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NCAA Football 14 review

Excellent
AT A GLANCE
  • Slick new physics
  • Much better blocking
  • Running the option
  • Post-whistle frame rate hiccups
  • Stale commentary
  • Road to Glory unchanged

It’s no fun being second best. For years, many sports aficionados considered EA’s NCAA football franchise to be better than its NFL counterpart. Last season, however, NCAA 13 trailed Madden in a number of ways, most notably in the physics engine department. Fast-forward to this season, and college football appears to be back on an even playing field. NCAA 14 is a polished, well-oiled machine focused on core gameplay improvements aimed to please its most passionate fans.

On-field gameplay is improved in several key areas, most notably in blocking. Running the ball is plenty of fun thanks to offensive linemen that pay attention to their assignments longer, giving ballcarriers more time and space to find holes. This translates to the need to wait for a play to develop instead of just blasting the turbo trigger. Following your blockers patiently until daylight opens up can be a little unsettling for old-school players, but the rewards are worth it. Quarterbacks will benefit from stronger pockets, too, as you’ll find room to set up and throw to receivers on a more regular basis--unless, of course, a blitzing linebacker finds their way through a seam. Fans have complained for years about lackluster offensive line play, and while blocking isn’t yet perfected, EA’s focus on it definitely shows.

"NCAA 14 is a polished, well-oiled machine."

Speaking of welcome improvements, the newest version of the Infinity Engine brings physics-based interactions to NCAA Football for the first time. Introduced in last year’s Madden NFL 13, its first appearance in EA’s college football franchise shows clear polish. Tackles, weight adjustments, and collisions are more realistic, and much of the post-whistle awkwardness so evident in Madden is gone. While there are still moments of wonky behavior, they are far outnumbered by impressively organic recoveries and concussive tackles.

The most interesting gameplay improvements, though, involve running option plays. The multiple sets available in playbooks--read, triple, speed, shovel, etc.--are more fun and satisfying than ever, especially if you have the personnel built around that play style. It takes time to truly learn the nuances, making split-second decisions whether to hand the ball to the lead back, keep it as the quarterback, or toss the ball in the backfield to the trailing runner. But what would normally be an exercise in frustration ends up as a delight, thanks to the new Skills Trainer. You’re taught how to properly execute the option, then put through a series of training events to prove it. Best of all, you can keep going back and practicing over and over until it becomes ingrained.

"Blocking isn’t yet perfected, EA’s focus on it definitely shows."

More so than any other sport, big-time college football is dominated by the personalities of its coaches, and the newest features of NCAA 14’s Dynasty mode--by far the franchise’s most-played game type--finally bring that into focus. Each coach has a myriad of attributes that you can improve over time based upon the success you have in your games, and the choices you make have a definite impact in both the short and long term. For example, if you’re running a lower-level school, you may want to invest in the recruiting skills that will help you sign better players for future seasons. However, if you’re in a win-now mode to save your job, building up points to boost your team on the field may be the way to go. There is no right or wrong path, and the process is fascinating. The entire concept of "leveling up" your coaches--not just your head coach, but your assistants as well--adds a welcome new wrinkle to Dynasty.

Recruiting players has been overhauled, too, introducing a new points-based system that dramatically alters last season’s interface. Unlike the Skills Trainer, which guides you beautifully through executing on-field plays, you’ll find yourself using trial-and-error to figure out if you’re being successful or not. Patience is key, since recruiting changes dramatically over the course of a season; early on, it’s easy to allocate your points across your full range of targeted players.

As the year progresses, though, you’ll find yourself embroiled in battles for key prospects, and it’s up to you to figure out if you go heavy on a few highly-rated guys at the expense of others. Only after multiple seasons of practice will you develop a system you’re comfortable with. Luckily, thanks to the elimination of extraneous menus and clicks, it takes much less time to work on your recruiting strategy than it did in the past. This makes experimentation much easier to stomach.

"The newest version of the Infinity Engine brings physics-based interactions to NCAA Football for the first time."

If recruiting isn’t your thing--and waiting several minutes per week for the CPU to handle it all is time you’d rather not spend--then the new Season mode is up your alley. You can just pick a school and blast through a one-year schedule in pursuit of a bowl game or national championship with nothing else in your way. Conversely, the new Ultimate Team mode allows you to create a custom group of NFL players with multiple versions their collegiate personas. Modeled off of FIFA’s wildly successful structure of short head-to-head seasons with a pay-to-get-more-guys option, it's clearly not for everyone. The streamlined roster management menus make it relatively simple to manage your squad and play single-player or multiplayer games, but Ultimate Team remains a niche feature that will befuddle the uninitiated.

While it’s clear that NCAA 14 is a bona fide winner in many ways, there are some issues that remain. A slight framerate hiccup occurs when the whistle is blown at the end of a play; sometimes it’s barely noticeable, other times it’s obvious. In-game commentary is stale, and occasionally makes references that are patently incorrect. The shadows on players can be rather ugly at times, and when those are juxtaposed with the often-beautiful stadium lighting, they look all the more stark. The single-player career Road to Glory mode remains virtually untouched as well. None of these detract much from the core gameplay, and the sense is that the development team is squeezing as much out of the aging console hardware as possible.

By doubling down on core gameplay and adding compelling new features to its Dynasty mainstay, EA has produced a thoroughly enjoyable college football game this season. Although it may not look particularly different from its predecessors on the surface, nor include any groundbreaking, never-before-seen modes, NCAA 14 hits a ton of high notes and marks a great start to the upcoming fall sports game blitz.

This review was conducted using the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game.

More Info

Release date: Jul 09 2013 - Xbox 360, PS3 (US)
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3
Genre: Sports
Franchise: NCAA Football
ESRB Rating:
Everyone

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4 comments

  • universaltofu - July 12, 2013 9:57 p.m.

    My copy arrived today, I felt guilty by not putting much time into Madden 13, but I started up road to glory and Hingle McCringle is doing well.
  • juicenpancakes - July 6, 2013 6:31 a.m.

    I've been a loyal visitor of this site for about six years and I always look forward to your reviews, Richard. As long as you are writing your passionate reviews, I will be reading them.
  • avantguardian - July 5, 2013 9:57 p.m.

    nice review. i tend to value your opinion more than most sports game reviewers, due to your attention to the minutiae that the hardcore fans of the series actually look for. the improvements to the option game have been a long time coming, can't wait to see how a spread team like my bucks can move the chains on the ground. one back sets have been a joke in this series for a while, and last year's focus on passing made having a balanced offense more trouble than it was worth. it would be nice to have a 1,000 yard rushing qb without having to drastically alter the sliders or manipulate the ai. :)
  • avantguardian - July 5, 2013 10:02 p.m.

    i almost hate to say it, but it seems like your talents are being somewhat wasted on this site. i obviously don't know how much traffic you get on here, but sports games seem to have settled on the bottom of the GR totem pole. but hey, i'm not going to complain about someone who 'gets it' being in charge of reviewing these games on my favorite gaming site. cheers!

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