Of all the annual sports franchises out there, few face quite the uphill battle that developer EA Tiburon faces with the NCAA Football franchise. Perhaps it is our inherent shallowness as a civilization, perhaps it is the affinity we share for the athletes we root for, but having a game without the names of any of the players makes it harder to get excited about a new, annual iteration of what is mostly the same game.
Perhaps that’s something we humans should be a smidgeon ashamed about as it’s just a tad superficial of us, but there is more to it. When it comes to a game like Madden, while there still need to be overall improvements to woo fans back, many can at least justify the purchase to play with the most updated team rosters. With NCAA Football, there is an updated roster in a general sense, and the teams are modified to match the current season’s projections, but playing as Drew Brees is more immersive than playing as “QB #13.” Plus, with the imbalance of power conferences in college football, the standings aren’t much different this year than they were two, three, even four or five years ago. Only the most dedicated fans are going to notice, or care about the difference between Sam Bradford’s 2008 Oklahoma team and Landry Jones’ current squad.
That isn’t a huge deal, but it is a factor when it comes to an annual franchise. Sure, it’s nice that my beloved Kansas Jayhawks football team went from sucking to sucking but with a new coach and QB, yet it needs more to really justify the price tag since it is fundamentally the same game that has been released over and over again. A new mode or two aren’t enough, it needs more.
NCAA Football 13 does offer more, but the changes aren’t going to be immediately apparent to the casual fans. Those that play the annual offerings though, those that really get into the in-depth details and mechanics of the game, will find a lot to appreciate about NCAA 13.
The object of the game is to score more points, also known as “touchdowns,” than the other team. You can do so by throwing the ball or—okay, okay, you probably know the ins and outs of football. If you are a longtime fan of the series, odds are you may actually know more about the game than some football coaches.
NCAA 13 features everything from the previous game(s) that you would expect, including a full list of plays based on multiple schools’ current playbooks, and complete customization options. There is nothing missing from this game that was in previous installments, and everything you would expect is there, plus a new mode.
The big inclusion this year is the Heisman Challenge. The mode features several former Heisman winners from years past (there are 16 choices in total, including a few that are unlocked based on pre-orders and will likely be available for purchase at some point) including greats like Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, and most recent champ Robert Griffin III.
You can play as the Heisman character of your choosing on any modern team, or you can play through the original season that won the player his hardware. Each player has a list of goals to hit in order to win the coveted award. You don’t need to hit them all to win, but they are a good guideline.
There is also a new Reaction Time feature, which is included in both the Heisman and the Road to Glory (create-a-character) modes. When you snap the ball (or the ball is snapped if you are playing a non-QB role), the faster you hit the LB/L1 button, the more time you will have in a slowed down mode that allows you to scan the field. I saw the benefits of it, but personally I preferred to run the play at normal speed to get into a rhythm. But it’s a decent addition for some.
The Heisman mode is for hardcore fans and hardcore fans alone. It is nice to be able to throw downfield as Charlie Ward, but the college players of old are there in name only. The stats for the chosen aren’t that different than many of the current players, and the older schedule is made for those that closely followed that particular season. There are well over 100 teams to choose from, so the variety of competition isn’t really an issue, and facing Cal in 1970 isn’t much different from facing them now. The mode isn’t bad, but it is more of the same with a new paint of coat.
Where NCAA 13 succeeds is in the gameplay mechanics. They are subtle, but for those that have been playing the game for years the tweaks are significant. They won’t make someone run out to buy the game, but they will be appreciated by people that intimately know the franchise.
Many of these changes are minor, but they add up. There are 20 new QB dropback animations, which includes 1, 3, 5, and 7 step dropbacks. This means the animations allow a different type of QB passer. It isn’t a radical change, but it gives you more options as a QB. The passing has been slightly modified as well to include more throwing animations that improve your sense of how your movements affect the ball, and there are now 20 different pass trajectories based on where you place the ball and how hard you press the button.
Receivers are now also more–or less–aware than before. The way they run and the animation showing it will tell you whether they are prepared for a pass or not. It won’t always guarantee the result you expect, but it increases the chances of success. You can also cancel play action, shovel passes are easier, and the AI is improved as well.
If you have only played a bit of the franchise, the differences will fly right by you. The base mechanics are the same as ever and anyone can pick it up and play. But the more you delve into it, the more you see the fine-tuning at work. It won’t revolutionize the way people play football, but it is deeper than ever before and longtime fans will be impressed by the changes.
The standard game modes are all there: online games, dynasties, coaching mode–you know the sort. There are a few additional tweaks including recruiting stats like “Coach Stability” and “Stadium Atmosphere,” plus there are a few new stadiums and animations like award presentations and new cheerleaders. It’s minor stuff.
The graphics looks solid though. There is room for improvement in the overall presentation, and there has been for years, but EA Tiburon has devoted their time to making the animations as fluid as possible. In that, they excel. The additional new animations are more than just something good to look at, there are real gameplay benefits to it.
The stadiums also look much the same, although the sounds and crowds are better than ever before. Not much has changed on this front in general though.
NCAA Football 13 is a game made specifically for the fans. The main addition of this year’s offering is the fine-tuned controls, which are going to make the game feel more precise and realistic—to those that know the game well enough to feel the precise differences. Those that aren’t familiar with the game or haven’t played it in years may not be as quick to appreciate the changes.
The rest of the game is what you would expect. The presentation is strong and the ESPN integration is always nice for sports fans, but beyond that there is very little to differentiate this game from the previous title(s). The changes to the gameplay are enough that you may not want to go back after playing it, but it isn’t anything that will revolutionize the game or convince non-fans to try it. NCAA Football 13 is a quality game, but it isn’t a big step forward for the franchise. Hardcore fans will appreciate it though.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by EA)