College gets physical. Finally.
NCAA Football 14 is going to be a much better game than NCAA 13. I can assure you that much because it has implemented a physics engine, the Infinity Engine 2. If the name rings familiar, the first iteration of the Infinity Engine was implemented in last year’s Madden 13, prompting me to give it high marks. Football is physical. Physics are good for football.
The six week lead time on NCAA 13 (ahead of Madden) prevented the team from having enough time to employ the physics engine last year, but now the series is getting its new iteration, one designed to remedy some of the growing pains of the first version of the engine. The post play hijinks, like players generally falling over themselves like drunkards or occasionally looking like some monstrous contortion straight out of an Asian horror film, are just one of the issues that have been addressed.
NCAA Football 14 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed])
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Release: July 9, 2013
The implementation of the Infinity Engine 2 addresses a lot of the problems with the series. The stiff arm move in previous games, for example, has basically been a dice roll, tied to a set of prescribed animations. With physics, your timing matters. You can deliver a strong hit, use it to try and jostle off an incoming defender, and so on.
The dive button is now less a defeated, sad looking belly flop, and more a viable means of tackling runners. It’s useful for making sure to go low against big, bruising tailbacks and the like. The hit stick has been dialed up on defense, but without the “suction” effect of canned animation, the bit I played felt fairly balanced. It’s not over the top, but when a big hit connects, you feel it. We had one nasty hit elicit some "ooohs" and cringes. Similarly, you can miss with a hit stick and impotently glance off an opponent. It is as it should be; hopefully it all holds up over protracted play. As most people who play sports games know, it’s hard to spot strange flaws or inconsistencies until you’ve played repeatedly.
In an effort to bring more analog controls to the series, there is a stumble recovery mechanic tied to the right stick. I didn’t encounter it during my hands-on, but supposedly it can be used to manually regain balance, which could be a neat idea. Most importantly, on offense your ball carrier is more apt at not running haphazardly into his own teammates, which was a frustrating occurrence in Madden 13. Ball carriers will now perform an Assassin’s Creed style move, extending arms towards linemen and other blockers, and run around them when appropriate instead of the ball carrier mashing his front into his teammate’s back as erect as possible. This might prevent those silly, awkward fumbles.
When you’re actually running about with ball in hand, NCAA 14 will be less kind to players scampering about like headless chickens. Proper cutting will hopefully preclude players from jetting around in unrealistic swerves while maintaining top speed -- I did a lot of that when screwing around in NCAA 13, often with Barry Sanders, which was hilariously unfair. The sprint button is also making a return and players have a visible stamina meter tied to their stamina statistic. Sprinting will obviously burn it up and so will special moves, discouraging you from getting too spin happy. As games wear on, the stamina meter will also shrink a bit, giving you a little less in the tank to work with.
The skills trainer for core mechanics is also a welcomed addition. “Call of Duty still teaches you how to run and sight and shoot. Everyone who plays a shooter knows how, but they still teach you. We’ve been guilty of adding new features and not explaining how to use them.” The game will now teach you how to run the option, for example, highlighting the defensive player you’re meant to be reading as you choose whether to keep the ball as the quarterback or to pitch it to the appropriate player.
A few other touches outside of the usual iterative updates are equally welcomed. A slight delay in player switching is meant to keep you from accidentally running players out of position. Hot routes are contextually sensible -- your outside, deep receiving threat is less likely to wind up pass blocking. There’s also “by personnel” play calling, meant to aid in the no huddle. Previously, running a no huddle offense and changing the play could lead to players out of position. Blocking is alleged to be improved as well. Someone (or someones) supposedly went through every permutation of offensive and defensive play selection to ensure the blocking matchups would be correct. We’ll see how long it takes fans to find out whether or not that’s true (mind, the matchups could be accurate, but player skill comes into play as well).
So, yes, NCAA 14 is probably going to be the best game in the series, or at least the best iteration we’ve seen in many years, albeit by virtue of finally including a bunch of things that should’ve made it into the series much sooner. The core of the game plays much better, anyway, and that’s the important thing. Maybe we’re closing in on a modern football game that can compare to other great contemporary sports franchises, though I’ll be cynical and say it probably won’t come until next generation. And even then, will it be more fun than NFL Blitz?