America loves football. We just can't get enough of the stuff. Whether it's a stumbling Pop Warner tyke, a fleet-footed college hopeful or a hulking pro star, fans long to see someone snatch a pigskin ball out of the air … then get crushed by a defensive back in full lather. And when we can't play or watch football, we've got video games to stoke our fiery passions. Each year game producers create a new batch of insta-favorites with ever-better graphics and shinier bells and whistles.
Case in point: NCAA Football. This preternaturally popular title is annually packed to the digital brim with gameplay designed to keep college ball fans happy during those dreaded moments when a real game isn't in progress. (Like during commercial breaks.)
Whatever your desired level of armchair quarterback involvement, this game attempts to offer you something. Its football mechanics are simple enough to let first-timers look like pros as they make cuts, spins, sideline grabs and defensive jukes. And its problematic content registers at near zero. So the discerning sports fan can dive right into a battle against the college team of his or her choice, build a college-bound player to show the world great things, take the reins of a university program and battle up the ranks of a chosen conference, or just hop online for some multiplayer action with friends. (Those friends should be picked carefully, of course, and—for kids—with oversight from Mom and Dad.)
This is college ball at its finest—minus the foam finger, team-colored body paint and those frighteningly high ticket prices at the gate.
NCAA Football 13
The simple truth is that, for me, the NCAA video games have always felt much more user-friendly than the Madden pro-ball games. And that certainly carries through to the 2013 installment. The graphics and presentation may not be quite as slick as the big boys, but game features (like the still-included One-Button mode) make jumping in and picking up NCAA Football 13 easy for any age or skill level.
The standard Dynasty mode (building your favorite team into conference champs), Road to Glory (where you shape your homemade guy into a superstar) and online gridiron battles are back and as good as ever. There are a number of adjustments, however. There are no sideline announcement spotlights this time around. If Erin Andrews wants to throw in a comment or two it's audio-only, meaning we don't have to worry about her latest wardrobe choices. Classroom requirements and social activities have been nixed in this version, too. And your Road to Glory hero gets to play through his high school senior year to grab attention—and scholarships—from his favorite schools.
A new in-game tool called Reaction Time adds an adrenaline-pumped twist to play. This special refillable meter slows down time, giving you a few seconds of slo-mo to help you scan the field and pivot and duck away from a defender at just the right moment. This ability also spills over into a new mode called Heisman Challenge. This fun addition offers a full season to re-create or reimagine the glories of some of the most lauded amateurs to pick up the pigskin.
As far as actual gameplay mechanics are concerned, it's all pretty familiar. The menu-flipping tedium of recruiting and building my Dynasty again feels so grinding and long-winded that I wanted someone to hand me a real paycheck for working so hard. On the other hand, actual on-the-field play is well worth the game's price tag. Gone are the days of your QB launching an off-balance, stumble-footed rocket that miraculously hits its target. The physics of play in the passing game have been seriously tightened up and—with a whole slew of new throw, catch and run animations—game days feel much more realistic.
NCAA Football 11
Skill levels—Heisman, All-America, Varsity and Freshman—set the perfect challenge for every gamer, from pro to casual. For those who really don't want to sweat the details, there's a One-Button mode that lets you sit back while the game makes all the decisions for you. A Home Advantage effect helps give players a wobbly sense of the impact of rookie nerves when you're playing in front of an opponent's screaming home crowds. And if you turn on an option called Ice the Kicker, your coach demands a time-out mere seconds before the other team's field goal attempt, just to throw off their kicker's rhythm.
The Road to Glory showcases sideline reporter Erin Andrews and replaces Campus Legend from past games. In it, live-action video clips chronicle your guy's college career and his rise to gridiron fame. You still attend class and work out in the practices, but now the world is watching. And at the end of the university years you can export a whole draft class of collegians over to Madden NFL 11 and continue their careers.
Not quite so classy are the cheerleaders who reveal midriffs and lots of leg. And then there's a new lighthearted mode that lets you pit teams dressed in mascot uniforms against one another. That last bit's cute, but odd and forgettable.
NCAA Football 08
The individual player challenge in this '08 version is called Campus Legend. You use it to create a player from scratch and send him off to play college ball. You can choose a lower-rated school and immediately start for the upcoming season, or you can pick a powerhouse and try to claw your way up the depth chart as you master the required skills during practice.
In either case, if you want to stay active on the field you'll have to not only practice hard but manage your grades and extracurricular activities off the gridiron as well. As your college career progresses, your accomplishments fill a legend meter and—eventually—earn you the BMOC (big-man-on-campus) title. Then, if you can't bear to part with your now-seasoned collegian, you can import him into the newest Madden NFL game and start all over in the pros.
Of course, if that sounds almost as time-consuming as actually going to college, you're getting the idea. And it's only the beginning. The challenge of being a college legend is nothing compared to punching the clock as the university's coach in Dynasty mode. Fortunately, a "super sim" lets time-conscious gamers skip over hours of complicated activities. And other than the temptation to spend years tied to a football game, there's not a lot in this title that might be described as problematic. An annoyingly large number of fumbles and interceptions interrupt the flow, but it is college ball, after all.
Category-typical rap/rock soundtracks are exchanged for marching bands here. And the hip-shaking, skimpily clad cheerleaders of other football titles are left in the locker room. The only sideline sights are bench-warming teammates, cartwheeling mascots and bleachers full of cheering fans.