There was a time when Electronic Arts’ football series, both Madden and NCAA, were head and shoulders above other sports video game simulations. Outwardly, the games were able to realistically portray the handful of plays that dominate football: outside run, inside run, traditional passing plays, and play action passes. As technology evolved, however, the games’ limitations became more apparent. Stagnant AI development has plagued the series, as has glitchy movement and play calling. But what stands out about recent games, including NCAA Football 13, is their lack of autonomy and dependence on effectively binomial, random occurrences.
It’s clear that barring a massive upgrade in AI development in the next few years, EA’s football series is kind of stuck, a problem largely brought on by the rules of football more so than any failing of the developer. The main issue facing football video games currently is that there are too many players. Each team fields 11 men, but the player only controls one, meaning the outcome of any play is dependent on whether or not your AI wide receiver can get open against AI cornerbacks, for example. There are obviously considerations with regards to play calls — running man-beating passing routes against man coverage and vice versa — but anyone who has ever played an EA football game knows that there are just times when the game decides that you’re not winning. And these problems extend beyond the skill position players: if your offensive linemen are unable to block the defensive line, your play call hardly matters.
These are problems without an easy solution. Defensive ends in real life will occasionally blow by an offensive lineman and sack a quarterback, and there will be times when no receivers are open. There are slight ways to manipulate these issues in game — rolling out of the pocket to create new passing lanes — but many times, they feel predetermined. Too often a defense or AI-controlled offense does everything perfectly in a close game, which hints at another issue in NCAA 13: nothing happens by chance. Either your receiver gets open and your pass is caught, or he’s covered and you either throw an interception or a hilariously dropped interception that bounces off the defender’s face. The physics between players and the ball is too structured. All outcomes are predetermined rather than born of an interactive system.
Many of the problems that fans have been clamoring about for upwards of a decade remain as well. Computer-controlled players are still unable to run diagonally. Diagonally! It’s 2012 and the development team is either unable or unwilling to make their players change direction in anything but right angles. Though they have finally corrected the superhuman linebackers who leap skyward to intercept passes, defensive backs are still able to intercept throws even with their back turned, and wide receivers fail to fight for jump balls or undercut defenders on routes.
The most telling shortfalls in NCAA 13 are found once again in the still remedial Road to Glory mode in which a player creates a high school senior and plays out his career through college. While playing as a quarterback feels similar to the core gameplay, picking any other position is worthless. The game struggles with shoddy computer-controlled play calling, but more damningly, EA still hasn’t taken the time to understand non-quarterback positions. Playing as a linebacker or defensive back is an exercise in frustration because the physics system still fails to enable the in-between moves that players need to utilize. The controls bear this out; there is no button to stay square to the quarterback when playing defense, and there’s no button that works consistently to turn your character toward an oncoming ball.
Of course, the real draw of NCAA 13 has always been its Dynasty mode in which you adopt a current team and take over its recruiting — the lifeblood of college football — as well as game planning and play. With modest improvements to the Dynasty model, NCAA has at least improved its bread and butter, but that is the only discernible improvement over last year’s model.
NCAA 13 is the best college football game on the market — also the only — and the best offering EA has to date, but that’s no longer good enough. As owners of the flagship football series on the market, EA seems content maintaining the status quo, even though that model is painfully outdated. This game feels like another antiquated cash grab for EA when more innovative companies like 2k Sports have closed the gap on fluid, realistic sports games. Given EA’s long indifference to fixing the obvious problems of the NCAA and Madden properties, the best hope for the future of football gaming is the sale of the NCAA and NFL rights to a more progressive developer. Maybe NCAA 13 is just the final nail in my fandom’s coffin and not a more holistic disappointment, but there is very little that is redeemable about yet another mundane title by EA.