I’m a huge football fan, and the season never ends for me…much to my wife’s chagrin. The preseason begins, which leads to the regular season, then the post-season, then the Super Bowl, then the Combine, the Draft, camps, the Hall of Fame ceremony, and back to preseason. During that summer period where training camps are going on, EA usually drops NCAA Football and Madden in our laps; right as the wait is becoming unbearable.
NCAA Football 14 rolls in this year with the addition of the much touted Infinity Engine that debuted in last year’s Madden game. For those that need a quick refresher, Infinity did away with pre-canned animations and added physics to the Madden series for the very first time. Suddenly, actual player weight, momentum, and velocity play a hand in how a tackle occurs in the game.
How welcome of an addition to NCAA Football is the Infinity Engine? Let me put it this way; if absolutely nothing else was changed between NCAA Football 13 and this year’s entry other than the addition of the Infinity Engine, then it would still play like a brand new game. It makes that big a difference. In fact, I popped in my fave Madden game into my PS2 the other night (Madden 2005), and it was amazing how far the franchise has come in such a few short years. Physics makes a major difference.
Luckily for us, EA Sports did not just stop with the Infinity Engine and gave us a few more improvements, lest the internet comments sections explode with fury.
Let’s start with what you’ll see first: the menu. NCAA Football has always (to me, anyway) had a much more visually appealing UI than its professional football counterpart, often offering up some pretty cool animations. This time around the menu has a very “familiar” look to it. Yes folks, the Windows 8 “Metro” interface has made it’s way into NCAA Football 14, whether EA intended to or not. Basically, the menu you now see is going to mirror the Xbox 360 Dashboard layout. This is either good or bad, depending on whether or not you’re a fan of Metro. Me? It grew on me.
From then on, you’ll notice one very prominent addition to the main menu: Ultimate Team. The insanely popular “fantasy team” mode from Madden is now here, with over 2,500 licensed former NCAA greats (including the recently announced BO JACKSON!) If you’re the type that likes building a dream team, then have at it!
As with any new football game, the first thing I did was jump into an Exhibition game with 2 random teams. No better way of trying out a new entry than just doing it, right? NCAA Football 14 plays closer to Madden than before, especially with Infinity added in. The game seems to move at a more deliberate pace and not so “arcadey” as before. A few new additions include a variety of new camera angles, the return of the Sprint button (now highlighted by a depleting circular meter underneath your player), 30 different option types, and brand new pre-game intros highlighted by Rece Davis presenting a live look-in set to a music video vignette.
Dynasty is where I spend approximately 99.9999999% of my time in the NCAA series, so naturally that’s where I spent the bulk of my review. Dynasty hasn’t changed too dramatically, save for two important things: a new recruiting scheme, and RPG-like coach skill trees. With the skill trees, coaches earn XP throughout the courser of the season, which can then be applied to skills either for the coach himself, or your coordinators. You can improve on things like game management, recruiting, an individual stat upgrades for positions. Nothing new here in terms of the RPG elements that we haven’t seen a million times in most modern MMORPGs.
Power Recruiting replaces the old phone call system and speeds things up a bit. Personally, I never had any issues with the old system, but I’m never going to turn my nose up on something new, so I threw myself into the new points-based system. Under Power Recruiting, you are allocated a certain number of total recruiting points that you can spread across your recruiting board. Everything is points based, from unlocking a recruit’s skills, to offering them a scholarship.
A cool addition to recruiting lies in school visits. Now, you have to think about who you’re inviting to visit on any given week. If you invite 3 quarterbacks all at once, for instance, you’ll see your results take a hit, but bring in a QB/WR tandem for a visit, and you might see a nice bonus. It adds an air of realism to the whole process, and really forces you to think about not only who you need for your team, but how you want to approach wooing these fresh faced recruits. These kids want to feel special, and nothing says “You are not special” like showing up on campus and seeing three other visitors off the same position all standing there.
The last thing I want to touch on in Dynasty is the addition of neutral sites. It’s a nice addition, and certainly one that gives the player more options, but I didn’t really find myself using it too often. A neutral site is nice if you’re someone who’s rattled by being at an opposing team’s home field, but with all the XP that you can put towards creating an “Ice Man” QB who doesn’t get rattled and also your own skill at the game, neutral sites don’t really offer much more than just having the option. Again, I’m glad it’s in there and that EA at least gave players that choice.
The other game mode that I typically enjoy is Road to Glory, but honestly, not much has changed between last year and this year. It’s clear that most of the effort went into adding Infinity, Ultimate Team, and all the new presentation and Dynasty elements. I’m not too bent out of shape about that; after all, I can’t imagine RTG is any more popular than multiplayer or Dynasty.
Play a Season and Nike Skills Trainer round up the new features for this year. Play a Season is basically Dynasty Mode Lite; you literally pick a school and play through the 2013 season without worrying about anything off-field related. If you’re not a fan of the depth that Dynasty offers and don’t really care for recruiting, then Play a Season might be your cup of tea. Remember Madden 06 for the XBox 360? How it only had a single season to play other than exhibitions? There you go.
Nike Skills Trainer is essentially a glorified combination of a tutorial mode and Practice, all set within a snazzy new Nike-themed training complex. Nothing too groundbreaking here, though if you’re somewhat new to the game, this would be a great place to start. It’s much more hands-on than just watching a slate of training videos, and even a NCAA Football vet like myself found much to enjoy by playing through this. Also, if you earn gold medals in the lessons, you will gain special items for use in Ultimate Team, so there’s some sort of incentive to play through it.
So, the question here (and really, for every annual sports game) is: Should you buy NCAA Football 14 if you already own 13? Is 14 just an updated roster pack?
No…it isn’t. Like I mentioned earlier, even if the only difference was the addition of the Infinity Engine, the game would be worth a buy. It adds THAT much of a difference to way the game plays and feels on-field. New presentation elements add to the authenticity of the college atmosphere, and Power Recruiting and Coach Skills give Dynasty Mode a brand new lease on life. Oh, and did I mention that you can once again export draft classes to Madden? That feature should have never left the game to begin with, but that’s neither here or there.
I know people complain about sports games being the same thing year after year, and pretty much if a developer does not revolutionize the game every single year, then the interwebz brings out the pitchforks. Gamers are a fickle bunch, and it took nearly 8 iterations of Madden for fans to finally be satisfied. While NCAA Football 14 is not as huge a leap as Madden 12 to Madden 13 was, don’t make the mistake in thinking that this is just another half-assed annual “update.” There’s much to enjoy here, and the new features should give players lots to mess around with. The quality and quantity of gameplay that these few new additions brings to the game more than warrants the purchase.