NCAA Football 14
Genre: American Football
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Games
Release Date: 7/9/2013
Full disclosure time: I only started watching football a few years ago so I could have something to talk about and do with my grandpa. I found out that I liked it, but my football experience begins and ends with the NFL, and as far as football games go I’ve only played Blitz: The League (both the first and the sequel). So what I’m saying is that I’m approaching NCAA Football 14 from a mostly fresh perspective. If you’re looking for the kind of analysis or comparisons to prior NCAA games, well, I can’t help you there.
When I booted up , the game had me choose my favorite team, and I went with the MN Golden Gophers since I’m very familiar with both the campus and stadium. From there the game gave me a bunch of options. There’s the standard Exhibition Mode, Dynasty, Road to Glory, Tutorial, Ultimate Team, and the various online modes and optional menu content. I went right into the tutorial.
As a novice to football games, I can at least say that the tutorial is very well done. I went from not knowing what was going on to understanding how most of the key offensive and defensive mechanics the first time I went through the tutorial, although the whole audible thing is still a bit fuzzy to me. That’s on me, though, as the tutorial does a good job attempting to explain everything and then it will give you a drill to practice in. These drills are graded, with bronze, silver and gold medals given out based on performance. The gold medals also include rewards, like additional Ultimate Team cards to play around with.
The main meat of the game lies in Dynasty. For that you are tasked with creating a coach and selecting if you want to be Head Coach, or just coach the offensive or defensive sides of the game. After that you choose a school and then try to not get fired. The Dynasty game is essentially split into two parts: the football game and the recruiting mini-game.
Recruiting is simple, as it’s pretty much spreadsheets. There’s mini-game where you can invest points into recruits, but you’re only allocated a certain amount of points. The game has quick, clean menus with a bunch of options to easily search for specific parameters, like what areas of your team you need to fill, players interested in your school, etc. The players are then sorted by ranking, position and so on. The scouting points you receive you can then invest in different players that you’ve targeted for recruiting. As it goes on you can see how many points other schools have invested into the player, and how far behind or ahead of other schools you may be. It becomes a game of how much you want to invest in one player versus another school as each week reveals more about the player you’re scouting. Some students have dealbreakers, which means that unless the school meets certain criteria, they’re not going to go there no matter what.
What bothers me about the recruiting is how cut and dry it is. While it’s simple, easy to use, and makes sense, the whole thing feels kind of soulless. I’ve been led to believe by various TV shows and movies that there’s a lot of drama around the recruitment process, but there’s no drama to this at all. It’s all menus and numbers. What’s kind of cynical is that at no point is how well the fictional student is doing in school or anything about their personality. Do they play good football? Then that’s all that matters. I would’ve liked it if some of the students had different positive and negative attributes to consider as well, like if they get bad grades and might be at risk to flunk out and no longer a part of the team, or if they had some other variables that went beyond just the football stats. I imagine if they tried to create interactive recruiting mini-games instead that it would be considered a pointless distraction from the football aspect, but no matter how well done the menus and spreadsheets are laid out, it’s also boring to just look at menu after menu of different numbers. I’m just not that kind of geek.
The football part works well. The game keeps a running tally of all the other teams and provides various rankings of every little thing. As a coach you earn experience during the football game for the team playing well, scoring, and a bunch of other little things like turnovers, sacks and so forth. As you play you can level up your coaching skill tree. That’s right, there’s a skill tree. There are several different types of skills to unlock as you advance through the levels, with each skill making different aspects of the game a little easier. Some of these skills are coaching skills, while others help with the recruitment process. There are also specific skill trees for the defensive and offensive coaches, who still level up on their own even if you aren’t playing as them.
Actually, now that I think about it, NCAA 14 may be the nerdiest football game ever. The recruitment stuff is mostly stats and spreadsheets, and the football part kind of replaces battles in an RPG game – instead you get experience for winning and playing well and then can choose to focus on different class customizations. At this rate next year’s game will have aggro management and character buffs.
The experience points work in lending a sense of progression to the game, along with the leveling up, but much like the recruitment mode some of it feels a little disconnected. It just seems like there should be a better way of feeling like you are progressing as a coach than getting experience points when your team scores. I mean it’s perfectly fine in the game, I think I’m just feeling overwhelmed by the number of video games that now make you fill up an experience point bar while working towards the next level. I know I’m a hamster on a wheel when playing a game; I don’t want to be reminded of it constantly. But seriously, if they’re going to copy RPG mechanics for a game that features students and they want to add a little more personality to the mix, maybe they should take a look at the Social Link system from the Persona games.
Exhibition Mode lets you just pit any team versus another.
Season Mode is like Dynasty, only without the additional recruitment and skill tree stuff. It’s a no fuss way of playing through a season with your favorite team.
Road to Glory is a mode similar to other EA sports games I’m familiar with, namely the Be A Pro Career Mode from the Hockey games. You can create a player and choose a position to play, roles from offense or defense or both, and then you play as an upcoming high school athlete with the goal of playing well to hopefully impress a good college. This mode is also kind of stark, as there’s nothing to the experience outside of just competing in the high school games and trying to lead your team to a championship. There’s no personality to it, which it desperately needs because going from controlling a whole team along with the plays called, to just controlling one part of it – well, I thought it was kind of boring. Hockey benefits from this more since there are less players on the ice at a time and you’re always a part of setting something up. Here, even if you pick the quarterback mostly you just pitch the ball to an open receiver or hand it off to be run up the field.
The game also has an Ultimate Team mode, which will be familiar to fans of other EA Sports titles. In it, you collect or purchase cards of past well known college players and then assemble a team from those cards. Then you pit your team against someone else online or you can play solo to try and earn bonus cards off of the AI. As with the other sports with this mode, this is a great idea that pays homage to the history of the sport, and it allows you to create interesting match ups with random famous players. If you follow the history of college football this is surely a mode for you.
So that’s how most of the modes work. How’s the actual football game? Though I may not have a wealth of experience with football titles, I enjoyed playing NCAA 14. The tutorials made it easy to grasp what was going on, and the game features different options and difficulty levels to assist with easing into the product. The controls felt really easy to get used to, there’s a one button mode, but I only used it once to test it out. It’s okay, but it also limits some of the options you have while playing otherwise. Passing the bass felt great, you can easily switch to the receiver while the ball is in the air and try to manually catch it. I’m not sure if this is an issue or not, but I found that passing to receivers that were laterally crossing the field was much easier than trying to toss to a player running straight down the field. The defenders would just stick to them like Velcro. The running portion is also done well. There are multiple plays with different option routes to choose from, and it was easy to understand the plays, read the other teams play and attempt to compensate for it. A lot of the game revolves around identifying the correct play to and making the most out of the opportunities those plays create. That goes for the defensive side of things too. The AI is good enough to follow the play you called, and you can take control of different players to maximize the effectiveness of the play. Typically I liked playing a DT and putting pressure on the QB, and if he threw the ball the game let’s me quickly switch to the closest defender to the receiver to either swat the ball out of the air or try and intercept it.
As a fan of watching the sport, it really feels like they’ve gone through a lot of effort to reproducing what you see into an interactive video game.
The game has multiple difficulty levels, along with a whole suite of options that can be adjusted to make the game as difficult you want the experience to be, with the pace you are most comfortable playing. The computer AI is very well balanced to reward people for choosing the right play, while punishing them for choosing the wrong one, while still challenging a player by changing their own calls, killing the clock smartly, or going without a huddle late in the game. I can’t say for certain if there’s rubber banding in the game, meaning that if I got too far ahead of the opposing team then suddenly things would start working in the favor of that team, but I suspect that there is some light rubber banding going on. If a game does get down to a close score between two teams, the game becomes an ESPN Instant Classic and you can view highlights of the game at a later date.
Graphically you can kind of tell that we are at the end of a console era. It looks good, but the stadium crowds and some of the background objects can look a little rough. The players on the field look good though, and it is nice to see familiar landmarks in the horizons of different landscapes. The game runs on Infinity Engine physics, and while I haven’t played the old ones to compare, the tackles and different hits players take during the game look realistic, and can even look downright brutal. I saved a replay of a shoulder block that looked as though it decapitated the other player (and then when he was on the ground a couple of teammates ran over him). Some of the animations when there are multiple player collisions look a little odd, but aside from that the animations look great. Everything has a weight and momentum to it that looks and feels realistic. The college games have different ESPN screen filters for replays, pre-game, and so on, and these match the television presentation perfectly. You can create players and coaches, and that’s a bit lacking compared to other EA Sports games. You can create a player and a coach in different modes, and while you barely see either during the course of the game, the options for creating either are very lacking, especially when compared to other EA Sports games. Then again, I was able to create a giant seven foot tall, 399 pound high school player which looked kind of monstrous.
On the audio side analysts Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreit provide commentary that adds to the feeling of an ESPN broadcast. The commentary is a little repetitive, and sometimes incorrect on the distance of plays (like being inches away from a first down the announcers still say there are only a couple of yards to go). The commentary is good enough to build a familiar atmosphere and isn’t repetitive to the point where it becomes noticeable. The individual school war songs, and crowd chants during pivotal moments also do a lot to add to the whole atmosphere of the game.
One thing I’d like to mention is that optional microtransactions are everywhere. You can earn gold coins to purchase Ultimate Team packs that you earn through playing the game, or you can just purchase the coins. In Dynasty you can buy an additional school pipeline, or buy boosts for your school so that you can entice better players. Things like this are scattered all over the game, and most of them are different ways to streamline the game. I have no problem with that, if a company is going to include microtransactions I’d rather it be something optional like this instead of stuff that’s required or packed in codes to unlock the online portion (this is one of the first EA games I’ve seen without one). Still, it’s disappointing to see things not marked in a menu as a microtransaction, like the additional school pipeline, only to click it thinking it’s a part of the game and then it pulls up a screen asking you if you’d like to pay for it.
Other than that optional content, there’s a truckload of things to do in NCAA 14, both online and offline. The football game is well done, has a lot of options for nearly any style of play, and it’s fun. There so much attention paid to trying to simulate the tension of recruiting and to nail down every aspect of the football game that it forgets to add the personal or emotional touches you’d expect out of something that takes place during high school or college. Then again, there’s plenty of drama to be had from the narratives that are created when trying to build a team and take them to the championship game.
Short Attention Span Summary:
A very solid game of football packed with all the bells and whistles that have become standard among sports games. If you are a fan of college football, you’ll probably like it.