Electronic Arts' NCAA Football series has been around since 1994, when it was published under the name of Bill Walsh College Football on 16-bit systems. It then transitioned into the less-inspired name of College Football for a couple of years. EA finally settled on the NCAA moniker in 1998. EA has published a lot of college football games over the years, and there's a pretty good chance that you've played one or two if you have a passing interest in the sport.
With a series that's seen about 18 entries over the course of its life, there have been some ups and downs, so it's nice that NCAA Football 13, the latest iteration, is pretty good. It has some nice additions that'll keep longtime fans interested, and it might even pull in a couple of latecomers.
Of the current generation of NCAA releases, NCAA '13 is one of the best. While the general gameplay feels relatively unchanged, some additions make it a better experience than last year. Improvements include fewer annoying "blind swats" from defensive players, new pass animations, new quarterback dropbacks, pass trajectory zones, and better AI for offense and defense.
Other new additions include readiness icons that helpfully light up over the heads of receivers when they're not being covered tightly by the defense, giving you a helpful indication about an appropriate time to launch a pass. There's also a great recruiting system in place when playing in the offline and online Dynasty modes, which make up the meat of this year's career portion. Recruiting allows you to scout prospects, make offers, establish promises, and have a lot of control over who fills out your roster in the coming years. Taking on the role of head coach also means you have obligations to fulfill for the school, and doing a poor job leads to your possible termination at the end of the year.
I really, really loved the recruiting element in NCAA '13. Each week of the season, and for five weeks prior to the start of the season, you can search through a list organized by SPARQ ratings, which helpfully label possible recruits from one to five stars, along with numbered rankings to give you an idea of how the recruit will perform. These ratings aren't necessarily set in stone, and you have the option to scout these players once you've added them to your recruiting board. At that point, the game breaks down skills for those players over a couple of weeks, showcasing their actual ranking and skill level. A highly rated recruit could turn out to be a dud, while other, lower-ranking recruits might be better than the stats initially suggested.
Each player also ranks your school, so each has a short list of schools in which he's interested. Each week, you'll also have the opportunity to influence their impression of your program. Each school excels and performs poorly at certain aspects, which range from trivial things, like workout spaces or gyms, to potentially important categories, such as coach stability or conference prestige. The game helpfully ranks these for your school, so you're never in the dark about what to leverage. You'll need to feel out players to understand if they're interested in your school's strengths, as they may have different goals or aspirations.
The whole meta-game of recruiting and establishing new players week in and week out is almost as interesting as playing the games, and I often looked forward to the recruitment results. Another nice thing that the game does to assist you is tell you if there are any positions that you need to fill next season, when the graduating class leaves. Juniors also get offers to go pro at the end of a season, and you need to butter them up to get them to stick around for one more year; it adds another nice layer to team management.
Beyond the Dynasty modes, there's a new Road to Glory, which allows you to create a player and start him off from his high school career. I really enjoyed this mode, as it was nice to craft a player, name him, pick his position (along with a secondary, if you want) and re-create your own high school team. Pretty much every major city is an option, and I had no trouble re-creating my Reynoldsburg Raiders, complete with team colors. The devs did a pretty good job of making the fields feel like high school football fields, with scaled-back bleachers and settings.
In Road to Glory, you only have direct control over your player, so you can simulate events in each game leading up to the point where you'll be on the field. While on the field, you can't switch between players, so you're entirely dependent on the AI. You're also limited to a single play given to you by the AI, with no real option to change aside from calling an audible. It feels a little weird having the control taken out of your hands, but it also gives you an excuse to learn how certain plays should work.
In order to give you some help, there's the introduction of Reaction Time, which is basically bullet time for football games. Reaction Time is limited in use, but it allows you to slow down time to effectively juke, dodge, and roll past defenders — or line up receivers if you're playing the role of quarterback. It's another neat addition that makes it a little less daunting to control a single player on field.
There's also a Heisman Challenge mode that culls 10 players who made it to the pros and were also Heisman Trophy winners. This mode is similar in format to Road to Glory, except it's focused on college ball and allows you step into the shoes of one of these 10 players. It's a pretty good mix of recognizable names, like Eddie George and Carson Palmer, and it represents a decent mix of positions, too.
As in Road to Glory, you'll earn points for your player after every game, thus enhancing the possibility that you'll win the Heisman that year. There are also optional goals to tackle, such as trying to break the player records. It's an enjoyable score-chasing mechanic and adds a fun layer to the experience. The only disappointing aspect of the Heisman Challenge mode is that the commentary doesn't seem to change to include your player, so it tends to use generic terms in calling plays. As a whole, the commentary throughout the game isn't great. Although it's accurate, it feels pretty stilted and sluggish in comparison to the on-screen action.
In addition to the modes I've already listed, NCAA '13 also comes with the expected exhibition matches, both on- and offline. In addition to exhibition, you can take the Dynasty mode online, creating entire seasons with multiple teams across multiple players online, essentially making your own collegiate fantasy football league.
The online features are pretty decent, with lobbies and some easy-to-use search functions so you can find players of varying skill levels. There's no shortage of online players, either, and you'll only have to wait for a few seconds to jump into a game. While connected, lag seems to a be a minimal issue, and while there are a couple of plays that get spammed a lot — a particular blitz springs to mind — the experience mostly feels balanced among the top-ranked teams.
All in all, NCAA Football 13 marks a really enjoyable entry in EA's long-running franchise, and it shows that EA Tiburon still has what it takes to make a fun, exciting football game for fans. They've also done a decent job of making this entry welcoming for new players by explaining the modes with a decent amount of detail and offering up non-obtrusive hints for certain situations. That same hint system also clues you in on how you could have performed better on a play. Even if you're not an annual buyer of the NCAA series, the 2013 version of the game is worth checking out.
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