Yearly sports titles are often accused of not changing that much from year to year and generally lacking innovation. While I tend to be a huge fan of them, I’ve often thought that for these types of games to make huge leaps from year to year they need to have two development teams so that each game essentially has two years of development. With that said, NCAA Football 14 represents what I believe is the largest leap forward in the franchise to date. I would go so far as to say that the only year to year leap I’ve seen in a sports game that resembled this was NBA 2K11 which I still think is the best sports game ever made. While there still is some “noise”, EA Sports did what fans have been employing them to do for the last several years, make it all about the gameplay.
NCAA Football 14 is to me heads and shoulders above any of the recent installments and its the gameplay more than anything that has me feeling that way. When you play a game, all I can say is that it feels “authentic”. When players make cuts it feels good, the new blocking mechanics are superb and all in all everything just works like it should. With respect to the feel, the second iteration of EA Sports Infinity Engine has a lot to do with that. The first iteration of the engine used in Madden 13 received mixed reviews, but it seems EA has worked out the majority of the kinks this time around. Last year when the Infinity Engine was introduced with Madden 13, EA said that no play is predetermined and that anything could happen on any play and with any collision. It may have been that way last year but it didn’t always feel like it, but in NCAA Football 14 you feel like you can do anything. A new feature of the Infinity Engine 2 is something called Force Impact, which uses the players speed, momentum and several other factors to determine the outcome of collisions. Enough of the high level stuff though, let’s dig down into the specifics.
On offense, both the passing and run game have gotten some pretty massive improvements. On the passing side, this year passing trajectory actually works. I know that EA Sports has claimed its been in the game for a while but I’ve played every NCAA football game in the last decade and its never worked this good. When a guy goes deep and has a step or when a breaks off that deep curl and its imperative that the ball gets over the defender, in NCAA Football 14 you can throw the rock with confidence knowing that it will go where you want it to go. This is never more evident than on the play-action, which works the way hardcore NCAA football fans always wished that it would. This year, the playaction pass is one of the most deadly weapons you’ll have in your arsenal. In fact, it’s so effective that if you’ve never been a big fan of the run game, this year you will be. Just like in real life, you have to run the ball to set up the run. After gorging the defense up the middle and on the outside, the safeties and corners start to cheat up. When you see that a playaction is “setup”, run it and watch the magic. Having a PA pass “setup” doesn’t guarantee success but it increases your odds greatly. When you run the PA, the QB and RB really sell it this year and if your lucky it causes those safeties and corners to hesitate for that split second, just long enough to give your receivers a step. If it works like it should, a firm lob to your open receiver should be all you need to pick up a big gain or even the TD. I’ve never been a fan of the PA pass because it never worked and was more risky than it had to be so I rarely fan it but this year I’m pounding the ball away to get my setup plays.
In terms of the run game, the new blocking mechanics for the linemen really steal the show. Your offensive linemen will actually adjust their blocking schemes to the proper alignment based on the front that the defense shows. With the blocking now working as it should, you’ll start to see holes and cutback lanes that were never there before. Now when you run an HB Iso, depending on the front your linemen may flow to one side and double team a linemen which normally sucks the LB in just a step or two which opens up the cutback lane for you to burst through for those critical yards. Running the ball in NCAA Football 14 is actually fun, you really feel like you are fighting for every yard and your RB won’t just go down like a lump of clay on first impact. For years this was a major complain of mine and I know it frustrated others but no longer. When you have momentum and a defender makes contact, you actually squiggle and squirm forward trying to get those extra yards, just like the real guys do on Saturday. NCAA Football 14 also introduces juke combos, which allow you to link together multiple juke moves and spins. If your guy has the right attributes these can be what you need to break that big play. With that said, there is no move more satisfying in the run game than delivering a devastating, face mushing, stiff arm to an oncoming defender. Again, the actual mechanics of the move look and feel natural, as a RB with tons of momentum can extend their arm to hold a defender off while they power forward for those extra few yards. In the past, the stiff arm has been hit or miss, either it was too effective or totally worthless. Either it knocked your opponent over or they tackled you through it. This year, as in real life there is some middle ground where even if you don’t knock the defender over, you can still continue forward progress while holding them at bay. Often times you’ll bounce off the defender and start to stumble and you have a split second to flick the right stick to either dive forward for more yards or attempt to regain your footing and keep running. If you’ve never much enjoyed running the football in NCAA Football, this year is the year you will.
On the defensive side of the ball there aren’t nearly as many huge features but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to talk about. The major things that impressed me on defense were all the little things, the subtle improvements to the swim move which now allows you to rip under the blocker to force your way to the quarterback. The bull rush also has a more subtle effect in that depending on the matchup you can actually move the linemen back, sometimes into the quarterback which can disrupt the play. This is a small thing to most but its huge to hardcore fans because all of us have been frustrated in the past when the QB snaps the ball and you try and few moves and they don’t work but instead of making some progress you kind of get glued to the blocker and slide back and forth. Another small but nice thing is the way defenders break down and square up when making tackles, it just look a lot more fluid. Speaking of tackling, it looks great this year. There are several new tackle animations and they all feel much more natural than ever before. The dive tackle has been improved quite a bit in that its less flat as in years past and because of that you are able to make plays that you wouldn’t have been able to make before. I was also very impressed with the improved AI of your CPU teammates, they take better pursuit angles and generally make the plays they are supposed to make.
This year in NCAA Football 14, all 3 classic game modes are back: Season, Dynasty, and Road To Glory. The new kid on the block is Ultimate Team. The mode was first introduced in the Madden franchise and has since been integrated into every other EA Sports title. If you’ve played Ultimate Team in Madden then you’ll understand exactly how it works. In NCAA Football 14, there is a 10 game “season”, where you square off online against other players trying to make the playoffs. Make it to the playoffs and see if you have what it takes get to the championship game where the reward is all the best prizes. If you aren’t really into the online thing, there are Solo Challenges that let you get used to the mode and pick up some rewards along the way. While it’s not as lucrative as the online component, it is a nice option for those that want to try to get their feet wet before diving in against live competition. Solo challenges are no cakewalk though so make sure you bring your A game. Sadly, I couldn’t manage to find anyone online any of the times that I tried to play a game online but I’ll take EA’s word that it works like it should, since they are really old pros at this Ultimate Team thing.
Dynasty mode is back and its sporting a few welcome new additions. The first is the introduction of Coach Skills. Coach Skills allow you to feel like a real coach by being able to improve several skills over time. Coaches earn XP for a multitude of on field and recruiting achievements and those eventually culminate in the bequeathing of a skill point. The Head Coach, Defense Coordinator, and Offensive Coordinator are all able to gain XP and thus acquire skill points. The HC has two skill trees you can work on based on game management and recruiting while the DC and OC each have dedicated skill trees. You can choose to develop your skill trees in any order that you like based on your style of play. If you like to start with 1 or 2 star teams like I do, these coach skills can allow you to do more with less talented players since your coaching boost has a direct affect on their on the field ability.
The other major addition to Dynasty mode is Power Recruiting. Power Recruiting is EA Sports attempt to simplify the process of recruiting with the goal of allowing you to spend more time playing and less time making phone calls or pitches. While it takes a little while to get used to, it does what it says it does, really allowing you to target the players you really want, assign a specific number of points (up to 500) and basically forget about it. Bonuses for a recruits key factors are automatically assessed in addition to whatever points you specify on top of that. It makes a lot of sense since in real life those things are kind of preset, a guy already knows how much program prestige, pro potential or proximity to home matter to him and its no reason to make the player blow all that time on something that is essentially out of their control. All in all I really like the improvements made to Dynasty mode this year.
I’m sure that impressions of NCAA Football 14 will be all over the map as reviews on this franchise always are. As someone who is a hardcore player of this particular franchise, I think it’s the best game I’ve ever played in the franchise ever. They really got away from the gimmicks and improved the gameplay which is what we’ve wanted all along. The game isn’t with a few bugs but nothing major. My biggest issue is actually all the game modes, with Season, Ultimate Team, Dynasty and Road To Glory, I don’t know how you focus in any one thing, but that may just be an issue for me in terms of having to review the game. If you are a football fan you’ll love this game, its in my opinion the college football game we’ve all been waiting for.
Score: 9.5 out 10
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