Developer: EA Tiburon / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone
NCAA Football 14 may look at first glance very similar to previous versions of the long running series. But after just one game I quickly realized that this year’s update has made several key improvements in the way of gameplay, presentation, and one very welcome new game mode. The incorporation of the Infinity Engine 2, as well as Ultimate Team mode, have stepped up the level of this game from contender to national powerhouse.
This year’s iteration includes all the usual modes including Dynasty, Road to Glory career mode, and Online play in the form of ranked matches and online dynasties. Season mode has been added this year for people who would rather not touch the off-field aspects of controlling a team through the course of the year. This allows you to play all of your teams’ games throughout the season and not be burdened with recruiting and coaching tasks.
The biggest addition in the way of game modes is undoubtedly NCAA Football Ultimate team (or NFUT for short). The ultimate team mode has been very successful in other EA titles such as Madden and FIFA, and has finally made its way to the college game. I must admit I was very skeptical when hearing the news of ultimate team being included in NCAA. I imagined the mode to be very generic with the lack of any way to license current star college athletes.
The approach taken however was a very smart one. The mode features players who are included in the NFL’s players association, but represented in their college years with their respective universities. This allows for a great number of players to be represented and adds depth to the ultimate team offering. Just as in Madden, the ultimate team mode offers both online and offline challenges, an auction house, and packs of cards that can be purchased with your earnings from playing the games. I was slightly disappointed to see that the ability to trade cards with your friends had been left out, as this feature has been included in Madden Ultimate Team for the past two offerings. There is however plenty to do in NFUT and will definitely take up a large percentage of my time in NCAA 14.
Dynasty Mode has received some updates this season in the form of coach skills and power recruiting. While it was nice to see something fresh in dynasty mode, I feel one of these changes really hit the mark while the other could use a little more time on the practice field. I was thrilled to see the role-playing element of coach skills added to dynasty.
Essentially your coach can level up for every on and off field accomplishment, and those points can be used to increase your coach’s effectiveness in a specific area. These categories range from attribute boosts for players during games, as well as special perks in recruiting like using fewer points to scout a recruit. You can now choose what your coach’s strengths and weaknesses will be depending on how you dole out the coach skill points.
The new aspect of Dynasty Mode that I feel misses the mark is the power recruiting. Gone is the call-based system of talking to recruits about specific aspects of your program. Now, instead of calling a prospect for a max of 60 minutes a week, you are allotted a bucket of points to spread across all recruits, and the actual recruiting pitches are done automatically for you. I couldn’t help but feel a bit detached from the whole process as it feels like a big spreadsheet of points I would push around from box to box.
Also the off-season recruiting has been streamlined from five weeks of activity down to just one. I enjoyed the work from week to week of battling for those recruits in the off-season. One week is simply too short in my book. I feel in many ways power recruiting was a change just for change’s sake. It isn’t a better way to handle the recruiting, just different and at times more detached from previous versions.
For those who are new to the NCAA series, or just feel that a certain skill set is lacking in their game, may enjoy playing around in the new Nike skills trainer. This trainer does a nice job of walking you through some of the complexities of videogame football such as running option offenses and making pre-play reads and adjustments. Not only do you get a chance to earn medals for completing each drill, but you will also be able to unlock cards to use in the new ultimate team mode for each gold medal earned.
The first of the gameplay improvements comes with the use of the Infinity Engine 2. The original Infinity Engine was first introduced in Madden 13 and brought some flaws that had players awkwardly stumble and fall over opponents and teammates alike. This physics engine has been refined and placed into the NCAA franchise for the first time this year, and it is a very welcome addition. Players react to hits in a very organic nature, and for the most part avoid the silly post-play pileups that plagued Madden 13’s gameplay.
Another key gameplay enhancement comes in the form of hard cuts that a player can perform while carrying the ball, by using the right stick. This system feels great to control and is very responsive to both single cuts and more complex combination moves. All of a sudden your running back is a dynamic force as he is able to plant his foot and dart into the hole created by his lineman. If you combine your quick cut ability with the right trigger acceleration boost, you can get your running back downfield and into the secondary. The first time I saw a running back use the new stiff-arm animations to keep a defender at bay while churning downfield, I stood up and did a double take.
The blocking AI for offensive lineman is clearly improved in this year’s game. Many of the head scratching moments when a lineman would watch as a ball carrier was tackled are gone. Also much improved is the interaction between offensive lineman and pass rushing defensive lineman. No longer do defensive lineman hit their opponent and simply get stuck in neutral. You can now effectively “bull rush” with your defensive lineman, meaning you can gain momentum and push the offensive lineman clear back into the quarterback’s space and collapse his pocket of protection. While this is a seemingly small detail, it adds realism and brings a smile to the face of this former defensive player.
Another element of realism and overall gameplay improvement comes with the silky smooth interception animations. When an interception is made by the defense, no longer does the play freeze for a couple of seconds as the camera spins. Instead the change is instant and preserves the flow of the game. Sideline interceptions are now possible thanks to the game recognizing that an interception should only count once the defenders’ foot hits the ground in bounds. Previously interceptions were awarded the moment the defender made the catch. This system is much more realistic and looks great during the heat of a game.
Fortunately this year the game introductions have been streamlined from a one- to two-minute event to a condensed 30-second television style presentation. In-game updates with Rece Davis return this year. David Pollack joins Rece for an all-new halftime show that highlights the first-half action in a rather impressive broadcast style package. I’m sure the banter between the two will grow old after playing for a couple months, but I thought the halftime show was a nice addition.
NCAA Football 14 is in my mind the best version in the history of the series. Many tried and true elements return from previous installments, and the improvement in gameplay along with the addition of Ultimate Team mode make this game a can’t miss for any college football fan. Minor tweaks could be made to the dynasty recruiting to allow more interaction with the recruits themselves. Overall the game offers a robust offering of modes and solid gameplay that will have you playing well into the college season.