STAFF REVIEW of NCAA Football 14 (Xbox 360)

Friday, July 5, 2013.
by Scott Fowler

NCAA Football 14 Box art It's Bowl season! Ok, no, it's not. Not even close, really, but is time for the annual College Football release by EA Sports, NCAA Football 2K14. The last in the line on the current generation of consoles, how was this year's title going to go out, with a bang or a whimper? Let's take a look to find out.

First, let's talk about the general navigation. It's super clean, and I really like it. Why? Well, it's easier, and makes more sense than some previous attempts at reorganizing things, and I find you can get into game action right away. They've even finally replaced that very basic "EA Sports, it's in the game" logo splash screen, and it leads right into a fun and quick game intro, so that's a nice sign out of the gate. The overall graphics and navigation are simple but well executed, and I find that you don't have to go through a lot of the nonsense that you had to in the past to pick your favorite team, and get the party started.

Game Modes are familiar, with Dynasty, Ultimate Team, Play a Season, Nike Skills Training, and the Road to Glory (more on each of those below). Now, my sports playing habits are somewhat strange, or at least, they might be. I really enjoy dynasty mode games, so I can look to build a contending team year after year, and go through the behind the scene nuances of player development and coaching strategies while also playing the games out themselves, and putting up ridiculous historic numbers and statistics for individual players. This is one the main reasons I like the college game a little bit better than the professional football game: The players only stick around a few years and you have to constantly adapt your roster and recruiting to compensate.

Right up front, let me say that I went to Arizona State, Perennial bowl threat and national championship contender, so my view on things might be somewhat Sun Devil-centric.

Ok, so ASU is more likely to end up in the Christmas Day bowl or the "Sid’s Carwash Bowl" than any of the big four, and the only national championships they win are in baseball. That's fine. They rank a solid 3/5 stars (end sarcasm font) as a program in this year’s game, so my challenge was clear cut. Could I take ASU to the not only crack the top 25 teams in the game but contend for a national title? Well, the answer is yes, mostly because of my awesome and amazing game play skills (on freshman difficulty, of course). But once I played two or three games to get things down, I stepped up to the "Heisman" level difficulty for a better game play experience.

So let's talk about that gameplay experience. Graphically, I think we're all aware of what football games look like in 2013. The minor detail changes in textures and what not are only marginal improvements at best from year to year, but I think that's ok. Sports Games don't have a tone of nuanced emotion to portray. It's football, so they get a bit of a pass.

On the physics and gameplay side, EA has been very excited about their new Infinity 2 engine, and I think they deserve to be. Truth be told, it's taken me some time to adapt to the new physics, but it's pretty great. The biggest boasts surrounding this new engine are the physics involved in collisions, and your ability, as a player, to put that to your advantage. Hit outcomes are no longer predefined, as mass, speed and momentum are all factors in every collision in the game. Adding to that are the new Hit Stick features, and these allow you to unleash powerful stiff arms or bone jarring hits to knock balls loose from attacking offensive players. It really does shine and you get the sort of "smooth" feel for the new mechanics of play very naturally. It just feels more real, over all.

The AI is tighter, too. The big problem I've had with the replay ability of football games in the past was that invariably, the AI was only "so good", in that I could always find some bread and butter play that works 90% of the time. I could go to those plays in those moments of desperation and get a first down, or drop in a long pass. That go-to play seems to be harder to accomplish, as it seems the AI is more finely tuned to your style of play, and what works once, or maybe twice, won't be as successful on later attempts. I'm sure there are ways to figure this out long term, and find the weak spots, but they aren't as obvious up front this time around.

The presentation is also cleaner, more contemporary and realistic, but in subtle little ways. Beyond just the game play and play calling, the arena atmospheres are more true to life. I'll be honest and say that my predisposition to Arizona State made me only play a handful (read 2-3) games as other institutions, but I love what they do with the arena and fans. I used to not like music in sports games, because you'd have one or two really great and fitting songs and you'd really only get to hear them in navigation menu screens or in between in cut scene animations. This year’s football title takes it to another level, with in-stadium music, beyond just pipe organ and chants. They'll play the White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" in the stadium, and you can hear the fans and crowd start to cheer in time with the music. It's a subtle little thing, but little touches like this go a long way to the overall experience.

The fact that they use the schools mascots fairly well, and accurately to their program traditions, means that EA really did their research to make these aspects as realistic as they could in the sort of "cookie cutter" confines of game programming. Sparky, the ASU Sun Devil Mascot, will be seen being raised by fans in the crowd, or doing pushups while being held up by the same people, both things very common at Sun Devil Stadium to those of you who've never been. And if you're ever in Phoenix in the fall? I suggest picking up a game, especially if it's against that, University of Arizona.

Dynasty mode is just as in depth as in years past, but it seems like the new efforts in recruiting management have really paid off. The process is somewhat less tedious, but just as effective as in years past, but doesn't require the round by round tweaking to be at least semi successful. That said, you can certainly put in the effort and make little nuanced decisions on when to bring recruits to campus for their program visits for maximum benefit based on opponent, etc. I just find the overall process is much more naturally presented, without a lot of menu navigation and jumping around. Well done on that part EA.

Dynasty mode also has new functionality on coach evolution and skill advancement. Coaches earn points in a variety of categories and you can sort of prioritize places to earn points to sort of compensate maybe a team shortcoming. For example, if your QB isn't as good on the road as he is at home, you can pick a "Road Warrior" coaching improvement to counteract that element, and I find it doesn't work at "cartoonish" levels of success, but just little ways to make a difference. Very well executed, in my opinion.

Ultimate Team requires some real time to get into, but it's your basic "buy cards of players past to build a team". My first pack of players included Christian Ponder as QB and Anquan Boldin at WR, and a bunch of other college players I'd never heard of. You can imagine my surprise when I started my team and I had a guy by the name of Bo Jackson in my deck. Suddenly, my teams running game got a little better. The process there is fairly standard, buy "packs" of cards to get better players, and earn points to buy the packs with your game play, all pretty normal stuff, but it's got some fun aspects. I hope to find a college-aged Peyton Manning card in my next pack or two. Then things will get interesting.

The Road to Glory is another great aspect of this game. It allows you to create a High School prospect and pick the three college programs you'd love to get into. You set your player up based on home location, and it includes most local cities to the point that my son Aidan created himself as a QB for the school he plans on attending in high school next year, complete with Mascot accuracy and uniform colors. Truth be told, he had to put in the mascot and the colors, but the fact that the city was there made him excited about it. My wife even saw us setting it up and commented on the "hey, they have Brea? (her alma mater) Awesome.".

The schools you play in that mode are also fairly regionally accurate, at least by southern California standards. You play cities that make sense. The feature is fun and something that's brought my son to the game more than I expected. He can't wait to take his QB and put up another 450 yards to see what programs offer him scholarships. Unfortunately, the evolution of this aspect of the game is somewhat slow going, and I haven't had enough hands on time to take full advantage of it. In other words, I haven't gotten to draft day yet to see what the next step is, but I did manage to at least get a scholarship offer for my high schooler from ASU.

Road to Glory mode also allows you to choose the college path of some great athletes in the Heisman Challenge component, going over key games and moments from past Heisman trophy winners. Taking control of the diminutive Doug Flutie as he leads his team into battle is pretty cool.

Outside of the game play modes, there's also the Nike Skills Trainer learning mode, allowing players the ability to go practice specific aspects of the game. I usually don't use these modes in sports games, but I found myself getting sacked or not picking up the blitz on a lot of option plays, so I honed my skills on the option and got a little bit better. This mode hasn't changed much, but it’s definitely more useful than I expected.

All in all, with the new physics engine and the overall game play, coupled with the newer navigation and subtle little in-game tweaks, I think EA has really taken steps in the right direction with this title. It will probably be more of a daily driver for me than I expected, and it's definitely made my son a college football fan. For a game that, for all intents and purposes, ends up being the minor league version of Madden every season, I think EA has gone out with a bang on this title, and it leads to some hope and optimism for sports games on the Xbox One. Nicely done, EA.

Keep up the good work. I can't wait to see what the Xbox One hardware brings to game from the AI and Physics perspective, but if Infinity 2 is any inclination, I think we'll all be very pleasantly surprised.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.3 / 10
Sound: 8.7 / 10


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