S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y, NIGHT! “Welcome back sports fan. We’ve got an exciting matchup here for you today. Two long-time rivals going head-to-head to prove who the greatest college team on the gridiron really is.” Hearing announcements like this always puts a little spring in my step during the college football season. Nothing beats grabbing a few slices of pizza, cracking open a coke, and sitting down for a couple hours of my favorite team kicking the crap out of the other guy. Surprisingly, NCAA Football ’14 recreates that feeling pretty damn well.
The NCAA franchise has been sluggish the past few years. Lack of innovation and very small changes have left it feeling stagnant, prompting many gamers to switch to the Madden series. With the big names of the pros nailing 60 yard passes or running back a kickoff for a touchdown, the appeal to play in the big leagues is very difficult to ignore. EA seems to have finally understood that and changed how this year’s NCAA game plays.
While there isn’t a large amount of new content, the changes to the old formulas are very welcome indeed. The core gameplay has been improved on many fronts. AI players no longer have a 360 degree arc of omnipotence. Defense has to be looking at the ball to try and force a receiver to drop the pass. Blocking teams do a fantastic job on stopping QB rushing. Defensive backs can be juked on a run play, and act very believable when diving at the RB. All of these changes give the game a much more enjoyable feel for those who like an authentic football experience. You have short bursts of stamina for sprinting, but the downside is a slight speed loss overall after that burst, very realistic to real life gameplay. Receivers will make every effort to stay in bounds when trying to catch a pass, and QB option plays were reworked to make the best use of the system. Running backs now have the ability to do a hard cut and will actually push off a teammate’s backs rather than just get caught running in place. Players can spin, stiff arm, and leap right over the defensive line to score comes big yardage.
That’s not to say there aren’t any problems. Interceptions, while slightly less random, still occur frequently on both sides. Receivers drop passes just as consistently as they catch them. These instances seem very random. A wide receiver can drop a ball 5 times when completely open, but catch 3 in a row when double guarded? Frustrating issues like these abound in the passing game, where running plays are virtually unstoppable. Quarterbacks frequently seem to be caught in glitches. A play will start where the QB is frozen, the play clock running down without any way to snap the ball. In another instance, a RB’s and QB’s character models merged forming an indistinguishable blob that couldn’t do anything until it was tackled. The kicking system is also very inconsistent. Hitting the exact same power, direction, and wind can cause the ball to go 60 yards one kick, and 45 yards the next. Choosing a field goal play can sometimes load in a punt, meaning your 30 yard field goal attempt is now a touchback turnover.
There are a few very welcome changes to some fan favorite modes. Ultimate team mode has been altered to make it more enjoyable. Players can be evaluated via trading cards and stats, removing the clunky menus from before. Gamers can purchase new trading card packs to build up their team, swapping out the roster however you choose. The auction block adds a bit of excitement to the mix, spending your game winning coins on better players to add to your team.
Dynasty mode is a good amount of fun. The menu systems that made the past recruiting systems a bit of an eyesore have been reworked, and the player recruitment has been changed rather drastically and makes for a much more streamlined process. The biggest change with Dynasty is the addition of ‘coach skills’. Customizable skills can greatly alter how your team handles themselves on the field. Player abilities can be changed, coaches can make their team focus and buckle down rather than get full of their egos, and they can even view the past plays of their adversary, allowing for a good chance at guessing the next play. Team this new addition with a massive change in the Power recruiting system, and you’ve got what may be the most fun mode in the game.
Returning modes, like the Heisman Challenge, don’t seem to have gotten the same consideration when the game was being revamped. Playing as the greats is always fun, but where you are the star of the show, you would hope your fellow teammates would be on par, or close to it. Passes are routinely dropped, making those milestone records stay the record, leading to as many curse words being used as watching an actual game. Running plays are as easy as the regular game, so those can be reached relatively easy. The large scale difference in the two kinds of plays can make it extremely frustrating when trying to put away some big time moments. The return of the player reaction ability was unnecessary. It ruins the feel of getting to play in the shoes of the big boys. Yeah, you gain a couple seconds to determine who to pass to, but it’s simply not needed. If you aren’t paying attention you should be penalized for it. Along those same lines is the ‘Mascot Mash-Up’ mode. It’s fun to watch two Roll Tide elephants smother a gigantic dog, but since it’s essentially just a re-skin of the player, it’s mainly more of a gimmick. It’s fun, but after a while you just want to see the regular players go at it.
The inclusion of the ‘Infinity Engine 2’ is probably one of the most welcome changes to the game. With the engine comes the Force Impact System. Seeing a 6’6”, 280 lb. lineman hit a 180 lb. running back used to look very bland. They hit, they go down, rinse and repeat. It didn’t matter what the player models were or the size or position. Everyone reacted the same. With the Force Impact system, this doesn’t happen. Now you see that mountain of a lineman hit the running back and the guy gets pummeled. Lifted off his feet and thrown to the ground, you almost feel your own ribs take that hit. Sound has been improved too. You can hear the helmets crack together like a gunshot, and when you add in the way that players’ bodies move with real life physics, you are genuinely surprised there aren’t broken bones everywhere.
NCAA Football ’14 is a good amount of fun for football fans. With the announcers, higher-end graphics, legitimate looking commercials at half-time, and the fans chanting in the stadium, you really get the feeling you are watching a real game. The Dynasty mode changes have been reworked extremely well, and there is more than enough re-playability in the core gameplay. With the NCAA franchise being put into a 3rd and 20, gamers were hoping EA could convert on 3rd down. They tossed a Hail Mary and nailed the mark, but ended the game just shy of a touchdown.