minor stuff, but it is noticeable because the on-field stuff looks sharp. Maybe one day we'll see it all work out where actual fans are in the stands doing fan stuff (getting up, chatting with each other, going to the bathroom, passing out drunk, etc), but until then it's more of the same non-improvement. Also, for some reason the field itself has been pulled back to flat photoshop grass. I'm not sure why, as last year's version actually showed some kick up of grass and waving grass blades, but this year's NCAA Football 13 decided it didn't need to have such trivial things. It's not a huge deal that the field isn't as presentable, but it is something I would like back in the game.
Other presentation improvements include the addition of 80 new stadiums, traditions and mascots. You also get some finely tuned ESPN break-ins with Rece Davis leading the way. I love Rece Davis and I'm glad that the man is getting some well-deserved recognition. He is the voice of Saturday morning ESPN college football and it makes the presentation of the game better. Plus, he works well with the Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreit voice overs. It's a nice combination of personalities that make it feel like you're watching college football. That's the reason why you like this game because you want to be a part of something similar to the Gameday experience, and NCAA Football 13 brings it.
To wrap up this review, let's talk about the new Heisman Challenge that is in this year's update and Road to Glory. Starting with the Heisman Challenge, you get for the first time to run out on the field with an ACTUAL player. Names like Herschel Walker, Eddie George, Charlie Ward and Robert Griffin III are just a few to highlight this mode. You get to play as the Heisman winner and live a season of glory by accomplishing feats and goals in a single season. It's much cooler than I can describe, and it's an awesome addition to the NCAA Football family. On top of playing the Heisman winners, you can also place them on any team you want. That's right, Kentucky, it's time for some much needed glory in the football department. In addition to all of this, there are some great interviews with the players and information about them. It's quite lovely stuff for the NCAA Football series.
As for Road to Glory, which isn't new to the NCAA Football franchise, there are some vital improvements. First and foremost is that they've added an element called Reaction Time, which is tied directly to a player's awareness rating. When activated, the play on the field slows down and gives the player enough time to react to what's going on. For example, if you're a QB trying to find a receiver and you need to think about things then you may activate it. You only get a limited amount of time to use it, and you have to build it back up once it's used. It's great when you're trying to build a high school player into something special. To be honest, though, I didn't use it but once. I can see the purpose of it, and appreciate it, but it's still more fun to challenge yourself with letting fate play out for your would be superstar on the field. This mechanic is also available in the Heisman Challenge mode, but why would you need it? You already have a future Heisman. Other improvements with RTG include better AI, nicer scouting reports and the addition of kick and punt returns.
So, with all of these tweaks, is the game worth your time and money? You won't find a giant leap from NCAA Football 12 to 13, but you might think the tweaks and upgrades in the overall gameplay is worth it. I'm a diehard fan of the series (and Madden), so it feels worth it especially when baseball is the only game to watch during this time of year. For the casual sports gamers out there, this might be a try before you buy situation. It's a $60 game, so it might be hard to justify the money without having a bit more bang for your buck. Again, NCAA Football 13 isn't bad, in fact it's quite good, but it isn't exactly completely new like NCAA Football 10 - 12. Personally, I think it's worth the money, but again I'm the hardcore gamer.