NCAA Football 13 arrives at a particularly nostalgic time in my life. I've moved back to my hometown—in a house literally across the street from the five-time state champion high school I graduated. Revered names like Jeff Hayes and Mike Chatham, Harry Jennings and Richard Grissom, and Clarence Edwards (pictured above, somewhat idealized) are flooding back to my memory. Hell, I'm even dating a former cheerleader as I write this.
That's the trouble with NCAA Football though. For years, that series has made an effective emotional appeal, over whatever critical or consumer shortcomings it displayed, thanks to the connection thousands have not with the experience of actually playing for a team, but with simply going to college.
Even though it provides a new mode and some solid gameplay refinements if you know to go looking for them, the latest edition of the game banks on the same emotional pitch. NCAA Football 13 is on the whole a very enjoyable and engrossing experience for a college football fan, but it still tugs with style more than substance—and the style is now visibly threadbare.
Ten Things You Should Know About NCAA Football 13
10. It's Showing Its Age: NCAA Football has been a remarkably even-keeled thumbs-up year after year. NCAA 13, however, layers on new content without retiring its more shopworn details, making it all feel very rote and indistinct from last year. This is a nearly fatal flaw for an annual sports title. Pre-game cinematics occasionally feature different camera angles but much of it feels beyond bland and recycled from past editions, especially for any hardcore player. Between-play player gestures, and post-game group celebrations exhibit the same shortcoming, unless you're playing in a trophy game, then your players will interact with the Little Brown Jug or the Bronze Boot or whatever for a few seconds. The audio catalogue requires a pruning, and really needs the means of interrupting Kirk Herbstreit. He's an enjoyable analyst, but in this game is given to very long winded expository dialogue about a 1-yard run on first down that concludes after you've played second down. Much was made of the inclusion of service academy skydivers and branded cheerleading teams like the USC Song Girls. Still, paraodixically, there isn't enough presentational variety, even in something that features 124 football teams, to feel adequately different from game to game, last year to this year.
9. Be Prepared for a Grind: "Heisman Challenge" adds a third variant to the game's well known career modes. Even at a single season, it too is infected with redundancy and grind. Playcalling, particularly for running backs, is unimaginative and tendentious in both Heisman and "Road To Glory," the other singleplayer campaign. In Dynasty, a more sophisticated recruiting process also weighs down your week-to-week progress. If you're really playing to win, be prepared to invest a good hour on recruiting or scouting before or after that week's game—a serious deterrent to more casual players. On one hand, NCAA 13 properly recreates the ways in which winning on Saturday depend on preparation the other six days of the week. On the other, its career modes—particularly in how much menu navigation they require—are probably the least pick-up-and-play friendly of any sports simulation.
8. Tone-Deaf Omissions: In my test of the game's Dynasty Mode, I played as the Texas offensive coordinator. At season's end I finally noticed that when the Longhorns ran out of the tunnel at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, "Texas Fight" did not play—though the song does plays in their run-out in last year's NCAA 12. In NCAA 13, TCU and Texas A&M are also confirmed as having generic fight song accompaniments. An EA Sports representative confirmed to me that the game is not licensed to use these three Texas schools' fight songs. There could be others.
As these songs appeared in previous editions of the game, the real reason sounds simple: The rights to many fight songs are privately owned—Auburn's was not in NCAA Football for years because of that. These licensors probably became aware of their songs' value and asked too much for the permission to include them in this year's game.
Still, this is the first instance I've seen of a fight song being in the game one year, and not in the next. And bottom line, nothing shatters the immersion more than hearing a generic piece played by a Russian military band when you expect the eyes of Texas upon you.
7. Minor dents and scratches: Sideline reporter Erin Andrews is repeatedly referred to in pregame audio. I never once heard her. Perhaps not coincidentally, she switched networks before the game's release. Pre-game interstitials sometimes hung or froze as the audio played, and in one instance sent a low-res marching band right through the Michigan warm-ups. Loading times have now easily surpassed MLB The Show for worst in class. I can trigger a new game, head upstairs and make a mixed drink, come down and still see Clemson before the first man touches Howard's Rock, so there's a lot of bloat. In Dynasty mode, advancing the week takes a lot longer because of the need to progressively rate a team's championship status, playing time and playing style for the new recruiting pitch engine. This is not a game to be played if you're in a hurry.
6. Reaction Time: The new signature detail of the Heisman Challenge and Road to Glory is "Reaction Time," a bullet-time feature that has its most value when your player is running with the ball—whether as a halfback, a kick returner, a receiver after the catch or a scrambling quarterback. Laying on the left trigger slows down time, allowing you to find blocks and seams and squirt free to daylight. In an animation-based game, which still has a lot of predetermined outcomes despite its manifold refinements, Reaction Time is a godsend on third down. It doesn't make special teams any less impossible, but for a player assigned to punt duty while he awaits his shot at second-string running back, it can help you rack up some crucial XP and Coach Trust.
5. Heisman Pose: Given the level of marketing behind the "Heisman Challenge" alternate career mode, I expected more in the delivery here. There are 13 real-life Heisman winners you can place on any modern team (10 on the disc, three easily obtained by downloading the demo, and then three modern recipients available as a preorder incentive from GameStop). The cinematic interviews, unlocked at certain points in the career, are surprisingly impactful. Jim Plunkett, Archie Griffin and Herschel Walker, perhaps not coincidentally the oldest of the 16 players featured, give remarkably compelling narratives. But winning the Heisman, setting school records, earning a bowl bid or taking home the national championship are treated the same way as they are in the "Road to Glory" career mode. That concentrates the focus almost entirely on beating a player's statistical performance, which makes this game more about comparing yourself to a menu entry than someone appearing on the screen. In the Heisman Challenge's favor, a bad loss at the beginning of the season will deliver a stern test for winning the trophy down the road, as I found out with Plunkett after a stupid Week Two loss to Duke. You can't just stick a Heisman winner on a terrible team and win a national title, either, as I found out with Archie Griffin at Iowa State. But it is designed to offer you a superhuman performance, and about midway through your year it leaves you playing out the string, all of your benchmarks passed, in order to unlock the player for use in Road to Glory, the four-year career mode.
4. The Story of a Season: NCAA Football has always been encumbered by menu sludge, and in years past it inihibited most your understanding of the virtual season you'd created. A new commentary engine bringing in ESPN's Rece Davis does a much more enjoyable job of keeping you up to date on the developments in your world. In the final week of my test dynasty, Texas played TCU (in a realigned Big 12) for a berth in the conference title game. Though Michigan State and Wisconsin both would meet a week later in the Big Ten conference championship, their regular-season finales had implications on the BCS rankings, as they were ranked No. 2 and No. 4, respectively. Lurking on the periphery was Georgia and even N.C. State, in an SEC I also remade. State had beaten the Dawgs earlier, and if UGa lost to Tech, the Wolfpack would win the SEC East with a win over Vanderbilt. All of these outcomes played out in (seeming) real time thanks to studio break-ins as No. 1 USC and No. 16 Notre Dame battled in a west-coast nightcap that I played. Davis, and NCAA 13 handled the updates flawlessly, even despite the remade conference alignments. While I wish there was a start-menu option to glance at scores from around the nation while my game was paused, when I'm taking delay-of-game penalties because Oklahoma State has gone ahead of Oklahoma on a field goal, this feature has more than done its job.
3. We in Here Talkin' About Practice: This game features, and I say this straightfaced, the most realistic practice mode of any sports simulation game available. It finally provides something I've demanded for years in American football—the means of practicing with or against a scout team to prepare for the next week's opponent. It's currently limited to the Road to Glory career mode. But if you are a third-stringer trying to make the team, you will run the opposing team's plays against your school's first-string defense, in practice, between weeks. If you're a starter, the opposing defense will represent your upcoming opponent's scheme. In other modes in the past, you could only run one play against one defensive play (or a random playcall, which wasn't very productive.) Now you get an actual preparatory mode with a productive result—which is exactly the point of practice.
2. Judging the Talent Show: Because it represents (ostensibly) an amateur sport, NCAA Football has been faced with the most unique player-management challenge of any sports simulation—convincing players to join your team through the art of conversation, rather than the terms of a financial contract. In years past, NCAA's recruiting engine has been largely reactive: In a discussion with a prospect, a random topic appears, and you try to gauge his interest in the subject, pitch him on your strength in it, or point out a rival's shortcomings.
Though the process still is laborious and not for casual performers, changes in NCAA 13 make recruiting more deterministic, and they reward your cunning. For starters, you now always have the option of asking the recruit what he would like to talk about, as opposed to leaving it to a roulette wheel in which he would bring up a weakness of yours that he didn't really care about. This is guaranteed to return an answer on a subject that is at least of above average importance to him. That helps refine your pitch strategy in future visits.
Scouting a player now rounds out your choices of who to pursue. Even with a so-called country club like Texas, which has no problem attracting the nation's top talent, you need to examine who you're offering a scholarship to make sure it's worth the investment. Conversely, striver programs can look at two- and three-star prospects and find gems who are actually underrated.
At Texas, I was delighted when I trolled Alabama's academics and Oklahoma's grocery-bag campus to score points with blue chippers who had the Crimson Tide and the Sooners on their radar. I was even happier when LSU, Arkansas and Oklahoma State went slobbering after a linebacker that my scouting showed to be wildly overrated. For those who are committed to the process, NCAA 13's new recruiting process returns some fist-pumping outcomes and an entirely new set of backstories for how you built your team.
1. A Big Man on Campus: The previous criticisms of grind and repetition notwithstanding, "Road to Glory," NCAA 13's singleplayer career mode, is the most recommendable feature of the game—if you're willing to make the role-playing investment in it—and if you know how to change a setting that is not well advertised.
My biggest gripe with Road to Glory last year was the inhumanly swift advancement, which had me rated as a 99-overall "field general" by my sophomore year. This is very important: When you begin your Road to Glory career, it will ask you to choose a difficulty setting. Trust me, pick Heisman, the toughest. Experience points will be harder to acquire along with "coach trust," which moves you up the depth chart and delivers other in-game perks.
Then, as soon as your career begins, go into the gameplay settings and change the actual gameplay difficulty to something you can manage. This will give you a more enjoyable on-field experience combined with a more believable, earned progression through your virtual player's four years at college. On Varsity gameplay difficulty with Heisman progression, I had a much longer lasting, realistic rise through my university's depth chart, without being punished by the upperclassmen on defense across the line.
Done in this way, Road to Glory idealizes what NCAA 13 should be about—pick-up-and-play simplicity, paired with a stout challenge, respectable rewards, and the swooning fantasy of a sports life you could never hope to lead.
I've worked at Kotaku for four years and in each year we have had a different review format. This editorial inconsistency is extremely problematic for annual sports titles, where a thumbs-up or down is more likely to be seen as a consumer recommendation than a critical one. Today, though, I'm only asked to judge whether a game is worth playing. That is a lower pass/fail barrier than whether a game is worth buying. However, to make a "don't play" call also means something is much, much more wrong than saying a game is not worth buying.
There are thousands out there who will feel no different playing NCAA 13 from NCAA 12 or even 11. I wrestled with my appraisal of NCAA 13 more than I have any other sports video game because the game did not transform in ways that would justify another $60 on the credit card in July.
Still, it is worth playing. It is worth playing for hardcore players—the recruiting refinements, however cumbersome, are much more enjoyable than past systems. It is worth playing for casually interested sports fans, in the novelties offered by the Heisman Challenge and Road to Glory. But NCAA Football 13 is nowhere near a revolutionary iteration in this series, and it will be rightly criticized by those who expected more from its presentation or its gameplay—which will assuredly be remade when real-time physics are incorporated in NCAA 14.