I’m not traditionally a college sports guy, truth be told. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised in an area where I was surrounded by the culture , or maybe it’s because the universities I attended weren’t exactly steeped in traditions of athletic excellence. I’ve always had the mentality that college sports are fun, but they may be a bit of an acquired taste that I simply never developed. Coming into NCAA Football 14 as an absolutely rabid fan of Madden, I was hoping this would be enough to finally win me over. Sadly, however, I think it’s going to take just a bit more to pull me into the world of college sports.
The most important thing about any sports game is obviously the sport itself. It’s surprisingly easy to lose track of this very basic notion at times. NCAA Football 14 does a great job with getting the game between the pylons correctly. This year’s offering finally manages to include the Infinity Engine 2 and it really draws you into the game. Players will cut up the field with more realism, the line reacts to blitzing a bit better, and bodies fill running lanes properly. One of the biggest complaints I had with Madden last year was the fact that running backs would get tied up on their blockers and just stumble to the ground, something I didn’t really notice during my time with NCAA Football 14.
There is an improved physics system in place that gives the players more lifelike movement but in my experience, it didn’t translate well into the defensive side of the game. I was lined up for some absolutely brutal collisions at times only to have players fall to the ground gently. It’s hard to fully explain in writing how this felt, but the only comparison I can come up with would be pro wrestling. When two wrestlers are doing their job correctly, every hit looks like they were in a car crash. However if they aren’t up to par, it becomes one guy gingerly catching another and laying down. I only had one tackle that really seemed bone crunching, and that was off a play where I attempted to hurdle the defender.
The physics really shine with option plays specifically. Reacting to a lineman’s read and tossing the ball off to the half back at the last second, then seeing him juke out of a linebacker’s range was extremely rewarding. Having that bit of extra weight and more control in your movement really makes it feel like a viable tactic as opposed to a trick to throw in every so often to keep the defense honest. NCAA Football 14 also highlights defenders who will be keying in on your option so you can react better, something I’m not sure if I fully appreciate. It’s great to start off on, but it feels more like a crutch than a training wheel at times.
One of the best additions to the series is the Nike Skills Trainer. It’s a perfect launching point for newcomers to learn the controls and get a grasp on how to play the game, and as a more advanced football gamer I still found them to offer a bit of a challenge as I was adapting to the speed and new engine. Sure, it’s gaudy as hell and is really nothing more than a tutorial sponsored by Nike, but it does its job well enough. I’d recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Ultimate Team mode since this should net you a few more coins early on.
NCAA Football 14 also introduces RPG elements into Dynasty mode, something that may be a bit polarizing to players. As you progress through your games, you’ll unlock more and more XP that allows you to buy little bonuses to help you out on everything from getting some extra recruiting points to making your players a bit more resilient during tough road games. It’s easy to think that this is EA’s way of trying to breathe some life into a part of the franchise that may be going a bit stale, but I thought it was a welcome addition and added something new for me to sink my teeth into. Being able to groom my system with a playstyle more my own made me feel like I had a bit more control, even if it was done in a non-realistic way.
Recruiting has been simplified to the point where some really hardcore fans are sure to be alienated. Gone are the phone calls and days where you send out assistant coaches to meet with potential players. Now you simply have a pool of points to spend every week on players in hopes of wooing them enough that they will enroll at your university. It’s not perfect, and it removes the human elements of attracting players, but it does allow players who are less inclined to spend hours recruiting to still build a powerhouse.
The overall presentation is a bit lackluster. The game itself looked fine, but the crowds still fall a bit short of what many sports fans were hoping to see by now. The commentary has shown very little improvement over the past years, and that’s really a shame. Kirk Herbstreit continues to yammer on for too long, often still talking when the next play has started. Rece Davis’ studio introductions are pretty cool, but with so little variety in actual content, they felt played out really quickly. Had they been saved for rivalry and bowl games, they probably wouldn’t have become grating quite as quickly. There’s nothing bad here per say, but there really doesn’t feel like there was a true step forward here.
In the end NCAA Football 14 falls short of the Dean’s List. The on-field product is solid, but with the simplification of some of the more engaging modes as well as showing off the same visual and audio flaws we’ve seen for a few seasons now, there’s not a whole lot surrounding the gameplay that really stands out. I worry that hardcore fans will feel alienated by the streamlining of their favorite mechanics and that newcomers won’t really see the how great the new engine is without having something to base it on.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which we were provided with.