The "NCAA Football" franchise has been making great strides in recent years, with last year's "NCAA 12" being the high-water mark for EA Sports' venerable college football series.
But fans expecting another huge leap will likely be disappointed with "NCAA 13." That's not to say the latest from developer Tiburon is a step back -- I'm really enjoying the new passing mechanics and having a blast taking West Virginia through its inaugural season in the Big 12 in Dynasty Mode. The fact remains, however, that "NCAA 13" doesn't propel the franchise forward the way its predecessor did last year. While it may not be revolutionary, it's still a lot of fun.
One area in which "NCAA 13" is light-years ahead of EA's previous efforts is the passing game. New pass trajectories, combined with the ability to influence the placement of the ball with the left analog stick, make it possible to complete just about every throw imaginable. Being able to finally hit a receiver in stride and not have him pause for a split-second while catching the ball is huge. So too is the ability to put the ball on a receiver's outside shoulder on fly routes, thus lessening the likelihood that a defensive back swats the pass away or picks it off.
West Virginia's offense was explosive in "NCAA 12," but the Mountaineers' speedy receivers are even more lethal in "NCAA 13" now that I can get them the ball in positions to make big plays.
Other new additions to the passing game include 20 new quarterback drop-back animations and receiver awareness -- i.e. a player must be looking for the ball before you can throw it his way. These features work in concert with the new passing engine to create a wide-open offensive experience that replicates the current state of college football. There are still some nagging bugs, most notably screen passes that seemingly never work, but I've never had this much fun tossing around the virtual pigskin.
It's a good thing the passing game is so effective because the running game remains a mixed bag. Linebackers pounce on ball carriers in the backfield with regularity and offensive linemen are as likely to whiff on a block as they are to put their man on his backside. It's even worse for the AI offense, which at times can appear overmatched against the weakest of opposing defenses. One area that has been improved greatly is the scrambling ability of AI quarterbacks, who no longer hesitate to tuck the ball and head upfield. In my WVU Dynasty, the Maryland quarterback was his team's leading rusher after continually burning my defense on both designed runs and impromptu scrambles.
While the offensive side of the ball received quite a bit of love from developers, defense has seen some notable improvements as well. First and foremost, defensive players no longer make plays on the ball unless they can actually SEE the ball. While this is a great addition that has long been missed, it takes some getting used to when attempting to complete passes. Safeties and linebackers in coverage will aggressively make plays on the ball in front of them, which makes sure-fire completions in years past risky propositions this time around.
It's a different feeling knowing that the interceptions I'm throwing are the result of poor reads and bad decisions on my part rather than super-human plays by linebackers or defensive backs who seemingly have eyes in the back of their head. AI defenders aren't perfect, however, and will occasionally fail to cover an open receiver streaking down the field, which has led to several big plays and easy TDs.
Away from the field, "NCAA 13" offers the usual assortment of game modes -- exhibition, Dynasty (online and off) and Road to Glory -- but it is the new Heisman Mode has received the most pre-release hype. While the opportunity to play as one of 10 Heisman Trophy winners on a modern-day team is a neat idea and the presentation is top-notch, I can't see myself spending much time with this mode. Of course, that's largely due to the fact Dynasty Mode will again be eating away much of my free time this summer.