It’s July, and besides fireworks that can only mean one thing… a new NCAA Football is upon us. It’s hard to believe, but thankfully it is indeed almost time once again for the greatest of all sports: college football. The new season begins at the end of August, and that gives us plenty of time to run through the upcoming season controlling our favorite teams in dynasty or season mode and see what the future holds in store.
One complaint people always have about annual titles like NCAA Football is that it is the same game every year. It’s a little worse for EA Sports, because they also have the ever popular Madden NFL franchise as well meaning they put out two football games a year within about a month of each other. For the most part, the two games are usually quite similar, but for the past couple of years at least Madden has certainly been the better looking game and had the better presentation. Last year’s Madden took the difference up a notch by including the new Infinity engine, which if you read my review of Madden NFL 13 you would know that I really liked. Thankfully, NCAA Football 14 is sporting the enhanced and improved Infinity Engine 2.0. The game has also caught up to its bigger brother with the addition of the popular Ultimate Team mode in NCAA Football 14.
I’ve had the good fortune of being able to play this game a ton for a little over a week now, and I have to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed every single minute spent playing the game. I’ve completed two dynasty seasons, started a couple of more, played a lot of Road to Glory, some exhibition games, and a good bit of the solo challenges in Ultimate Team model. In short, I’ve played a lot of games, most at five minute quarters, and all of them have been fun.
Of course the game does still have issues. The commentary is just as boring as ever. If you hear something that sounds good, you can bet you’re going to hear it again and again. Every time I ran the ball with Vanderbilt’s running back during my online dynasty, Brad Nessler would say the same canned comment about Vanderbilt always having a player at the top and this guy being no different and how he’s statistically leading the conference. Every game, without fail… it got old. The commentary, which you can turn off (but I don’t), just continues to be as dull as can be. There are times when it sounds good, but then you’re going to hear the discussions over and over again, and sometimes they aren’t even right in what they’re talking about.
I have to nitpick with the commentary because it really is the only sore spot for me. Outside of the same lackluster commentary we have every year, the presentation we have this year really is much improved. I love being in dynasty and having quick pre-game shows, and quick half time shows with Rece Davis and David Pollock. These two in the new halftime show (thank goodness there’s finally something at halftime) add a new flavor to the game, and hopefully the team can expand on their inclusion on the next gen systems and make halftime even better. I love the studio updates that happen during a dynasty game. This occasionally occurs after a play where Rece and David will talk a little bit about a game currently in progress or that just ended while you get to see some stats for that game.
In my South Alabama dynasty, near the end of the season I was ranked number three in the BCS. Michigan State was ranked second and they cut to a studio update and talked about how Michigan State was getting beat. When they cut back to Nessler and my game resumed, Nessler started talking about how that would impact my BCS ranking if that score upholds and how that would be a major development. It’s the kind of touch that seems small, but really helps add a lot to the immersion of the game and makes dynasty simply feel much better and more connected.
In dynasty, they also have the ESPN Bottom Line ticker. This shows scores from games that are happening in your dynasty universe, and this year they have priority score alerts, upset alerts (which can be just as ridiculous as they are in real life), and final alerts. Again, it’s one of those small touches that really helps to add a lot to the immersion of the dynasty. Many times I’d find myself delaying a play to catch the scores across the bottom and hoping anytime I saw a “score alert” that someone just scored against a team I wanted/needed to lose… just like in real life!
Dynasty hasn’t only been improved in the presentation department. The coaching carousel first introduced in NCAA Football 12 is still present, but this year you get to really invest more in your career as a head coach (or coordinator) thanks to a skill progression systems. Yes, they’ve made coaching in dynasty into a quasi-RPG. You have goals as a coach and you earn XP for completing goals and playing good football. As you rack up XP your level goes up, and every time your level goes up you get a new skill point to spend on one of two trees (either game management or recruiting). These skills, which can each be upgraded to a max level of three, do things to help improve your team or help you with recruiting. Don’t like squiggly lines or controller vibration at away games? There’s a skill to stop that.
There are nine skills for game management and nine skills for recruiting. To unlock all nine and fully upgrade them for a tree you’ll need to hit level 27. To have every skill max upgraded in both trees, you’ll need to hit the max level for head coaches, which is 54. There’s also a tree for offensive and defensive coordinators. All of this helps to have you shape your experience on focus on the things that you care about. None of the skills grant an unfair advantage either, so it’s pretty balanced all things considered. It’s an RPG system done right in a sports game.
Recruiting in dynasty has also seen a major overhaul this year. Gone is the allotted time to make phone calls to recruits. This year, you simply allocate points towards a player. This redesign was meant to streamline recruiting and speed it up, but it doesn’t cheapen the experience. For me, it makes recruiting a lot better. In the past recruiting always seemed to boring and a hassle, so I’d only do it for a few players and then let the CPU take care of the rest. This year, the recruiting process is pretty quick and its easy to understand. You can easily scout players, schedule visits once they have enough interest, and you can see how you’re doing against other schools targeting the player so that you can adjust your points allocated to that player accordingly.
Despite being streamlined and made a little easier, recruiting still has a lot of depth to it. Pipeline states and bonuses important to the player (early playing time, prestige, etc.) is all still here. The more stuff you have that your targeted player likes, the more bonus points you get for that player. Likewise, the player could have a deal breaker. For example, if you’re Alabama recruiting a player in California who has proximity to home as a deal breaker, then you’re going to be locked out from them considering you. It’s always something to keep an eye on.
Scholarships still play a big role, and offering a player a scholarship early can lead to bonuses for your school. Scheduling visits is even more important than ever, as they’ve introduced complementary visits and competitive visits. You’ll want to keep an eye on who you have visiting your games. You’ll get bonuses for complementary visits like having a QB and a wide receiver visit on the same day. If you’re targeting multiple running backs though, you don’t want to have them all visiting on the same days as that will be a competitive visit and your results will take a hit. You can score bonus points for winning games against ranked teams, beating rivals, and meeting in-game goals the recruits want to see (a QB may want to see you throw the ball for so many yards, a HB may want to see so many rushing yards, etc.).
Even offseason recruiting to was condensed down to one stage and made easier, and riskier (you have a set amount of points and no restriction on how to use them, so you could go all in on one player if you want to).
If you don’t care for all the recruiting and other bells and whistles of dynasty mode, NCAA Football 14 brings back the simple season mode. This is one season, the 2013 season, without having to worry about recruiting and all that. The presentation stuff remains the same; it’s simply a mode for those who want to simulate the upcoming season without all the coaching stuff. Newcomers to the game who might momentarily be intimidated by some of the dynasty stuff can jump right into season. It’s great to have it back as an option.
The big new feature is of course the Infinity Engine 2.0. Just like I thought it did with Madden last year, this engine makes the game so much better. No more warp/suction tackling. Now players can break tackles, and even if you are tackled you are necessarily down if the knees or the ball don’t touch. It is entirely possible to land on someone, and then be able to get off of them and score. In the video here, which I used the in game option to upload to EA Sports website, you can see Cedric Benson (this was taken in the Ultimate Team mode) get tackled. However, he wasn’t down, and thus he was able to get up off of the guy and stumble his way into the endzone. These are the kinds of things that are possible with the new engine, as well as some brutal looking hits. If you want to see someone get demolished, hurdle when you’re about to run into a defender and watch your player get flipped over (warning, you might fumble doing that).
Gameplay wise, everything feels a little better. Defenders are largely defending well, although they can still be beat nine out of ten times using a slant route. I like that they don’t automatically break as soon as you throw the ball, as they have in the past. In previous games, you could have a guy appear to be wide open only to hit circle (PS3) and immediately have a CB break off from the guy he was around and go tip the ball. That still happens some, but it is much better and it is entirely possible now to watch a defender commit to one receiver and then be able to nail the wide-open receiver for a lot of yards (maybe even a touchdown). The running game is a lot of fun now too. The only thing I don’t like is quarterback scrambles, because the defenders (even if set to aggressive and even if you have a QB spy) just don’t react to the scramble until the QB is close to them. There’s nothing worse than having a MOLB set to QB spy doing nothing but watching the QB but not even attempting to move towards him until the QB gets within a couple of yards. It makes the scramble seem like a cheap cheat tactic most of the time. As someone who used to abuse the hell out of that on the Xbox versions like 06, it’s sad to see that it still hasn’t been fixed.
Total control passing makes the passing game a lot of fun, although it you’re not careful with what you’re doing it is easy to throw an interception. Speaking of interception, the addition of the Nike Skills Trainer (tutorial + drills) was a great addition that helped me finally learn how to get a user interception with what they call the “Ball Hawk.” That’s simply where you press circle to become the nearest defender, and then hold triangle to go for the interception. Because of finally learning how to do this, I’ve managed to get some great user picks, including a gaming winning one in the fourth overtime in the SEC Championship game against Alabama.
The other big addition to NCAA Football 14 is the Ultimate Team. This is the ever popular card game, where you assemble a team made up of former college players. Bo Jackson, Tim Tebow, Barry Sanders… you name them and they probably have at least one card in the game. How do you get cards? Well if you get a gold medal on a Nike Skills Trainer drill, you’ll get a card for each gold medal. You also get a starter pack when you sign in to the mode. From there, you can buy individual cards with coins from the store or auctions, or you can buy packs of cards with real money from the store. I give EA Sports all the credit in the world for having this feature that is undoubtedly a cash cow for them. Personally, I’d never spend real money on a virtual pack of cards to help assemble a team or simply to “collect,” but that’s just me. You can do solo challenges against the CPU, or you can participate in a head-to-season against other players. This is where you play a ten game season, and hope you’ve done well enough to make it to the playoffs where you might ultimately get a chance to win a Ultimate Team Seasons championship. As it is in pretty much every sports game nowadays, it’s a fun a mode and trying to configure your ultimate team is a blast.
I enjoyed NCAA Football 12 a ton, but I didn’t get NCAA Football 13. I’ve reviewed the last two Madden’s and thoroughly enjoyed both of them (13 even moreso than 12), but I knew with the Infinity Engine in Madden last year that I would absolutely have to get NCAA Football 14 this year. I much prefer college football (it’s my favorite sport), and I don’t even watch NFL (I do like to play the Madden games though). NCAA Football 14 seems like the game that is going to once again put the NCAA series ahead of the Madden series. Everything I’ve liked about 12 is still present, but everything has been greatly expanded or improved upon. The new presentation stuff, the RPG elements to dynasty, the better recruiting stuff, Infinity Engine 2.0, Nike Skills Trainer, and NCAA Ultimate Team all combine to help make this the best NCAA Football game that I can remember.
If you are a fan of football games, and particularly the vastly superior college version of the sport, NCAA Football 14 is a can’t miss. In my time with it thus far I’ve not encountered any of the problems that I did with 12 (namely system freezing, and my test online dynasty which I completed one year of ran without any problems whatsoever). Sure, there may be times when the camera will focus on the ball gliding slowly across the ground for a few seconds before allowing you to pick a play, but I’ve encountered no gameplay breaking/stopping problems thus far.
It is a definite buy if you skipped last year’s game, but even if you bought last year’s version there is more than enough added and improved upon here to buy this year’s version as well (even the Heisman Challenge from last year is present in NCAA Football 14). Simply put, it’s a great football game and it’s really a great way to end this generation of consoles. Get it.
NCAA Football ’14 gets a four out of five: GREAT.
* A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.