Will it be Marcus Allen sprinting past would-be tacklers? How about Andre Ware throwing tight spirals across the field to every receiver possible? Or Desmond Howard changing games singlehandedly with spirited punt returns and amazing catches?
These are a few of the options available in NCAA Football 13’s Heisman Challenge, our most anticipated new game mode from EA’s vaunted franchise this generation. The basics are simple – choose from one of a dozen or so former Heisman Trophy winners, put them on any team, and lead that squad to glory while pursuing the NCAA’s most prestigious trophy – but the beauty only reveals itself after exploring and experimenting with all it has to offer.
At first, we felt frankly uninspired. After placing Marcus Allen at Rutgers, we quickly shattered every plausible record, then set some ridiculous ones, running roughshod over the Big East for close to 4000 yards and 50 touchdowns. It was too easy, really, and to make matters worse, we were never taken out of the game, no matter how out-of-control the score became. In addition, we let Marcus call his own number whenever a play was designed for someone else, which certainly helped him have numerous 400+ yard efforts.
However, by the time we were just a game into our second Heisman Challenge with Andre Ware at Oregon, our attitude changed. Back in 1987, Ware set unbelievable records during his time at Houston, but honestly, much of his magic had fizzled in our memory. Upon checking out the numbers we’d have to beat –4,700 yards passing and 46 TDs in one season – then playing a couple of games, we realized how amazing of a year he’d actually had. It was also clear how much tougher it would be to match Andre’s stupendous numbers in the Challenge.
Therein lies the beauty of NCAA Football 13. The development team at EA Tiburon has picked a great mix of players that gives each one its own tone and feel. To be honest, anybody can win the Heisman as one of the great running backs – Archie Griffin or Herschel Walker will destroy everyone in their path – but the different QB’s each present interesting scenarios. Charlie Ward’s strengths are much different than, say, Doug Flutie’s, and you’ll have to play differently as each to win the Heisman. Desmond Howard may be the most interesting of the bunch, because you’ve got the least influence getting him the ball – you only control your player during the game, although you can modify a number of plays that get called – and the fewest opportunities for big gainers. Add in the wild card of placing them on any team and you’ve got a recipe for a great time.
Another aspect of the Challenge (as well as Road to Glory, the four-year single player mode that the Challenge was built upon) is the new “Reaction Time” feature. Reminiscent of Max Payne’s “Bullet Time”, it slows the action down to a crawl to ostensibly let your player react to would-be tacklers and read plays with superhuman awareness. You get a few seconds per play to use it if you want, but we found ourselves mostly ignoring it. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been playing football a certain way for so long, it didn’t strike us as particularly useful.
Of course, to many, the Heisman Challenge is the appetizer to NCAA Football 13’s Dynasty main course. More than anything else, Tiburon went out of its way to communicate the major upgrades on the field that impact Dynasty and head-to-head the most. The results are strong. Between the ability to finally execute some play-action passes, thread the needle with precision without having super-powered linebackers or otherworldly defensive backs constantly pick us off, and smarter quarterback dropbacks, NCAA Football 13 is easier and more accessible for your typical player than ever. While a few of the guys we played with online this weekend expressed displeasure with some perceived defensive inadequacies – particularly around zone coverage being easy to beat – none of these reduced our fun factor.
Even with the improvements, though, it’s not an automatic offensive assault. Not all play-action passes work – we still got sacked plenty of times before even setting up – and we wish that receivers would be more aggressive going for the ball on deep routes than their counterparts. Interceptions still happen with regularity, but most of them felt fair; throwing a deep ball into double coverage is a bad idea no matter what.
Applying these on-field upgrades to a Dynasty (online or off) is where NCAA does its best. In particular, the updated Recruiting becomes an addictive pursuit whether you’re a lower conference scrub or the top of the heap in the SEC. Filling up your pipeline, choosing which players to scout, discovering a gem, then pursuing him relentlessly is a blast. We were surprised how much it hurt when a kid we’d discovered and made promises to changed his mind and wound up choosing a rival.
We played more than a half-dozen online games and had no issues, either; everything ran smoothly. Last year’s biggest issue in the game – crashes after online Dynasty games that caused no data to be transferred – remains our biggest worry heading into its launch on July 10. Being able to scout and recruit over the web and on smartphones is another superb feature. While others talk about doing these sorts of things in the future, NCAA 13 allows you to do more away from your console than any other sports title today.
The “real” issue with NCAA Football 13, when it comes down to it, is something no one can likely change until and unless the next generation of consoles exists. Other than a few presentation tweaks, including a ticker and studio updates during Dynasty seasons, not much really looks different. Fans will also have to deal with some issues that have been present for years, such as players that occasionally go right through refs, weird shadow glitches, and the inability to save online games and return when inevitable disconnects happen.
Until the time comes for Tiburon to break down the game to its lowest level and rebuild from scratch, NCAA Football is going to keep on looking and feeling like it has for years now. While to us that’s not necessarily a bad thing – after all, the last thing anyone should want is a repeat of the NBA Elite debacle – some people will inevitably feel like the franchise is growing stale. There are those who see the major changes to the Madden franchise coming down the pike and will wait for that; while that’s understandable, as college football fans we’re just glad that this year’s NCAA football game is as huge and well put-together as it is. Because of that, we’ll be playing it all summer, battling friends in online dynasties and capturing scads of Heisman Trophies.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.