NCAA Football 13 Review (Xbox 360)
Death, Taxes and a new version of NCAA Football in July.
That's the mantra around OS, and it signals a brand new release season for sports gamers. This year's NCAA Football 13 comes packed with enhancements to the passing game, presentation and dynasty mode -- but it is missing the real time physics engine which Madden is going to be debuting in a month.
With that in mind, and with the limited nature of the improvements, one can't help but feel that this year's NCAA Football iteration has a bit of a lame-duck feeling to it.
However, if you are willing to stomach a lot of the same old flaws within the series and some unrealistic moments of football, there is a fun game of pigskin waiting to be unleashed.
NCAA Football 13 was built with the premise of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it.' How do I know this? Because the gameplay, for all intents and purposes, feels like a patched up and slightly more polished version of NCAA Football 12 with some nice tweaks thrown in.
First, the added animations which were centered on DB/WR interactions but not limited to that have shown up in most of my games and add enough additional variety to make me really appreciate the variety of each play a bit more. This creates a more dynamic feeling game and a game which honestly is a tad more fun to play because of it.
The new passing game options, with the new approach to icon passing and also the new left-analog stick total control passing are well done. The new approach to icon based passing involves the icons basically only appearing solid when a player is 'looking' for the ball. This is in line with actual passing games because a receiver is sometimes not looking for the ball to be thrown their way. Of course, and predictably so, you don't want to throw to a receiver who isn't looking for the ball.
Total control passing is executed by using the left analog stick to lead receivers or to throw the ball with height or on a low trajectory. With the new passing trajectories in the game, this is quite good. This year, you can tell a slight difference in quarterbacking for, say, UTSA versus Georgia.
Also, the forced drop backs are a nice touch but they just delay the inevitable. If you have a QB who can run the ball, he's going to get loose just as he did in previous years and he's going to make plays. However, you won't be able to wildly scramble and chuck the ball deep anymore; it seems that aspect of the game has indeed been toned way down this year, which simply adds to the overall experience without a doubt.
The wide receiver and defensive back interactions which were added into the game this year do add an extra dimension to passing as well. The safeties have some horrible AI at times still, but overall this area of the game has seen a major improvement. The new animations here are great and it makes the entire passing game feel like it took a meaningful step forward.
Running the ball feels fluid, although the new running animations are a step backwards in my opinion. The blocking AI wasn't changed much, which means you are going to be playing a game that feels incredibly similar to last years game when it comes to running the football.
Perhaps the run game has been tightened up a tad, because busting big runs is even more rare than last year, and seems to fit within an ideal schematic simulation model of football a bit better. So running is definitely similar, but probably a nuanced and small step forward compared to last year's effort.
Unfortunately there is a nagging bug within the gameplay that is entirely frustrating. I have had players get touched or sometimes a player isn't touched and a play is whistled dead. This is a widespread problem being reported and while it doesn't happen frequently, it could happen at the wrong time and cost someone a game. Thus, not kosher.
Defense is honestly where NCAA Football, and EA football in general really needs some help. I can't harp on it enough, but playing defense in NCAA Football 13 involves the same procedures as playing in NCAA Football 05. It just does. Seriously, I went back and fact checked myself and I used the same technique in both games in successive order and you got the exact same results.
So in other words, playing defense is as stale as ever. I've actually started just skipping and simming through defense when I'm not actively reviewing the game. Thank God for super sim.
Speaking of super sim, when you are playing as a coordinator in Dynasty mode, I have found that the computer really doesn't do very well in games where you super sim. I should never have the No. 1 defense as simmed with UTSA -- but I did and hardly ever gave up points. I did this against better teams, worse teams, and I never gave up points. I hope my experience was unique and perhaps it'll change with time because it really does make the game rather easy.
Special teams are handled fine. I did not notice any glaring issues with it. I didn't return any kicks for touchdowns and didn't block any punts, but only long term and wide spread tests can really determine how special the special teams are in NCAA Football 13. I'm cautiously optimistic at this point.
When it comes to realism, this is where NCAA Football 13 really begins to fall apart. There are numerous issues abound (many of which have been present for years) and lots of items which are just inexcusable, especially when the gameplay jump was so small -- to have items that have regressed is simply maddening on every level. If you are not interested in realism but rather fun, seriously skip this section. It will rob you of your joy of a pretty fun (and really balanced) game. However, when it comes to simulating football, NCAA Football 13 does need some serious help.
First, the computer AI and how it handles three things: options, screen passes and play calling.
As far as play calling, while I was in a hail mary situation on offense, the computer defense found it in its infinite wisdom to actually call a heavy blitz package on the play. Predictably, I heaved the ball deep with one DB around three WRs. One of my good guys caught the ball for a touchdown to end the half.
And that's just the beginning of play calling issues. I've noticed the computer offenses rely way too much on screens, and a lot of the time the AI QB will fail to throw the ball and will instead get sacked. Heavy blitz packages against the AI can result in sack totals against some teams reaching 12-15 sacks a game -- with 5 minute quarters on Heisman.
Option plays, both on offense and defense, the computer AI just can't get it right. On defense, the AI will back pedal out of the play and sometimes players will stay stationary. So a lot of times you can just move right past defenders for easy yardage gains. Pursuit angles, a lot of times, seem simply way off.
Strangely enough, this appears to be one of the most balanced versions of NCAA Football in years. Despite the long list of realism gaffes, the game simply seems to work in delivering a balanced game of football. Of course this means the game cuts corners in realism to achieve desired results, but it is hard to argue with the statistical accuracy and variety of games. NCAA Football 13 is a very well done effort in that regard.
As far as other areas of realism, it's easy to harp on what NCAA Football 13 doesn't do right. For starters, defense (as alluded to before) simply isn't handled correctly. Football defense is not like football offenses, you do not have play books full of plays for defense. You have assignments and roles which each player fills as part of an overall scheme. In that regard, NCAA Football 13 is nothing like real football when it comes to defense. This will both true sim-heads but for most, it's a non-issue admittedly.
The secondary interactions are definitely vastly improved over last season. LBs and DBs do behave much better when it comes to defending the pass, although there are clearly legacy issues where safeties are stuck in the mud and such. But there also has to be an allowance for busted plays. They happen in real football, so if there is a busted assignment or two, you actually should praise the game for that instead of criticize. That's the balance I'm trying to strike, because if you take it into context, the secondary play is quite good in comparison to the real thing. Just be mindful that some of the errors the game do throw out that could be interpreted as busted assignments are actually just legacy bugs which are easy to exploit if you know what you are looking for.
Perhaps where the game is weakest, and honestly where if it were fixed the rest of gameplay could probably be tuned correctly, is within the trenches. First, there is a distinct lack of animations between DL and OL. Second, the lack of animations creates an imbalance within the game and a lot of funky looking plays.
Mathematically, you have six to seven different interactions between players within the line every play, yet a lot of the focus this year was on the three to four other major interactions that occur each play in DB/WR interactions (and in Madden, the tackling). This in and of itself makes the game feel wholly unrealistic because the majority of the action in football has a limited amount of interactions to choose from and thus the game feels rather canned or digital and not organic and dynamic.
With all of that said, it's not as if the line play is bad -- it's actually the best it has ever been within the NCAA Football series and that should be praised for a forward step even if it's incredibly small and incremental over last year. But at the end of the day, when we are reviewing games which are supposed to be sports simulations, this section of the review will rail against any shortcomings in that regard.
There were some big items added to the presentation this year to add to the realism. Let's start there on the optimistic side of things.
First, the ESPN Ticker is a great addition. Seriously, I actually look at it and the score updates are great touches. I absolutely love it. The studio updates can be a bit meddlesome at times, but they are a great addition. I did find the studio updates were a bit repetitive when Reece Davis began to repeat lines -- but I appreciated the attempt to really engross me into a Saturday.
The new lines of commentary were really quite good. The new lines do add some variety and I appreciate the attempt by the team to really try to get Brad and Kirk sounding more and more like a real broadcast. There were some big leaps made here.
The new stadium sounds also work well, while they are quite limited in nature (only select programs got the treatment of chants and such) it really was nice to hear a proper chant of Boomer Sooner in the game.
However, it all becomes pointless when the presentation itself really doesn't have a true focus. Are you watching a game on TV? In the stadium? What?
One such area where this shows up is within the cut scenes, they aren't broadcast quality at all so you end up not being able to fully engross yourself within the game. Worse still, post play players will aimlessly walk around and into each other like zombies from the Walking Dead. There is nothing positive about this lack of focus except it makes the presentation feel second rate overall.
If the team were to try to mimic a TV broadcast, the whole package would benefit from that type of a focus or on the same level if they were to focus on a more in-stadium experience. But just pick something and really run with it.
On that same level, the series simply deals with a horrible sound mixing quality. Stadium chants are too low compared to the crowd noise and the crowd noise itself seems way too universal and nothing like a real crowd but rather like a studio recording. Yes, the recordings sound 'fine' but they aren't 'great' and that's the problem with NCAA Football 13 in a nutshell.
The presentation is a fine microcosm of the whole series at this point. Yes it's adequate, yes it does a decent job -- but it doesn't reach for greatness and instead lacks focus, direction, and really falls short of being realistic, engrossing or exciting. So you end up instead, with the same old boring presentation that you are used to and can tolerate, but you never find yourself going, "Oh my goodness how did they do that?"
The dynasty mode in NCAA Football 13 as well as Road to Glory are incredibly complex to review. Most people simply don't go beyond three or four years, and I feel the testing for the mode doesn't go much further than that either. Most year's huge bugs pop up that can ruin the mode several seasons in. I simulated out five years and noticed nothing too out of the ordinary -- but this does not mean there aren't problems. Now onto why this mode is the best it's ever been.
Last year's addition of the coaching carousel added a new gameplay mechanic within dynasty mode. Now you saw a real job market develop and move around you and you had to make decisions on when and where and how to proceed with your coaching career. Before that, recruiting was revamped and deepened and you were given amazing new control over the future of your program. Both of those features are still here and add a ton to the mode.
The new scouting feature within recruiting is a great addition. Whenever you go to make a phone call for a recruit, you also scout them for a certain amount of time. The longer you scout, the more ratings that are revealed for players and the closer you get to unlocking their actual overall. This is obviously a huge help in recruiting players because you can discover busts or gems and you can decide to offer scholarships based upon that.
The game within the game element in dynasty mode simply got better.
While I wish it all played better together, say you never offer someone you recruit heavily and end up playing them a few years later -- it'd be a great touch if Herbstreit said something like, "Smith was about to be a Tiger, and when they never offered he decided to take his talents to Southern Miss and here he is having a great game against the team that didn't want him."
But that's something that honestly is a pie in the sky wish I fear. There are some things which just won't happen probably -- but what is present in dynasty mode is actually one of the deepest and best playing modes in all of sports games. The scariest thing is, there is a ton of room for improvement and I will touch upon it at some point in an article this week on OS.
For now, just know that dynasty mode is deeper, it is still accessible, and it's better. If you let it, Dynasty Mode will suck you in and not let you go.
Road to Glory is also back, and while I didn't spend much time in it before press time -- I do feel as if it were executed quite well last year and the subtle improvements with more stadiums and a more configurable high school experience is a welcome experience. There's a good chance I'll be spending time in Road to Glory once again just because the High School Experience is really well done. Honestly, I think I'd like to have that part of the mode fleshed out more, it's clearly a game within a game or could easily be one.
Online play is what you'd expect from a top tier EA Sports title. While the servers hadn't been fully blasted by the time I submitted this review, the games I had played worked well with little lag and the setup and go aspect of the whole experience was easy and straightforward as you'd expect.
What I didn't get to try on, but what I will and provide a supplementary post to this one is the Online Dynasty. Last year's mode fell victim to a horrible transfer failed issue, which basically crippled the mode for many. While I'm hoping a repeat isn't in the offing just beware that online experiences are subject to change always due to bad competition, server issues, or any of the other victims of Murphy's Law.
I'd be remiss if I didn't spend a tad bit of time on Heisman Challenge. While I played through a season (or sort of a season) with Barry Sanders in a K-State uniform, the mode really just kind of feels like it was put there for people who want to be a tad adventurous. Personally, I haven't been too excited about the mode and I feel I'm biased towards the downside on it. However, for fans who want some nostalgia or for fans who might just want to try something different that doesn't require the time commitment of dynasty mode, then have a go at it.
Here's the deal, NCAA 13 is marginally better than last year's game -- but it's also a very flawed experience just as last year's was because a lot of the same bugs are still in the game. NCAA 13 doesn't come close to matching our genre's best games in either gameplay, presentation, or realism. The same old problems are still present in many areas, and honestly it's hard to get excited about the title with Madden's big improvements coming up.
If you are a college football fan, and you either didn't buy NCAA 12 or you simply are that die hard -- get this game. You will enjoy it. If you are a pro fan who uses NCAA as a bridge to Madden don't buy it. You will regret it because the games are no longer linked with draft class exports and more importantly Madden will render NCAA technically obsolete within a month..
NCAA Football 13 is a good but not great title. It should be treated as such and approached with cautious optimism for all who dare take it on.
Learning Curve - If you've played the series, it'll take you 5 minutes max. If you haven't and are a newcomer, you are in for a long learning process, several hours at least to master everything within the gameplay, a few hours for dynasty's ins and outs as well.
Control Scheme - The NCAA Football 13 control scheme has always been rock solid. It has the perfect blend that you need.
Visuals - The fans took a step back this year, the new weather effects are nice and the lighting is a step up. Overall, not much change from last year in the broadest sense.
Audio - Not mixed well, commentary has too much dead space and is still lacking in many areas but improved over last year so there's always that.
Value - If you own NCAA 12, it's hard to justify a purchase of NCAA 13 -- it just is. But if you are a hardcore college football fan there is enough value especially if the game is on sale.
Score: 7.0 (Good)