Review: NCAA Football 14 runs wild with Infinity Engine 2
At first glance, not much seems different with NCAA Football 14, but it's what's under the hood that counts. Based on appearance alone, you'd think EA was content with repackaging last year's version of the game; it's when you go hands-on with the latest college football game, though, that you really begin to appreciate the improvements that have been made.
New to the game is the Infinity Engine 2, an upgrade to the physics engine that made its debut in Madden NFL 13. Players in NCAA Football 14 now move with the same realism as in Madden, with real weight and momentum; however, NCAA 14 expands on this engine and with the inclusion of the Force Impact System. Now all those little nuances – speed, weight, momentum, mass – are taken into account when determining the outcome of a collision.
The improvements made by the Infinity Engine are noticeable, but not to the effect that it feels like you're playing an entirely new game. Player movement is noticeably smoother and the cutbacks, specifically with some of the more elusive players, are fluid and seamless. Of course, anyone who has played Madden already knows the engine is susceptible to some wonky outcomes, and some strange animations as a result should be expected. It's all funny until it leads to a game-losing touchdown. Animation issues aside, the Infinity Engine is still a major improvement over predetermined outcomes.
Speaking of improvements, the running game in particular has seen the most. In addition to the hard run cuts for changes of direction, NCAA Football 14 features a revamped blocking AI system. Blockers are more intelligent, picking up the blitz and recognizing which defender to pancake.
The more intuitive AI is even more appreciated when you take into account NCAA Football 14's renewed emphasis on the Option, which now has over 30 types in the game. There's no denying the Option is a staple in college football (even spreading to the NFL now), so the inclusion of an entire playbook dedicated to this scheme is welcomed. I personally don't run this scheme, but I've had it run on me several times by the AI opponent. It didn't always work, but the computer's ability to read the defense and react accordingly was much improved.
Ultimate Team is easily my favorite addition. Admittedly, I've never been fond of this mode in other EA sports titles, but the idea of playing a team composed of some of college football's greatest legends really appealed to me. Because EA's servers are not up and running yet, I've only had a taste of this mode – opening up the initial pack of cards and playing a few games against the AI.
EA boasts “imagine Peyton Manning throwing the ball to Randy Moss” as a possible dream team. Well, my initial roster has the rookie version of quarterback Mark Sanchez. That's really the point of the mode, though. Play some initial scrimmage matches, earn coins, and purchase new packs of cards comprised of better players. Since EA's servers are not yet up, I haven't been able to purchase any new players, but I did get a taste of what to expect in the Gold packs. As a free bonus when first creating my team I was awarded the Gold-rated card of Bo Jackson, the running back stud out of Auburn (who later went on to play professional baseball).
Ultimate Team offers two types of gameplay – a Head-to-Head seasons mode, which puts players in a 10-game “season” in hopes of making the playoffs, and Solo Challenges, which are a nice way to learn the ropes and earn some rewards as you progress through the conferences. The more you win (in either mode), the more rewards and prizes you'll get.
Dynasty mode also makes a return this year, but EA has tweaked and added a few features. The big addition is Coach Skills, which adds a RPG-like progression system. Completing certain goals – winning games, signing prospects, etc. – will earn you XP which, in turn, you net you skill points. You can spend these skill points on 18 upgradeable abilities spread across two skill trees; Game Management and Recruiting.
Coach Skills adds a nice layer of depth to the game, allowing you to make up for any deficiencies your school or roster of players may have. For instance, the Recruiting tree can grant you more recruiting points early or late in the season, scout players more efficiently, increase your chances of an instant commitment when offering a player a scholarship. Similarly, the Game Management provides boosts to your team's performance with things like setting up play-action, avoiding costly penalties, and even immunity to the dreaded “Ice the Kicker.”
The level of depth goes even further as you can assign skill points to your offensive and defensive coordinators who each have their own skill tree designated for their respective sides of the ball. These skills provide more direct boosts to your players' individual skills. For instance, the “Cannon” skill will increase your quarterback's Throw Power and Throw Accuracy; “Air Traffic Control” increases you're receivers (HB, FB, TE, WR) Catching, Spectacular Catch, and Catch in Traffic. On the other side of the ball, you can boost the individual skills of your defensive lineman with either “Charge” (increased pass rush) or “Road Closed” (stop the run); or you can increase your defenders' awareness to the pass with “No Fly Zone.”
In total, there are 35 coach skills for you to choose from, each with three levels you can upgrade. The more you choose to upgrade them, the more effective they become. Coach Skills really adds a sense of personalization to the game, allowing you to really decide the type of coach you want to be. Do you want to be a recruiting-friendly coach, or would you rather be the type who can coach players up during intense moments? If you are part of a smaller school, being a better recruiter could help you stand out amongst the bigger fish. Better yet, you can make up for your own gameplay deficiencies by adding points to the offensive or defensive trees. If you have a problem stopping the pass, you can choose the “Shutdown” skill to increase your defensive back skills. It's a great addition that really increases the level of depth in Dynasty.
Unfortunately, I'm not pleased with all of the changes made to the mode. The other big change is how recruiting works. Gone are the days of the old phone calls with a points-based system. In its place is a streamlined Power Recruiting system, which aims to speed up the process. Now you are allocated a certain number of points each week (at least 5,000) which you can spread across the recruiting board of 35 players.
While the system does certainly speed things up as you're no longer choosing the individual pitches for each player, it takes away from a level of depth that I feel helped give me an advantage in recruiting over my friends. Even as a smaller school, I was able to pinpoint the exact attractions at my school that would appeal to each recruit. I don't know whether this is true or not, but I felt I did this better than any of my friends, which gave me an advantage over them in recruiting.
The problem now is that you no longer have to dig to figure out what a recruit is interested in. You are automatically awarded the bonus points as long as the recruit is interested in your school. The recruiting field is now even, in terms of skill required. This means the bigger schools will now have the advantage regardless of your individual skill as a recruiter. Although I recognize I'm in the minority here, the tedious process of making phone calls and pitches was actually something I really enjoyed.
That's not to say all strategy has been removed from recruiting, however. Offering a scholarship early on and scheduling a visit for later in the year will net you larger recruiting bonuses. Additionally, EA has added complementary and competitive visits. Pairing a quarterback with a wide receiver visit will get you a bonus, but bringing in players of the same position during the same week will lower the bonus. No more scheduling all of your recruits for one week against an easy opponent.
In terms of presentation, NCAA Football 14 is more of the same. Aesthetically, not much has changed. Stadium crowds still look like pixelated ants and the graphics are on par with that of last year's version. The Infinity Engine helps with the player animations, but when you look at the progress being made with the Ignite Engine on Madden and FIFA, you can't help but be disappointed with what NCAA offers.
For what NCAA Football 14 lacks in appearance, it attempts to make up for with an attention to detail. Games now have a more authentic college atmosphere. In addition to over 500 new vignettes and some really intense intro videos designed for rivalry games, crowd chants and cheers are more accurate to their respective stadium. When playing as UCF, for instance, you can hear Kernkraft 400. It's nice to see EA give this type of attention to every school, not just the big dogs. Another area of improvement is the menu system which has been completely revamped to allow for quicker loading times.
The changes made to NCAA Football 14 are subtle but solid improvements over its predecessors. While not much has changed aesthetically – especially when you look to the future of EA Sports titles with Madden and the Ignite Engine – the game still offers plenty of value for the typical college football fan. It's clear that we're ready for an upgrade, but improved gameplay, smarter AI, and quicker load times to get you into the action sooner are all welcomed changes. If you enjoyed the past titles, odds are you'll find comfort in NCAA Football 14.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]