NCAA 13 Review: If it's in the game, it's probably in the game

Connor Shaw, after throwing for 8 TDs and 500+ yards against virtual Vanderbilt. Or after winning the South Carolina Education Lottery. Or after successfully proposing. He's holds his cards close to the vest, is what I'm saying.

In case you've missed the plethora of posts on the subject, allow me to inform you that EA Sports NCAA 2013 is widely available. It's a pretty big deal, folks. I don't have the numbers on this, but I'd wager it's one of the big three sports game releases each year, alongside Madden and FIFA. (You could throw in MLB The Show, but I believe it's on the chopping block for XBox, so that would suggest it's becoming more of a niche title. Still an excellent game, though.)

A few weeks back, I interviewed Ben Haumiller, producer of NCAA13, with some questions mostly relating to the Gamecocks' game visibility. His answers essentially amounted to "They're a great team but will pretty much look the same as last year." Indeed, South Carolina doesn't enjoy much additional attention relative to previous appearances. We are ranked at #11 and graded at A- overall. Curiously, Clemson is graded at an A+ but ranked three spots back. Although I'm all about Clemson's football program swirling down the commode, it's nice to see both of South Carolina teams getting some national love. Michigan is the only other state with two teams in EA's top 15.

Read on after the jump!

But we all know preseason rankings guarantee nothing (see Tennessee, 2005 or Michigan, 2007.) Forget all that; how's the game? The Brice looks really, really good in my opinion. Add custom stadium sound effects (which I've done) and you get a fairly convincing facsimile of our pre- and mid-game theatrics, assuming you can live without the smokey entrance and Cocky's emergence (maybe next year…) EA also corrected a glaring issue: last year, Brad Nessler welcomed fans to "William-Brice [sic] Stadium". Mercifully, they got the name right this go-round. Additionally, I have yet to hear Nessler approximate the stadium to Lake Murray, another brow-raising line from last year's edition that made you wonder if EA's research team went much farther than a Wikipedia perusal or a Google Maps scan.

Our default roster raises some questions. Namely, how is Connor Shaw slower than Dylan Thompson? Why are Jadeveon Clowney's speed and strength numbers so middling? Why is true freshman Brock Stadnik our top-rated OL and among our highest rated players overall? And where, oh where is Bruce Ellington? I could go on with these minuscule beefs reserved only for program diehards, but instead I'll applaud EA for encouraging roster sharing. They recognize how unpragmatic it is to precisely reflect 6,000+ players with over 20 statistical parameters for each (amounting to some 120,000 individual statistics to program) and wisely put the onus on the fans, allowing custom rosters to be disseminated throughout the online community. Look for more accurate rosters to circulate within the first few weeks of the season.

Speaking of customization, I referenced the ability to customize stadium sounds, a feature that's been available for a few years now. This is especially appreciated by us Gamecocks, since EA hasn't licensed our fight song. Root around online and you'll find a pack of WB Stadium sounds that you can import and create a pretty authentic atmosphere. You can customize everything from the 2001 entrance to the rooster crow to a Sandstorm pump-up. You can even get the "Game, Cocks" cheer in stereo, which is mightily bad-ass.

A litmus test I tend to run with any new sports title is a full game simulation on the highest difficulty setting. I pitted us against Vanderbilt in Nashville (since it's the opening tilt and all) and let the game roll. Here's what I learned:

  • Either Vanderbilt has no defense or, on the whole, the game's A.I. skews towards offense. The final score was something like 82-31, Cocks. Another explanation for the point totals: the game clock didn't shave any time between downs, as it does in normal gameplay which results in a more realistic flow. The result in this simulated game was a handful of sub-minute drives and a very long simulation.
  • One of the more played-out terms amongst sports analysts in recent years is "video game numbers". Indeed, this simulation fed into that cliche. Connor Shaw passed for over 500 yards and something like 8 touchdowns, although threw a couple of mind-boggling picks for good measure (was a Garcia algorithm was programmed for SC quarterbacks?)
  • The Vandy D-line gobbled up Marcus Lattimore early on, but I think he was up over 200 yards by the time the game ended. I've had much better success when actually playing with Latty, who I think is rated a 97 overall.
  • Will DeAngelo Smith be our breakout receiver this year? EA seems to think so. On our first two drives, Smith was on the receiving end of a third-and-long bomb, both which he took to the house. Ultimately he caught 5(!) touchdown passes for 250+ yards. Ace Sanders and DL Moore also each caught a 60+ yard touchdown.
  • Defensively, our secondary played a good game. Vic Hampton swiped an option pitch out of mid-air and ran it back for a TD. DJ Swearinger also played well, which is unsurprising since he's the best-rated free safety in the game as I understand it. And I'm not sure, but in one instance Devin Taylor may have broken all of Jordan Rodgers' bones (yes, even the incus.) Whatever the case, Rodgers didn't play the second half.

Aside: I'm considering a goofy feature where I simulate and recap every game throughout the season, prior to it actually being played, just to see how they compare. If I do this, I'll probably scale back quarter length to account for the insane offensive outbursts. I may also be able to adjust sliders to make games more realistic. Any intel on that would be appreciated!

As for the other modes, I haven't done the Heisman Challenge and--sorry, EA--I'm never going because it doesn't interest me in the slightest. As for Road to Glory, so far so good. I'm the running back-in-waiting behind Marcus Lattimore, although I'll probably take over the starting spot by week three, which seems a little unrealistic. I am a big fan of the Reaction Time feature, which allows you to slow time to a sepia-tinged crawl during play. I find it especially useful when cutting through the tackles--it's helped me shed my bad habit of slamming Latty square into AJ Cann's back fat. I've started a Dynasty but, as with last year's, it's pretty complex and I've yet to commit to sorting through everything. The menu screens take a few seconds each to load, which makes navigating the interface a tad laborious.

Gameplay itself is pretty smooth. As Haumiller said in our interview, the "psychic lineman" are no more--I've yet to have a pass swatted. The new QB dropbacks make plays like bubble screens more useful. I find it a little more difficult to shake blockers when playing as a D-Lineman, which, while frustrating vis-a-vis last year, is probably more realistic. I still find the Wildcat formation clumsy, and it usually results in lost yardage. I've also tried to find away to set situational substitutions (i.e. have Bruce helm the Wildcat, not Latty) but have yet to discover how, if it's possible at all.

The zillion dollar question: is it worth the buy? Yes, of course it is. I've got my gripes, but overall, we're dealing with a pretty astounding virtual college football experience. I hope EA continues to refine some of the iffy components in future editions, but let's not overlook just how impressive the game's core really is. Besides, if the Cocks can do something really special on the field this year, maybe we'll get that coveted Cocky reveal for which we so yearn.

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