NCAA Football 14 Review
The dog days of summer are approaching, meaning it's once again almost time for the college football season to start. Ahead of the scholarship athletes reporting to training camp on campus, EA is taking its annual turn at getting everyone hyped for the BCS with this year's NCAA Football 14. Now boasting Madden NFL's Infinity Engine and Ultimate Team mode, as well as a host of changes to Dynasty mode, it's even tougher to discern the amateur game from the professional one. Of course, whether or not that's a good thing remains to be seen.
The biggest difference between the previous iteration and NCAA Football 14 is in the new physics engine. This year's game includes EA's proprietary Infinity Engine 2.0, an updated version of the same engine seen in last year's Madden. Players now have weight to them, and momentum can be felt when guiding a player across the field. Tackles are more dynamic, and movement is much more natural across the board. While these traits are great and new for NCAA players, the Infinity Engine still suffers from some of the same nagging issues in this update as it did in the first version. Players will still stumble and trip over one another, and there are some awful awkward tackling animations brought on by the independent limbs players now possess. There are even still times when a player will be tackled, but wind on top of another player, and thus won't be ruled down until he shakes to the ground. It's disappointing to see the same bizarre animations occurring again one year later, but the Infinity Engine is still way better than NCAA's previous engine.
Perhaps just as important as the Infinity Engine is the inclusion of a new read option system. We've seen the option offense being run for quite a few years now, but it hasn't been replicated with much success in games. This year's NCAA Football finally addresses the issue, and reproduces the option so well that you have to wonder what took so long. Depending on which type of option play you pick (read, speed, shovel or triple), there will be a defender (or two), called out in the pre-snap read to observe. When he makes his first move, you have to decide the best course of action. Sometimes you'll be stuffed even if you picked the right option, but there's a much better success rate in this entry versus any year previous. That said, while it's fun to run on offense, it's frustrating to try and stop on defense. The option has mystified professional defenses for some time, and you'll be just as baffled when you go after the wrong ball carrier here, too. Sure, you can adjust, but you'll still be burned by a quarterback more than a few times during game.
The better option in part also stems from the more competent offensive blocking added this year. Now you can actually run the ball between the tackles without fear of getting smashed immediately. Linemen hold onto blocks and progress to the next level much more realistically, providing better lanes for runners and keeping pesky opposing players at bay when you're trying to read the defense. Auto-sprint has also been pulled this season, meaning you'll be able to control your burst out of the backfield, and past oncoming defenders. It takes a bit of time to learn the proper timing for when to burst through the line, but getting positive gains on the ground is much easier this year than it has been in the past.
Unlike the running game and blocking, NCAA Football 14's defense is still as clueless as ever. Post routes and crossing patterns in the middle of the field continue to baffle the defense and it's almost as if the space between the hashes doesn't exist to the computer. Safeties and corners respond much better to deep balls along the sideline, though that's due to a lack of aggressiveness on the wideouts as well. Linebackers are good at keeping the run in check, but get blown out in coverage far too often. With the new blocking, it's also much tougher to get any pressure on the quarterback. That's great when you have the ball, but not so much when you are on defense. It's just a shame to see nearly every improvement marred by a lingering issue that should have been addressed. Defensive incompetence is not new to the franchise, but it's a factor that should have been handled by now.
NCAA Football 14 plays identically regardless of which mode you're playing. The new Ultimate Team is the same as you've seen in other EA Sports titles before. You craft a team of former college stars from cards you purchase in packs. EA either still doesn't understand how real collectible card games work, or just doesn't care. Low-level cards are all consigned to specific packs, as are average and rare cards. There's never a mix, giving you the thrill of finding that elusive player in a pack of (relative), bums. It's a fine mode to play as a fantasy football of sorts, but the illusion breaks once you're forced to start paying for packs of cards with virtual coins to keep playing.
Dynasty mode has seen its biggest overhaul in years in NCAA Football 14. Now there are Coach Skills, which add an RPG-like element to the affair. When you create your head coach, you'll have a two skill tress to progress through --recruiting and game management. Your defensive and offensive coordinators have one skill tree each as well. You earn skill points to unlock elements on the tree by completing tasks during the season or in an individual game. The more experience you earn, the faster you can level up your coach to elite heights. As interesting as it sounds in theory, in practice it's just not very interesting. The gameday skills you unlock as a head coach don't add much to the game beyond superficial elements like causing less penalties or having no scrambled play art during road games. The coordinator skills are much better and focus on specific traits like improved stamina and ball control, which are a lot more important and relevant. The recruiting skills are much more useful, however recruiting has plenty of problems, too.
In-depth recruiting is gone in favor of new Power Recruiting. Now you have a single block of points to use every week to attract players, and learn more about their abilities. Certain factors (like being a pipeline school), will earn you bonuses, and you can choose to spend up to 500 points a week on a player. However, it's not ever made clear just what spending these points does. Sometimes a player will keep you atop his list for the entire season, and others you'll find your team dropping from the top 5 drastically week after week despite pumping hundreds of recruiting points into him. There's no real rhyme or reason why; it's all just sort of random. At least the way the game explains it, which is to say it doesn't.
Previously, you had specific control over how you would approach a prospect, and you could really measure your success or failure to connect. With this general point-spending, there's a lot less skill in negotiating, and a lot more luck in how the (blue) chips will fall when it comes to signing. It may have streamlined the process, but it certainly hasn't made recruiting more fun or engaging.
We'd be remiss in not mentioning the addition of the All-22 camera option in NCAA Football 14. For nearly a decade, we've all been gaming in widescreen high-definition, but this is the first EA football game that actually allows us to see sideline-to-sideline. There are no more blind throws, and you can get a much better sense of the depth of the field and how players are positioned with the new camera. That said, it does take away a bit from the presentation to see every player represented in a much smaller form. You're basically giving up minute details for the option to see the whole field. It's an entirely optional camera, but one die-hard fans are sure to flock to for a better look at how defenses and offensive players react all over the field.
Much has changed for NCAA Football 14 in the year since its predecessor was released. EA Sports has revamped quite a bit of the game, from the menus to the physics to the playbooks. Not all of those changes make NCAA Football 14 a great game, though. There are still too many flaws to exploit in the defense and there's an awful lot of waiting on menus. The upgrades to Dynasty mode, while drastic, seem superfluous, and recruiting appears to be more random than ever. A few of these faults can be chalked up to growing pains, and could be better fleshed out in another year. As it stands now, NCAA Football 14 is full of promise, but promise only gets you so far without delivering on the goods.
This review is based on a copy of NCAA Football 14 provided by the publisher for the PlayStation 3.