Schmamereviews: NCAA ’14, The RPG-iest Football Game Yet
I’m a regular player of sports games, but I’m not a regular buyer of EA titles. As most of you are aware, EA has a dirty habit of asking us to pay $60 for essentially the same game (often with less features), with a new number slapped on the front and some new rosters that we could have easily downloaded after a fan somewhere spent an afternoon entering data. However, I do occasionally update my sports titles, I hadn’t made the rounds in four years now and, with the new generation consoles coming out, I figured it was a good time to update. I also share many of the sensibilities of a young girl, so I like to design logos and play dress up by making new uniforms. Making your own University and editing it however you liked used to be standard for NCAA games, but then EA removed it, but then put it back on after fans complained enough but then didn’t put the feature in the game; you have to design the team online and load it onto your game and – surprise, surprise – each entry into the series uses its own specific server for this feature that is no longer supported after the next title comes out.
So, with my copy of the game being ancient by NCAA standards and one of my favorite features being bricked, I figured it was a good time to invest in the next-gen series of sports game. Unfortunately, NCAA 14’s release date was early enough that it’s not getting the next-gen treatment, meaning my journey to gather the 2014 sports titles begins on the PS3.
The NCAA games have always been a series that has grown in fits. With the sport as popular as it is, and zero competition when it comes to other NCAA football titles, EA has really has little impetus to drastically improve them – something I can’t really fault them for, considering how many people buy it every year. I sure as hell wouldn’t worry about sinking money into improvements if I were them. That said, even without the masses voting with their wallets the NCAA franchise has made some improvements each game, though only in fits. It’s like EA is kicking and screaming to make the game terrible but inertia keeps stubbornly pulling them forward. They get some things right each time, but always pair each good thing with one or two mistakes.
For example, NCAA 14 has some drastically improved menus. That sounds like a really weak thing to praise a game for, but in the earlier titles (less so in 12 or 13) the menu system was a labyrinth where trying to go from one mode to another required scrolling through 18 different lists and possibly fighting a Minotaur or two. Now they’re both laid out in a more accessible manner and also designed to be more aesthetically pleasing. Which would be great, except the menus were apparently fathered by Dracula and his progeny suck the life out of the console whenever they get near it. I’ve never seen so much lag on some simple menu screens (which isn’t helped by the default setting which autosaves if you even happen to just breathe on an analog stick). This is a game that, depending on the number of players, seamlessly runs the AI for 18-21 NPC athletes, simulates multiple games and displays their scores on a ticker below your game, and manages to at least accompany each play with audio commentary that is somewhat germane to what just occurred. No lag for all of that. Need to scroll down three options? Hope you have five minutes to spare.
There are some other minor flaws with the game. Though I applaud EA for at least attempting some original College-y sounding music, when you only make one song for the menu screens (where you’ll spend a lot of time if you do something like Dynasty mode) it gets old fast. Most other sports game just license 10-12 songs for the menus and I’d rather listen to a bunch of generic “get excited” pop-rock than the same song a million times. There are the normal glitches you’ve come to expect from NCAA, like players awkwardly falling down repeatedly while trying to make it back to the huddle between snaps. The cover features an athlete with the stupidest tradition in sports history. One time my quarterback changed race after being tackled, but maybe Texas defenders just hit hard enough to Michael Jackson-ify a black man.
My biggest issue thus far? I’ve had the game a week and it’s already frozen three times, always right at the end of a game in Dynasty mode so I don’t have a chance to save. I’m about ready to punch a wall over this issue.
So NCAA 14 is clunky and has some annoying habits. It’s like a teenager hitting puberty and suddenly growing to the point where it doesn’t remember how to move correctly. But like a teenager, it does some things really… wait, nevermind, teenagers don’t do anything well. But NCAA 14 does.
Starting with the controls, the player movements are actually extremely fluid. I’m still so used to NCAA ’10 where I have to wrestle a player to get him moving sort of where I want him to go that I often find myself stutter-stepping or needlessly juking by using the controls too much. Passing seems much more anticipatory: before, QBs refused to throw outside of about a foot radius of where the receiver actually was, but NCAA ’14 (to a better extent that its immediate predecessor ’13) lets you lead a receiver, allowing you to throw to a hole in a zone or throw a particular receiver open.
I spend most of my time in Dynasty mode, and they’ve made some huge improvements here. Recruiting has been extremely simplified so you merely allocate points from a set pool to indicate how hard you want to target a recruit, saving you from the tedious hours of monotonous telephone mini-games. My favorite new aspect of Dynasty, though, is the coach building. When you start, you create a new coach and choose what school hires him and at what kind of contract. This in itself is a nice feature – personally I always choose a really crappy school so I can see if I can work my way up from the bottom, but I know some people will prefer to just pick their favorite school and hit the ground running. Then comes the most exciting part – your new coach starts out neutral in how he affects the team, but as you play you gain experience, leveling up your coach and letting you spend points on a skills tree to help out different aspects of your team. Yes, a feature that would be more at home in Baldur’s Gate makes an appearance in a collegiate football game, and while it isn’t the most complicated of skill upgrading it works fine for the game. I’d be more surprised, but fantasy football is (if you set your metric as “number of players” and “money spent on”) the most successful pen-and-paper tabletop game of all time, so maybe this makes sense.
The biggest reveal for this version of NCAA was the new “Ultimate Team” mode. When first seeing the advertising I wasn’t particularly intrigued – it looked like a mode for you to put famous former players onto a single team. I could already do that with enough free time. After getting my hands on it, though, it’s actually pretty cool. Players are represented by trading cards, and when you first enter the mode you get to select a “starter deck” (the deck seems to throw in a few players based on your favorite school, if you choose to tell the game you have one). This becomes your team, and can be made up of players from any school. You can then add to your deck by unlocking players by earning coins (or just buying them – hooray microtransactions!) – as well as earning them from a few other places, like if you had a preorder bonus. It ends up being a fairly fun feature because you get to try and collect different and better players to add to your team, and you could conceivably end up with a dearth of great running backs and a terrible receiving core, thus sending you to hunt for even more cards. There are also different versions of players – you might end up with freshman Bo Jackson backing up senior Bo Jackson on your team. You get bonuses for collecting all the players in a certain set – for example, all the Heisman winners. Players also have contracts that playing them in games will use up, meaning you have to save some of your cards so they don’t expire.
Online play is random, which is disappointing as you can’t challenge your friends directly, but the play mirrors what EA did with the FIFA franchise, which is a pretty exciting online mode. There are 10-game seasons and eight tiered divisions of play. You start out at the bottom division and work you way up via promotion while trying to avoid getting knocked down a division through relegation. NCAA 14 adds a four-round playoff structure that requires you to win at least five games in order to qualify (eight victories gets you a first round bye).
Overall, I’d say if you haven’t upgraded your NCAA in a few titles this one is worth it. If you shelled out for NCAA ’13 I don’t see a lot of improvements – certainly not enough to pick it up at full price – but there are some good things in it, so give the new features a look and decide for yourself if its worth the cash.