Giving it the old college try
I wonder if active NCAA players prefer playing Madden. Do they want to play as themselves, or their friends? Or do they want to play as the players they grew up watching, the players that made it to the big time? For many, college ball is a necessary stepping stone on a path towards imagined, sought greatness; recognition, immortalization, and conspicuous wealth. Though the latter is impeded by the long overdue rookie salary cap.
NCAA Football 14 is operating in a weird space. The college football series is finally getting a physics engine, a year behind Madden, and it’s the current generation’s Infinity Engine 2. Meanwhile, EA spent much of E3 touting its next generation physics engine, Ignite: “EA Sports Ignite is designed to harness the potential of next-generation consoles and will power FIFA 14, Madden NFL 25, EA Sports UFC and NBA Live 14 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.”
Notice the odd man out? Yes, NCAA Football 14 is a marked improvement over last year’s phoned in effort. It’s also very much a Matt Leinart, the college stud ready to be outmoded and forgotten at the next level of play, when people swap out their Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s for backwards compatibility lacking PS4s and Xbox Ones while EA issues press conferences about how the engine succeeding it is infinitely better.
And hey, Kurt Warner managed to take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
NCAA Football 14 (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Release: July 9, 2013
The most important part of a sports game is how the sport plays out on its field of choice. Other modes and additions could be fun or add complexity, but it’s always all about the game. In this case the physics are a welcome, marked improvement over the same old, tired, frustrating animations. If you have consistently enjoyed the NCAA series, this game plays better than all of them, so that should be enough for you to pick it up. Cuts feel better; your blocking is less of a nightmare because even if the lineman doesn’t want to throw a block at least his body will be in the defensive player’s way, and so on. The core game plays much better than last year’s.
I do have some issue with the implementation of physics that I find a bit hard to place though, and I’m not sure if it came from this being the first time the series has worked with the engine, or if it’s some uncanny valley-related thing. Sometimes, plays and player contact will feel a bit reminiscent of the vibrating, table-top electronic football game. I’ve scoured replays and for all intents and purposes things (mostly) seem to be reacting in the proper way, but every once in a while weird things will occur that make the players feel a little less grounded than, ironically, NHL’s skaters (or FIFA’s footballers).
One of my favorite additions to NCAA Football 14 is the Skills Trainer. It’s a Nike-branded Skills Trainer, gaudily emblazoned with swooshes, but I was able to get past that and appreciate a complex sports game deciding to offer a decent tutorial. It’s a nice cheat sheet for experienced players to bone up on what’s new in this year’s iteration and a simple, well-designed explanation of some of the more nuanced elements of the sport for the uninitiated (whether they be unfamiliar with the sport or with gaming).
A good training mode of sorts should be practically mandatory as far as I’m concerned. I also appreciate the revamped “option” game, which includes indicators on which defensive players you should be watching for as you run the option. I’ve played football, but I’ve never run an option offense. It’s helpful, especially when you start running things like triple options, to know which defensive players to key in on and how you should react. Performing well in the Skill Trainer nets you coins which can be used for NCAA Ultimate Team. Or NUT, as I like to affectionately call it.
I still don’t get the appeal of Ultimate Team, even as it makes its NCAA debut, since I just find it redundant. It just plays on Skinner box mentality in the “gotta collect ‘em all” way cards are known to encourage (just ask Steam players). If you want a team full of overly exceptional players, you can play the amazing Mascot Mode and have all the players sit at 99 overall, while also being dressed up as trees and bears. If you want to build a crappy team into a better team, pick a crappy team in Dynasty and build it into a better team. Ultimate Team just always feels like a huge chore; a grind, more appropriately, to use the term typically associated with MMOs and RPGs. Still, it’s there if you want it, and I’m sure EA would be beside itself if you wanted to spend real life money on a pack of virtual trading cards (not that you have to, but you can).
Dynasty Mode has seen some mild changes. You’re granted points for good “coaching,” mostly a combination of in-game performance and recruit signings, which can then be allocated into “game management” and “recruiting” skill trees to help your team perform better or to try and woo unsuspecting, bright-eyed men still too young to legally drink.
For people bored to tears by Dynasty mode’s minutia and verisimilitude — I count myself among those ranks — there is a new Play a Season mode, in which you can jump into any of the teams’ actual 2013 season schedule and aim for a bowl victory. It’s like playing a random exhibition game, but with slightly more structure, kind of like an arranged and itinerated play date. But, really, it’s my preference, creatively bankrupt as it is. My opponents get chosen for me and I have some semblance of a narrative and structure to work with (along with constant laments over the lack of a playoff system).
The game also boasts an impressive menu aesthetic and interface. It’s smart and simple, focusing on big squares and rectangles reminiscent of Windows’ phone UI. It sounds silly, but a lot of sports games have terrible menus. It’s also much quicker than last year’s thanks to the toned down, minimalistic aesthetic that looks a lot better than the crowded ESPN College Gameday presentation. A lot of the in-game presentation elements have been reduced or shortened, too, yielding less fodder to button through in order to get back to the action.
NCAA Football 14 is in a weird position and it shows. There are some mild performance issues — start menus that take an extra few seconds to pop up, slowdown after a turnover, a crash or two — that feel like the result of the waning console generation. Meanwhile, the series finally has physics, but in its PS3 and 360 swansong, a mere few months before, for many, EA’s Ignite and the next gen come in to wreck up the place. Still, for the time being, college football fans can revel in having a much improved, solid football game, sans any dramatic changes.