NCAA Football 14 review

EA Sports NCAA Football graduates from the current gen this year, but doesn't do so with honors.
EA Sports NCAA Football graduates from the current gen this year, but doesn't do so with honors.
EA Sports NCAA Football graduates from the current gen this year, but doesn't do so with honors.

Highs

  • Clean, easy to use menus
  • New Coach Skills mode adds to the game
  • Plenty of simulation options
  • Microtransactions are there, but not jammed down your throat

Lows

  • Many of the choices you make are tough to track
  • A flatness to some of the presentation
  • Lack of innovation
  • AI balancing is inconsistent

DT Editors' Rating

Forget the booming theater of actual games in stadiums like “The Big House,” with college kids drunk on sport (and possibly other things) screaming along to “Hail the Victors.” Forget about the culture of ESPN Game Day, with the sports press declaring that each game throughout Fall could create a legend. And forget the propaganda espoused by the NCAA as it crows about how great it is across the Internet, television, radio, and every conceivable form of media. College football isn’t about glory or the grand meeting between academics and athleticism. College football is, at its most basic, a celebration of something ephemeral. We glory in college sports because these games, like the young people who play them, are transient, even if the institutions are not. They will not last for a long time. Part of what makes college football wonderful is that it’s inherently bittersweet. No matter how heartbreaking or glorious the game, it will be over all too soon. 

NCAA Football 14 is the fifth year senior that still puts in a solid season but doesn’t have a clear career trajectory into the pros.

NCAA Football 2014 also has a slice of nostalgia sitting at its core because the series itself is about to graduate. Next year, NCAA Football will be built first on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This will be the very last game in Electronic Arts college football franchise built chiefly for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the culmination of seven years of experimentation and painfully slow refinement. It’s the last NCAA Football of a generation that fully embraced online connectivity, in ways both positive (full community features) and negative (abundant microtransactions). 

Does it feel like a fine and fitting conclusion to a storied career on HD consoles or a missed opportunity? Neither. NCAA Football 14 is the fifth year senior that still puts in a solid season but doesn’t have a clear career trajectory into the pros.

Jock Jams

EA Sports should be applauded for at least making NCAA Football 14‘s many modes easy to access up front. The menus are clean and accessible, making navigation a breeze. 14‘s chief role-playing games, the managerial Dynasty mode and the college player fantasy Road to Glory are present. There’s also the insidious and addictive Ultimate Team trading card game that EA continues to pump out. Then there are the basics, your single game match ups and full season playthroughs. Of course, all of these modes can be played online. Connectivity ranges from multiplayer across 14‘s many modes to populating the game with real-time weather and player conditions. Want to play a scrimmage at Beaver Stadium against Ohio State? The Weather Channel pumps in accurate conditions. There’s a problem, though: 14‘s modes maybe accessible, but they’re difficult to understand for newcomers.

If you are a fan of the series, you should be able to find your way around easily enough. If  you are new, or haven’t played in a few years, the Training mini-games in 14 do a capable job of teaching you the ins-and-outs of handling players on the field – even if the million Nike logos vomited all over the screen can be distracting. Learning how to properly play Dynasty and Road to Glory, though, requires experimentation and a fair amount of reading for the uninitiated. Problematic considering that Dynasty has been redesigned around accessibility and speed in 14.

ncaa football 2014 wisconsin plays

The most noticeable change in Dynasty is the introduction of Coach Skills, branching trees of special abilities for building the very best head coach or defensive coordinator you can. As you play the game – scouting players, playing games, setting line-ups – you earn experience and purchase skills related to those areas. For example, the “Antifreeze” head coach skill gives your star quarterback a boost at away games, while the defensive coordinator “Pure Instinct” skill bumps up your D’s awareness rating. It’s a familiar, modern way to turn a college football career into a game, but it works better in theory than in practice.

The menus are seemingly self-explanatory, but figuring out how these skills actually affect your career in the game is the tricky part. There’s a tangible disconnect between menu choices and watching NCAA Football 14‘s simulations unfold. It’s true in Road to Glory as well as in Dynasty. You may play through a goodly chunk of your future Heisman Trophy winner’s high school career, but the link between performance in games and what scholarships potential schools offered isn’t wholly clear. It works once the game clicks, but NCAA Football’s curators haven’t found an ideal way to make its role-playing games both nuanced simulations as well as fun to a fan looking for a light good time. It’s functional, but not focused.

Right Up the Middle

This conflict between depth and clarity also affects 14‘s field game. Another common problem in EA’s team sports games is nailing the perfect balance between AI teammates and letting a player feel fully in control on the field. It’s a problem exacerbated even further when playing against living opponents, as players without a keen understanding of NCAA’s incredibly complex controls (when it’s played well, that is) will get steamrolled by opponents. That’s something that has been an issue for the franchise since its inception though. 

NCAA Football 14‘s presentation captures the simple look but not the soul of college football. It’s missing its heart.

14 doesn’t fix this problem, but it does do an impressive job of mapping complex maneuvers to a video game controller. Defensive moves, like pulling down a pass, feel meaningfully complex, rather than a routine move done by a too-smart artificial intelligence. EA touts on the box how the Infinity Engine 2’s physics makes 14‘s football feel weighty and real, and in this case that’s not just marketing bluster. These players do feel real, controlling them takes skill and practice, and that skill is rewarded with thrilling games, even against the AI. (The AI is, sadly, also unbalanced. Rookie mode is too easy and the standard Varsity mode can be unforgiving.) The field play is another example of how NCAA Football 14 does a yeoman’s job while not necessarily excelling.

Any Given Saturday

The same can be said of 14‘s presentation. “Basic” is the best way to describe the game’s visual sheen. Attention to detail is impressive in some respects. That a fictional Ithaca high school football team in Road to Glory can face off against Elmira under a convincingly autumnal upstate New York sky shows how dedicated EA is to providing a sim that’s all things to all diehard college football fans. Problematic is the blank look on the players themselves; the muted animation of the stands in recognizable stadiums like The Swamp; the authentic yet robotic mascot routines; NCAA Football 14‘s presentation captures the simple look but not the soul of college football. It’s missing its heart.

NCAA Football

On a more appreciative note, I personally thank EA for not shoving microtransactions to the forefront. The rampant product placement in the game, from Nissan to Under Armor, is a necessary evil considering how ingrained parasitic corporate interest is in real life college sports. But EA could have easily been asking players to cough up cash for features in every menu of the game. The opportunity is there, whether you want to buy skills for your Dynasty Coach or new cards for Ultimate Team to speed things along, but it’s always in the background.

Conclusion

NCAA Football has come to the end of its career in the first high definition console generation, and it’s graduating into a very different landscape. It’s turned into an effective, but not legendary, player at the end of this career phase. The question now is whether or not EA will recognize the opportunity for NCAA Football to evolve and change in the aftermath of 14. This is a good, solid game. If it’s going to be great, it needs to transform into something else, just like the best college players come graduation time.

Highs:

  • Clean, easy to use menus
  • New Coach Skills mode adds to the game
  • Plenty of simulation options
  • Microtransactions are there, but not jammed down your throat

Lows:

  • Many of the choices you make are tough to track
  • A flatness to some of the presentation
  • Lack of innovation
  • AI balancing is inconsistent 

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 using a copy provided by the publisher)

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