Last week, EA Sports released the NCAA Football 2013 demo for PS3 and Xbox. After wasting a significant portion of the last 25 years playing football video games, it comes as no surprise that I spent two hours downloading the demo just to squeeze in 20 minutes of gameplay after putting the kids to bed. Based on this limited 20-minute sampling, I'm encouraged that this year's game will improve upon a franchise that's been somewhat stale in recent years. That said, I will reserve final judgment until after I've played the full version.
If you've played the NCAA Football series in the past, you're probably familiar with a number of gameplay issues, including psychic defensive backs, linebackers with 6-foot verticals, broken play-action passing and exploitable AI, just to name a few. While EA's developers have not made any major overhauls like Madden's "infinity engine," there are noticeable improvements, particularly in the passing game. With the new "Total Control Passing," Quarterbacks can lead receivers into open space, place the proper amount of touch on passes, and place the ball between linebackers and safeties. This feature should open up the offensive playbook so players aren't limited to a few bread-and-butter plays/routes. I found it particularly helpful when running plays with option routes.
Above is a diagram of a "stick" play from a three-wide formation. The tight end runs to about 5 yards and has the option to turn and look for the pass or run an out route. When the defense played zone, the tight end settled in the opening between defenders. When the defense played man, the tight end would run an out route and the Total Control Passing allowed me to lead him away from the linebacker. This was a solid play the few times I called it.
In addition to more control in the passing game, the days of stifling defenses may be over. Anyone who has played NCAA Football 2012 has certainly experienced a defensive back breaking on a pass even before the wide receiver makes his cut or a linebacker who blocks a pass that is behind him despite his momentum going the opposite direction. EA has addressed the psychic defensive backs and superhuman linebackers with its new Read & React defense that prevents defenders from making a play on the ball without seeing the ball first. While I couldn't tell if defenders were looking for the ball, it appeared that zone coverages were pretty soft as a result of the new programming.
In an effort to test the soft coverages, I ran plays with the "smash concept" to see if I could exploit the cornerback with the hitch/corner route combo. The first time I called the play, I was able to hit the hitch route because the cornerback dropped to cover the corner route. The next time I called the play, I hit the divide route for a score because the deep safeties split wide to cover the corner routes.
The combination of the Total Control Passing and the Read & React defense allowed me to complete passes on routes that I never would have in past versions of the game. I completed some dig routes, deep outs, and even a deep come back without much worry of a pick six.
With respect to the run game, I was really interested in running some zone read plays and other shotgun runs because of my past difficulties with these plays. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with the success I had running zone reads from Ace Twins.
When I ran the above-diagrammed play, I would motion the backside tight end to the play-side to get a numbers advantage. Motioning the tight end also left the backside end unblocked so I could actually "read" him to determine whether to give the ball to the running back or keep it with the quarterback. I found that most of my success came when giving the ball to the running back, even when I misread the defensive end. It was also encouraging that I had similar success with other base runs out of shotgun.
Overall, I would grade the demo's gameplay as a B+. If the actual game is anything like the demo, the days of 10-7 slugfests are long gone. The best defense will be a good offense. To the extent you still have to play defense, my advice would be to call aggressive man/blitz defenses and take your chances. Any decent player should be able to pick apart the zones.
Although I spent most of this review discussing trivial gameplay improvements, I would be remiss if I didn't recognize the nice job EA's developers have done focusing on important details like RIVALRY TROPHIES and DREADLOCKS.
In my opinion, July 10th can't get here fast enough - even though it appears that EA believes Tommy Rees will be the starting quarterback. And EA never gets anything wrong. . . .