The Madden franchise doesn't change drastically from one season to the next, but it's possible to overlook this stagnation if there are some improvements to the well-worn formula. Unfortunately, Madden NFL 13 for the Vita ignores this delicate relationship. Essentially a handheld version of Madden NFL 12, the lone NFL game for Sony's powerful portable features almost none of the tweaks that have been implemented in this year's console releases. Because the core mechanics are solid, it's still a decent way to simulate a real NFL season while on the go, but it's impossible to shake the feeling that you've played this exact game before. And when you factor in plentiful performance issues, Madden NFL 13 for the Vita can't even live up to the standard set by the year-old game it's trying to emulate.
First, the good news: while this game cribs from 2012's console game, that game's lame commentary from Cris Collinsworth and Gus Johnson has been replaced. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms of CBS take over the play-calling duties. They have a tendency to repeat favorite phrases and clam up for interminably long stretches, but they are much better than the team that made you reach for the mute button last year. Hearing Nantz open each game with his welcoming "Hello, friends" line makes it feel like it's Sunday afternoon, and there's nice back-and-forth discussion at times. Commentating still has a long way to go to replicate the real sport, especially when it comes to how instant replays are handled, but this is a step in the right direction.
Sadly, just about every other aspect of Madden NFL 13 is a direct copy of Madden 12. In some ways, this is a good thing. The core mechanics make for an enjoyable game of football, and that holds true on the Vita. Beating the left tackle to sack the quarterback on a key third down is incredibly rewarding, as is fooling the defense with a well-executed draw when they're expecting a pass. With dozens of plays to choose from, competitive contests become intricate chess matches where outsmarting your opponents is just as important as outplaying them. If you know your friend loves to roll right on long passes, a cornerback blitz can shake things up; just cross your fingers that he didn't guess your move.
As much fun as it can be to pull off a last-second victory, the Vita version is plagued with serious performance issues. The game jerks when moving from replays back to live action, and that disruption happens with such frequency that it can be nauseating. This choppiness isn't limited to noninteractive moments, either. The action may freeze for a split second right when you're looking to unload the ball or deliver a crushing hit, and that hiccup could be the difference between a huge gain and a crushing turnover. Menus also suffer from lag. Just navigating to different modes or trying to substitute players mid-game wears your patience thin because there's a brief delay between your press and the game's response.
If you can deal with stuttering performance, the touch-screen controls do add a dose of novelty to an otherwise lackadaisical outing. Tapping a defensive player automatically gives you control of him. This may sound like a small feature, but it's quite handy if you control different defensive players on every down. Receiver routes can also be drawn before you snap the ball. Smart tweaks like these don't have a huge impact on the action, but they do make it easier to pull off the specific play you have in mind. The other notable Vita-exclusive control tweak comes in how kicks are aimed. By tilting the system, you can kick the ball to various parts of the field. This is logical in theory, but in practice, it makes kicking harder than it should be. Because the Vita is a portable system and can be jostled easily, you may find yourself aiming way off the mark at the last second.
For the most part, the Vita controls feel natural, but it's clear that other areas weren't given the same attention. One element you always expect sports games to update from one year to the next is the statistics, but Madden NFL 13 fails in that regard. Teams sport their records from the 2010 season. For instance, the 49ers were an impressive 13-3 last season, and that's what should be reflected in the game, but when you scroll through the teams, you see a dismal 6-10 mark. Thankfully, the attributes of the players line up with reality, but that doesn't excuse such obvious problems making it to the final product.
This inattention to detail is emblematic of the Madden NFL 13 experience. Aside from new commentary and a few Vita-specific controls, this is the same basic game that Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners played last year, only with a choppy frame rate dragging the core action down. In the console version of Madden 13, Connected Careers combined Franchise and Superstar modes into one cohesive package, but on the Vita, the new mode is nowhere to be found. Madden NFL 13 is certainly a disappointment, but Vita fans looking for a portable football game can still find enjoyment here.