the artistry and psychology of gaming


NCAA Football 13

NCAA Football 13

Review in Brief
Game: The latest College Football simulation game from EA, based on 2012’s rules and alignment.
Good: Ridiculously authentic in every way, from gameplay to the long-game to the aesthetics of the environments.
Bad: Authentic at the expense of being fun, and an absence of some of the franchise’s typically more fun game modes.
Verdict: While authenticity is a great goal, in this case, it gets in the way of the fun of the game and limits its appeal.
Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: Great if you’ve liked NCAA Football games in the past, but I wouldn’t recommend it to casual football fans or casual video game fans.

“Another instance of EA’s commitment to authenticity over fun.”

Now, to get me wrong: authenticity isn’t a bad thing. I am most certainly not using the word ‘authenticity’ as a backhanded way of accusing EA of having misplaced priorities or tying itself to closely to the ESPN brand. Authenticity is of excellent quality for a football game to have. Part of the appeal of EA’s NCAA Football and Madden NFL is the ability to start up the game and feel like you’re controlling the same team that you watch every week on television. Authenticity is an excellent goal, and NCAA Football 13 pulled it off brilliantly.

The problem, however, is that authenticity and fun do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive criteria of the game. A game can be both authentic and fun. Sure, there are certain bits of authenticity that directly stand in contrast to more entertainment-driven appeal, but by and large the majority of features that qualify as authentic do not in any way prevent fun. And yet, in the last several iterations of both of EA’s football franchises, they seem to have intentionally skimped on what are traditionally more purely fun game modes and game features while piling on the authenticity.

NCAA Football 13 is a marvelously authentic college football experience, but it is certainly not always fun. The biggest problem with the game is that it lacks the game modes that would appeal to more casual fans by some meaning of the word. Casual might mean hard-core football fans that are not necessarily fans of football video games. Casual might mean gamers that are not terribly interested in the deep nuances of football. Casual might mean fans of a particular school looking for a way to enjoy their fanhood. These, in my opinion, are all the different audiences that might be interested in NCAA Football 13; the problem is that whereas NCAA Football 13 could have appealed to all of these groups, instead it only appeals to a very narrow one.

To put it differently, imagine a Venn diagram. One circle represents hard-core gamers. The other circle represents football fans. NCAA Football 13 could have appealed to both circles; instead, it appeals only to their intersection. On top of that, it only appeals to a subset of that intersection: not all hard-core gamers who also enjoy college football necessarily want to micromanage such an authentic experience. This is the group that I fall in: I consider myself a gamer, I am an enormous college football fan, and yet NCAA Football 13 still doesn’t totally appeal to me because I don’t derive enjoyment from the micromanagement that NCAA Football 13 mandates in order to have a longer game experience. But, what it chose to do well the game does brilliantly; that just won’t appeal to absolutely everybody, and unfortunately, I suspect will only appeal to a small fraction of the potential audience. Then again, though, considering NCAA Football 13‘s sales figures, I could be completely wrong.

The Game
NCAA Football 13 is the latest yearly release from EA of its college football simulation series. As expected, NCAA Football 13
lets the player take control of any of the over 100 Football Bowl Subdivision teams and play against any of the others. Offensive and defensive schemes are impressively well-implemented, with even some of the more complex schemes executed faithfully.

In terms of game modes, the game supplies several. There is, of course, the traditional “Play Now” mode, where the player chooses a team, chooses an opponent, and plays a game. Among the other short modes are a Coach mode (where the player coaches a game rather than controlling the players) and a one-button mode (where the players control all game action by pressing a single button). Aside from that, the game also has a dynasty mode. In Dynasty mode, the player creates or chooses a coach, takes control of the team, and handles all facets of that team’s operation: recruiting, scouting, practices, depth charts, signings, and personnel contracts. In this mode, the goal is to play season after season and build up the coach’s esteem. Finally, there is also a Heisman mode that puts the player in charge of one of the many Heisman winners throughout NCAA history in an effort to win the Heisman Trophy again.

The Good
NCAA Football 13 goes all-in on authenticity, and the results are brilliant. I’ll talk later why I think focusing too much on authenticity may have actually been detrimental to the game, but for this section, three different areas of the game deserve attention for how authentically they represent and re-create the college football process and culture.

Amazingly Authentic Gameplay
For a football game, the most important facet will always be the actual on-the-field action. Controlling the offense and defense, calling plays, executing plays, and managing the game: these are the bread and butter of any football simulation. I’ve never played an NCAA Football game before, but I’ve played every release of Madden NFL for several years, and I’ve always gotten the impression that the to draw from a very similar underlying formula. Where NCAA Football 13 excels is in how authentically it simulates the vastly different game plans of various different colleges.

In the NFL, the majority of teams run relatively similar offenses (although purists of the sport will cringe hearing me say that). They may vary based on how much they focus on the run or the pass, or and how much they employ the hurry-up offense, or in how much playcalling control they give to the quarterback at the line of scrimmage. However, they still exist within a relatively small subset of the potential options available to them. College, however, involves teams to operate based on vastly different playcalling ideologies and paradigms. In many ways, this is part of the appeal of college football compared to professional football: with so many different teams of so many vastly different levels of talent and physicality, coaches must employ a broader range of playcalling strategies to remain competitive. Football games, however, typically rely on a relatively narrow set of play styles. Receivers run routes, runners hit certain holes, and outside of play action, draws, and fakes, they rarely deviate from that formula. That makes it difficult to authentically implement different systems in a way that comes anywhere close to mimicking the way the team actually operates.

NCAA Football 13, however, does a brilliant job of authentically re-creating vastly different offensive styles and strategies. Personally, I am a Georgia Tech alumnus, student, and fan. If you’re unfamiliar with college football, you should probably stop reading this review right now because there is no way the game would interest you. If for some reason you are still reading, you should know the Georgia Tech operates on one of the more interesting and nontraditional [Author’s Note: the fact that it is considered ‘non-traditional’ when in fact it is one of the oldest offensive systems in football history is ridiculous] offensive in modern college football, along with teams like Army, Air Force, and Navy. In the past, the types of plays the Georgia Tech relies on its running game has not been implemented at all. While they might have been around in more recent iterations of the franchise, the promotion of this particular game leads me to believe that for the first time, significant attention has been paid to authentically re-creating these non-standard offensive schemes.

The results are incredible. I consider myself something of an expert on Georgia Tech’s offense, and I was consistently aware while playing the game that not only was I able to defensive schemes in exactly the way I would in a real game in order to choose the best option, but also the defense itself adapted to the best ways to counter the triple option (the name of Georgia Tech’s offensive scheme). Those two things are both incredibly impressive. Georgia Tech’s offense operates far outside of the boundaries of what is traditionally implemented in football simulations; once implemented, however, it would run roughshod over any defensive scheme unless such schemes that specifically counter the option were introduced as well. Both sides of this coin have been executed with brilliant authenticity in NCAA Football 13.

I dabbled a bit with other teams as well to ensure that the option was not the only new inclusion in NCAA Football 13, and sure enough, other offensive schemes seemed to be executed with astounding authenticity as well. I witnessed first-hand Georgia’s reliance on the short underneath passing game, Clemson’s combo option scheme, and USC’s pro-style offense. All were executed with amazing authenticity, making the gameplay easily the most authentic football simulation I have ever encountered.

Astoundingly Authentic Long-Game
As mentioned above, the game’s primary long-game is a dynasty mode. In this mode, the player takes on the role of the coach trying to build his reputation at his school. This mode puts you in charge of absolutely every facet of your team. You don’t just play the games according to a set schedule; you handle recruiting, scouting, and various other elements of the game as well. In this game mode, you are basically tasked with handling every job that actually faces a coach.

I, admittedly, did not play with this mode very much because I find the micromanagement element of it to be tedious and unnecessary. However, for those that desire this level of authenticity in their game, you cannot match the experience provided by NCAA Football 13. You negotiate with players, scout their tapes, recruit them, and have your recruiting class graded by ESPN just like a real team. The results of these grades will impact your standing as a coach. Just like a real coach does as well, your wins and losses, your recruiting classes, and your bowl record will all play into how you are perceived as a coach. If you are perceived well, you will receive the option to sign a contract extension to stay on with the team for even longer.

The game has clearly paid an enormous amount of attention to evaluating all of the functional roles that a college football coach plays and giving the player of NCAA Football 13 the chance to experience all of them. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for those that enjoy the management element of football games, it is surely an amazing experience. Regardless of your enjoyment of the mode, you can at least appreciate the astounding attention to detail and production values inherent in such a complex simulation.

Incredibly Authentic Aesthetic
On this third point, I admittedly can only comment on Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium is the only college football stadium I have ever been in, and Georgia Tech home games are the only college football games I have ever attended except for some bowl games. However, unless EA inexplicably devoted significantly more attention to Georgia Tech’s stadium and environment than any other school, this point should generalize out to all other schools represented in the game (excepting, perhaps, non-Big 6 conference schools).

The attention to detail and authenticity with which EA re-creates the local football game experience is unbelievable. There were moments during the lead-in to a game where I legitimately felt like I was actually attending a game. The stadium is re-created with incredible detail, with every visible stand and sideline decoration present. The scoreboard matches the actual Georgia Tech scoreboard flawlessly, right down to the four national championship notes and the bowl game participation banners. The Ramblin’ Wreck, one Georgia Tech’s mascots, rides on with cheerleaders in their real poses, while Buzz, the other mascot, is rendered in all his mischievous glory.

Auditorily, the game is just as authentic, which might actually be more important. I was aware during the loading screens of one game that Georgia Tech’s “Yellow / Jackets” chant was playing in the background. During the game, I heard both of Georgia Tech fight songs rather than just one. They didn’t include the Budweiser song, unfortunately, but nearly every other song or chant that I attribute to Georgia Tech was included. Finally, a rivalry game with UGA also gave me the first positive word I’ve ever had to give about commentary in a football game. The game actually supplied custom commentary for UGA versus Georgia Tech the detailed the classic rivalry dubbed Clean Ol’ Fashioned Hate. Judging from what I saw in the team select screen, I think such commentary was included for every rivalry game that can be played, of which there are literally hundreds.

As I said, I cannot be sure that every school is given the same attention to detail, but I also do not anticipate any reason why Georgia Tech would receive special treatment. I am inclined to believe that if you were to play a game as Ohio State, you’d see someone dot the i; if you were to play as Oregon, you’d see a duck right into the stadium on a Harley-Davidson; and if you were to play as UGA, a running back would randomly get dismissed from the team before every game for committing some sort of felony. The game just seems to do an incredibly authentic job of re-creating real authentic college traditions.

The Bad
The authentic angles in NCAA Football 13 really are nothing short of astounding. The entire experience of college football season has been near-perfectly re-created in this game, in both a gameplay sense and in an aesthetic sense. Unfortunately, authenticity does not necessarily mean fun, and that is exactly the problem with the game: it misses out on some of the fun that football simulation games usually supply.

No Casual-Appeal Modes
My main complaint about NCAA Football 13 is in the game modes that it leaves out. Traditionally, football games come with three modes: Play Now, Season, and Career. The first is a single-game, the second is a single calendar season, and the third is a multi-season mode. For some reason, for the past several releases, EA has seemed to go away from the single-season mode in both Madden NFL and, from what I’ve read, NCAA Football 13.

The problem with removing this mode is that it means that the game only supplies modes at the extremes. You can play one game, but the game is decontextualized and does not feel like it exists in the context of a broader season, removing some of the engagement behind the individual game. You can play Dynasty mode, which sees you micromanaging and taking control of various different elements outside of the actual football gameplay. Or, on the third hand, you can play one of the game’s gimmick modes; gimmick isn’t a bad thing, but it represents a different style of play, and, in the case of NCAA Football 13, still appeals more to hard-core fans than casual ones.

With these three extremes, there is no middle ground that appeals to more casual players who want something more than an individual game at a time. In my experience, from the conversations I’ve had with others, season mode is oftentimes the most popular: it lets the player play through the ups and downs of an entire season, feel like they actually achieve something at the end, and re-create the same sport that they follow in person, all without deviating very far from the normal football gameplay. By not including that, however, a significant – at least in my opinion — audience is neglected. Whereas NCAA Football 13 could have appealed to both real football fans and football game fans, instead it only appeals to individuals who fall into both categories.

Needlessly Authentic in Some Areas
My other significant knock against the game is a mantra I’ve held with regard to football simulation games for years. In actual football, there are certain details of the process and of the telecasts that are what I would describe as necessary evils. Take, for example, replays. Replays primarily exist in football telecasts because there is an inherent downtime between plays. Football teams take 30 to 40 seconds to line backup and run another play, and the television station has to do something during that time. Thus, replays are played. In a video game, however, there is literally no reason to have this time. There is no reason not to return the player directly back to the play select screen to move things along more quickly. Such dynamics are featured several times throughout NCAA Football 13, as well as every other football simulation game I have ever played.

Another example occurs after halftime. The game goes back between the first and second plays and shows the best plays from the first half. Why? In real football telecasts, this is used to fill dead space. In video games that dead space does not exist; there is no reason to waste time on graphics like these. Yet, in their effort to create an authentic experience that mirrors were watching a game on TV, EA gets extremely obsessive about re-creating replay screens, crawlers, and other details that only serve actual purpose for an actual football game, not for simulation. If you’re going to include these things, at least give us a way to turn them off.

The Verdict
Like most of EA’s recent football releases, NCAA Football 13 is an example of a game that tries to create as authentic an experience as possible. For that, it succeeds with flying colors and deserves credit. For those to whom the game modes’ authenticity will appeal, NCAA Football 13 is likely leaps and bounds ahead of the recent releases in the franchise and deserves credit for being more than just the stereotypical single iteration on a proven formula. However, in its adherence to an extremely authentic experience, NCAA Football 13 forgets to include some of the things that traditionally make the franchise fun and engaging. They leave out some game modes, and in other places, they commit the same old flaw of inserting authentic details where they actually get in the way of the gameplay. As a result, while the game could have appealed to both football fans and video game fans, instead appeals to only those that fall into both categories. Not all fans of football will like the game, but a few simple tweaks could have made it appealing to all fans of football.

To stray a bit from the topic at hand for a moment, NCAA Football 13 also demonstrates the challenge their reviewers always face in giving a game a single numeric score. How do I rate NCAA Football 13? It is absolutely flawless in the ways that it chose to be flawless. It does not appeal to me personally, but that is largely because what it does well is not what I am looking for. I will consider the lack of game modes that appeal to casual fans as an objective knock against the game; however, how much is that knock really worth? Sure, that one knock ruined the game for me: I barely played it because it didn’t have the game mode I was looking for. However, for some others, that game mode is irrelevant and the game is likely perfect. So, for those reasons, I give the game a 7: it is hard for me to give a higher to a game I didn’t enjoy regardless of the reason, but I cannot bring myself to give lower to a game with such high production value, attention to detail, and strength in the areas in which it chose to excel. So, I give the game a 7. It doesn’t appeal to me, but there is no doubting its production value and strength in the areas in which it chose to excel.

My Recommendation
A masterpiece for fans of NCAA Football games in the past, but very little appeal for anyone else. That appeal doesn’t necessarily apply to college football fans either: even fans of college football won’t enjoy NCAA Football 13 if they don’t want to handle all the overly complex micromanagement.

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