In real life, sports are a merciless competition in which only the strong survive. Punishment is swift and severe for teams that languish, so there is a constant push to make huge improvements from one season to the next. Virtual sports are very different. The NCAA Football franchise has been lagging for years, shoving the same basic content out the door without any major changes to keep things fresh. Its lack of evolution goes against everything professional sports have been built upon. And NCAA Football 13 continues this unfortunate trend. Although the gridiron action is solid, dull off-field activities and crushing familiarity make this another tired entry in the stuck-in-the-mud franchise.
There is one notable addition to this year's update: Heisman Challenge. Previous winners of the prestigious trophy are included in a spin-off of the Road to Glory mode, giving you a chance to re-create the past successes of some of the most decorated amateurs to ever lace up a pair of cleats. Don't let historical accuracy limit your creativity. If you always imagined Barry Sanders donning the maize and blue of Michigan, you can break the hearts of millions of Oklahoma State fans by shipping him off to Ann Arbor. There is a definite appeal to putting on the helmet of these former greats. Running around as Charlie Ward before he succumbed to the lure of basketball delivers a nostalgic tug to anyone who grew up wishing the Seminoles would just stop doing their Tomahawk Chop for a second.
Despite the appeal of reliving past glories, there are two obvious problems with Heisman Challenge. The first directly affects the on-field action. Each dimming star has access to Reaction Time, a special move that slows down time. Considering that NCAA Football strives to provide an authentic experience, this out-of-place feature clashes with the realism (or attempted realism) present in almost every other area. Granted, the bar allows for only a few seconds of slow motion per play, but it refills quickly, so you can use and abuse it to your heart's content. The second major problem is a victim of the downloadable-content craze. Six of the players require an alternate means to unlock (preorder bonus, through the demo, future DLC), which is downright chintzy in a game sorely lacking new content.
Thankfully, once you move away from the Heisman Challenge and into the more team-focused modes, the action is as good as ever. NCAA Football 13 hasn't changed much from previous iterations, but there are a number of small tweaks to the passing game, which the diligent should appreciate. One problem that has plagued the franchise for years is a receiver's inability to properly navigate the sidelines. The frustration from previous games has finally been minimized. An assortment of new animations and improved artificial intelligence ensure receivers now catch the ball inbounds instead of running off the field, oblivious to rules and regulations. Furthermore, quarterbacks are more accurate than ever. Putting touch on a pass or slinging it to a specific place on the field is much easier now, letting you march down the field through the air with the biggest roadblock being your own skill.
The revamped passing game comes at the expense of a diminished defensive impact. Defenders are often slow to react, especially when playing zone, so they pose little threat for a quarterback who's feeling his oats. Interceptions are still handled extremely poorly. Catching an errant throw is completely random because the stone-handed cornerbacks can't hang on to a ball to save their lives. So when you do come away with an interception, it doesn’t feel like a prize obtained through skill and cunning; rather, it feels as if the computer randomly handed out a gift to keep you invested. This problem has existed in NCAA Football for more than a decade, and it's embarrassing that it has resurfaced in yet another entry. Dropped passes make defense feel unpredictable and arbitrary, draining the satisfaction of a well-executed play.
Dynasty mode also showcases a few improvements offset by the same issues that have hounded the franchise for years. During the interview process, players finally provide reasonable responses to preposterous questions. When you claim that the University of Houston has a better campus than Stanford, they openly laugh at your ridiculous stance. Still, recruits often fall for obvious lies, such as when you claim a middling program is going to win a National Championship, but it's much more difficult to hoodwink players than in years past.
Even with logic finally playing a role in the recruiting process, building a winning program is still a tedious affair. Menus upon menus dominate your time in Dynasty mode. Because you have to stare at dull screens for long spans of time, you would think the menus would be streamlined to make them as easy to use as possible, but the menus in NCAA Football 13 encompass the worst aspects of two opposing design philosophies. Sparse design ensures there's nothing interesting to look at, and yet, even though the exterior lacks pizzazz, the menus are difficult to navigate. Subsequently, recruiting is an impersonal and thankless process that desperately needs a major overhaul.
Menu layout is problematic enough on its own, but when you combine inelegant design with excessive jittering, it becomes downright painful. Moving the cursor and selecting an option, the most basic action you can perform in NCAA Football 13, is hindered by unresponsive controls. Menus leading to more menus are tedious enough to navigate, but when you factor in the load time between each new set of options, it's just a mess. This slowdown is most apparent when selecting teams in two-player local competition. The game moves at a snail's pace. Sputtering also exists once you begin games, though it thankfully doesn't interrupt the action. Instead, the transitions between plays or play-call menus have hitches. It's unforgivable that such drastic oversights exist in an iterative sequel to a yearly franchise.
It's hard to discern online-specific hitches from the offline variety when you take your talents to Xbox Live. Choppy transitions and clunky menus abound, and though it's a little worse when playing online, the difference isn't major. Still, competitive play is where NCAA Football 13 is at its best. Once you get away from the menus and focus on the action, this is still an exciting football game that encompasses the thrill of victory, the pang of defeat, and the fluctuating emotions that keep you hooked during the highs and lows through four hard-fought quarters. Granted, this is an almost identical experience to previous games, but it's still a good time for those who enjoy virtual football.
Looking at the list of changes from one year to the next, NCAA Football 13 offers little new for those who have played a recent entry in the series. The small improvements are welcome for those who have put up with issues for years, but they don't amount to much for casual participants, and many problems still remain. It's a shame there are so few noteworthy changes, because the core gameplay is still well done. But recycling the same content isn't enough to make this worth buying. NCAA Football 13 is another entry in a long-running franchise that desperately needs new ideas.