'NCAA Football 13' ends psychic defense

The gameplay improvements made to "NCAA Football 13" give the passing game a fresh feel. EA Sports

Defensive players with eyes in the back of their helmets.

It’s one of the controller-breaking frustrations I’ve had with the “NCAA Football” and “Madden” franchises for years. See a wide receiver break free with only a linebacker underneath the route, but when you throw the ball, that same linebacker who is playing catch-up magically times his jump perfectly, swatting away your pass at the last second.

Time to punt (or kick your Xbox across the room).

Known throughout the “NCAA Football” gaming community as psychic defense, the only thing these polygonal defenders couldn’t do was bend spoons with their cyber minds.

Thankfully, after getting my hands on an early build of “NCAA Football 13,” I’m ecstatic to report that player awareness is not only a focal point of the improved gameplay this year, it changes everything you know about passing the polygonal pigskin.

“If the player on the field doesn’t see the ball, he’s not making a play. Not this year,” says Larry Richart, the game’s central gameplay designer. “If you watch college football these days, teams are spreading the ball out and throwing the ball 40, 50, even 60 times is not that uncommon, so we really wanted to emphasize the passing game this year and basically improve everything about the experience from the foundation up, and that involves throwing and catching.”

So as a quarterback in “NCAA 13,” the pass trajectory and ball speed is now as important as finding the open receiver.

Remember those screen passes last year that were thrown so high, everyone used to call them moon balls? Gone. In “NCAA 13,” quarterbacks have more control than ever.

“Last year, by the time you caught a screen or a swing pass, you were already at the sideline,” explains Richart. “It forced you to throw the ball too soon, and that’s just not the way the play was designed.”

And with the ability to adjust your trajectory to a much finer point according to the pressure of the button press, you’re now able to lob the ball to the tight end over the middle of the field and complete the pass over the pesky defender patrolling the middle.

“That never would’ve happened last year,” says Richart. “Our new Total Control Passing mechanic enables you to make all the throws. You can now use the L-Stick to aim your throws and lead your receivers, or even hit them with a back-shoulder pass in the end zone. We’re trying to make you a better quarterback so you can throw the ball to an area, rather than simply throwing the ball to a receiver. This just makes everything more realistic, from the better touch, to being able to hit your receivers in stride while leading them up the field.”

And depending on the quarterback ratings of each player, you’ll now see a more significant difference in accuracy and throwing power, especially as you try to work the ball deeper down the field.

Also helping with the timing of each route are 20 new quarterback drop backs. The “NCAA” producers are hoping these new drop backs will eliminate gamers from pressing back immediately when they hike the ball, letting the QB automatically take the appropriate drop before gamers take back control to pass. “If you call a wide receiver comeback, that’s a play that takes longer to develop. It’s a 17-yard route that times perfectly with our seven step drop with a hitch step,” says Richart. “So when he comes out of his hitch step -- bang! -- throw the ball and it times up perfectly with the route. If you just held back and ran around before throwing the ball, the timing wouldn’t be there like it’s supposed to be. We really want gamers to let the quarterback auto-drop in order to let the pass play out like it’s supposed to.”

Other new drop backs include screen drops (always an issue to get the pass off in time), one-step drops out of the shotgun (think bubble screen), as well as drop backs with pump fakes already built-in in order to make the defense bite early on a double move. Add in eight QB avoidance abilities to help shake the rush, and playing in the pocket has never been better.

If you do start feeling the pressure and need to flee fast, however, throwing on the run has also been greatly improved this year. If you’re rolling out and throwing the ball while running, you’re no longer going to stop to setup the throw. Now throwing on the run is actually throwing on the run, and it makes a world of difference (just don’t try to run right and throw back left as EA tuned the accuracy against this type of devilish behavior).

“Users who have been getting away with unrealistic bad habits in the past just aren’t going to be able to get away with these types of passes anymore,” Richart says.

And while last year, quarterbacks could shuffle around the pocket at up to 78 percent of their overall speed, EA has finally slowed down the locomotion to differentiate between quarterbacks in the pocket and sprinting down the field for the first down.

Another game-changer is the overhaul done to the play-action pass. Not only has the play been sped up so that the quarterback gets to the running back faster, but if the defense does come free and you see him in time, you can actually cancel the play-action during the animation, helping you avoid the sack. “We’ve adjusted the routes so that the running backs stay in and help block after the play-action,” says Richart. “We also have a lot more routes with delays, where a player will initially block, then sneak out to try and get open. And best of all, if a defender is charging in for the sack, and you abort the play-action, your running back will step in and block for you. He won’t just stand there and let you take the hit anymore.”

Almost brings a tear to my eye.

But like I said earlier, the biggest difference in the passing game is when the ball is in the air, and it has to do with player awareness. And that improved awareness also includes the receivers.

As the quarterback drops back to pass, you no longer see all of the receiver icons. If the receiver is running a 20-yard route, you can no longer expect to fire the ball at him after 12 yards and expect him to somehow magically spin around without ever seeing the pass and make the catch. And this works for both the offense and defense.

Adds Richart: “Timing is everything now. You can’t just snap and fire when you want. Now you have to wait for the icons to light up, because when they light up, that will give the receivers the ability to catch the ball. Unless you’re really good at user catch, these plays just aren’t going to work anymore. The whole idea is to add realism to the specific routes so that they look and are run like they are supposed to. We also added new rules, so if the slot receiver sees his defender blitz, his icon will light up right away almost like a hot route, so the game is reading and reacting to what is taking place on the field.

“And for the defense, that means no more psychic defensive backs. They need to see the ball in order to make a play. They need to read before they react. And because of that, we’ve realigned our defense to be in better position in order to see the quarterback and read the receiver. In years past, we didn’t have everyone lined up in the most realistic fashion on defense, but this year, we talked to coaches and players, and now we have everybody in the correct spots in order to make plays. We have different defensive techniques in the game this year like trail, where the defenders will try to get inside because they know they have deep help over the top with the safeties. You’ll now see them chuck the receiver and try to force them one way while they stay on their inside hip. That’s forcing the quarterback to throw the ball over him in order to complete the pass. And with the new trajectory quarterbacks can put on the ball, it’s possible, you just need to watch out for that safety.

“The more realistic the game gets, the more we’re making it like a chess match, and that’s exactly the type of realism we’re looking to create in this game.”