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NCAA Football 13 review: Heisman pose

NCAA Football 13 review
EA Sports' latest in the NCAA Football series pays tribute to Heisman Trophy winners of the past. One name that stands out is quarterback Matt Leinart, former USC great and current NFL flop. Leinart's college career was magnificent, but he's since struggled at the professional level and has already landed with his third NFL team since he was drafted in 2006. By all accounts, his moment in the sun is sometimes overshadowed by his moments on the bench in recent years.

NCAA Football 13 is just that, a "Matt Leinart" of sports games; there's much to celebrate and much to despise.%Gallery-157683% First off, on-field gameplay got a few tweaks in this year's game. Quarterbacks have 20 passing trajectories that you won't be able to honestly tell the difference between, and a total control passing feature that feels like something you do already (using the left analog stick to lead receivers to open spaces). What matters here is that, thanks to these updates, passing works well this year. Defenses disguise their coverage and blitzes more effectively now, so there's still plenty of challenge to be had, too.

You can now abort play action animations by pulling the right trigger, which saved me when I saw a blitz coming after the snap a few times. Ultimately, it's fun/less futile to play as a QB in NCAA 13, save for the surprising number of times I saw offensive linemen completely miss crucial blocks on pass rushers, never even touching the players running at the quarterback.

One thing helping the offense's case a little is the tuning made to defenders this year. Now, players on defense feel a little less "magical," in that the ball needs to be in their line of vision in order to make a play on it. Even so, I spotted a good number of linebackers and defensive backs that went after an interception the second a quarterback started his throw, as opposed to when the ball is already in the air, so precognitive defenders aren't completely a thing of the past.

Worse yet, receivers that are statistically of the same caliber as these super defenders seem glued to their routes. Even with all the added catching animations (430 of them that you won't be able to distinguish from one another), receivers rarely make aggressive plays for the ball in the same way that defenders do. A receiver's icon will illuminate once he's prepared to have the ball thrown to him, which is a nice addition. And, if you hit a receiver on their route, every animation from the throw, to the catch, to the tackle looks excellent.

But outside of these constraints, the game fails to make the leap from fun to spectacular. In fact, it is still prone to some of the same hardcore Madden/NCAA tactics, like constant streak patterns for tight ends and speedy slot receivers, as safeties play a very spotty game this year. This year's additions are only a small upgrade on last year's installment, making it paradoxically more fun, yet still aggravating for die-hard football fans.

NCAA 13's presentation is about as good as it was last year. While commentary isn't amazing and shadows still look strange on players, the ESPN branding looks almost identical to what you'd expect on TV. Rece Davis' TV-like studio updates in Dynasty mode are cool, especially when unranked teams like UCLA are leading top schools like LSU with minutes left in the 4th quarter. They also quickly become skippable material after the first game, as Davis frequently interrupts the flow of play. Grass looks strange and especially hazy in replays, and far too many fans in the crowd are wearing EA-branded shirts and hoodies (who are you fooling, guys?).

New this year is the Heisman Challenge mode, which gives players the chance to play solely as Heisman winners of the past in an environment very similar to the series' Road to Glory mode. Goals based around breaking each legend's records and memorable video interview packages, such as Desmond Howard mulling over the way Michigan felt like home, are included to make the mode stand out. It is fun to play with legendary players for a change, but the mode ultimately feels like Road to Glory in its execution. It's still entertaining (a microcosm of the entire game), but feels just a tad empty.

Much like Heisman Challenge, Road to Glory (RTG) is slightly better constructed this year, as it has clearer and more appropriate goals for players to achieve each season. It seems to be much easier to get into top schools in the standard difficulty settings, as I took a safety to Oklahoma and received scholarships for six-star programs by week four as a power running back. That running back, which had multiple 300 yard, 5 touchdown games in high school, wound up at Alabama as a 4th string recruit. By week six of his freshman season, he became the starter at the top school in the nation, which underscores just how easy the mode appears to be at that position.

Both RTG and Heisman Challenge modes are enhanced with the new Reaction Time feature. Pulling the left trigger on the controller mid-play in these modes slows down time momentarily to help you make plays, a "bullet time" effect that was nifty the first few times I pulled if off correctly. It's worth noting that the gauge is limited to a set amount of seconds per play to avoid overuse. That didn't matter much, as it turned into a gimmicky feature that wore thin after a dozen uses, and only feels awesome on occasion. Of those few amazing moments, I managed to snag a game-saving interception thanks to Reaction Time, so the feature does have its benefits.

Also, a bizarre, enormous downside to Reaction Time is that it's mapped to the same button as the oh-so-important strafing button on defense. With no way to reconfigure the button or to turn the feature off entirely, Reaction Time pretty much kills the way advanced players play defense in RTG. In short, the inability to manually strafe forces you to relearn a defensive game that isn't all that fun to begin with. Plus, the same horrible swiveling camera from NCAA 12 returns to plague those who love defense in this career mode. Even with the good that comes from using Reaction Time, the terrible camera makes it astoundingly easy to completely whiff simple tackles while a runner is in motion.

The saving grace this year is Dynasty mode. Added dynamic pitch systems in the phone-call conversation system, along with advanced scouting methods, are quite addicting. Successfully recruiting a "gem" player to your school is the rewarding result of hours of strategy. Making promises and trying to sway the interests of four- and five-star recruits felt like tense, weighty decisions in the making. I'd wager that scouting and recruiting in Dynasty mode is the most fun to be had in the entire game, even counting the positive side of the on-field action.

Multiplayer is pretty much standard fare this year, as nothing feels all that new compared to NCAA 12. Each game I played online went without a hitch, and the framerate seemed to keep up well. Of course, as the game launches that could change.

Make no mistake, Matt Leinart is a Heisman Trophy winner, and USC retired his number for a reason. He was excellent in his college years. But he's not my first pick as an all-time great, and neither is NCAA Football 13.


This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of NCAA Football 13, provided by Electronic Arts.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.