Our yearly "tide us over until the season starts" is here. From EA Sports comes the latest in the virtual college football realm that features the Infinity Engine 2 as the main stage headliner. IE2's strong effect on gameplay, added emphasis on "team" based modes, and awesome presentation create what we come to expect from this game: a very solid experience.
Dynasty mode returns in 14 and brings in some noticeable changes. I guess the biggest of these being the new look recruiting. Power Recruiting is meant to "streamline" the process in an effort to limit the time necessary in menu after menu to land top prospects. Gone are the dedicated "phone call" sessions where you choose a "line" to say to the high school star and he retorts with a positive or negative comment. Instead you'll start a short pre-season scouting period before the virtual fall rolls around. This allows you to: assess team needs, look at the "big board" of the top talent in the country, see if any 5 and 4 stars have any interest in your school, then target up to 35 of the nations crop to begin courting once the new season arrives. Power Recruiting shifts gears and offers you 5,000 points per week to allocate between your selected players. Up to 450 points can be spent on one player. So depending on how badly you want a kid to sign, assign accordingly. If a 5 star "need spot" guy has you fourth on his list, might want to push the limit with him. A three star player who had you as his top choice to being with and could add to a "log jammed" position could afford to not be sought after as heavily.
Other factors also have a determining effect in recruiting prowess. Each player is given "grades" for certain college search categories like conference prestige and playing time. If you happen to be piloting a "middle of the road" SEC school, the aforementioned examples play in your favor. A California kid who has an emphasis on proximity to home, however, may prove to be an arduous battle. While I anticipate at least some backlash from Dynasty aficionados that this new abbreviated approach takes away some of verisimilitude to landing prospects, the parts the devs scraped just weren't very interesting and (I think) felt like an acceptable solution to a strange system. This gets us back to playing games quicker, which is the point of sports titles.
The second new pillar to Dynasty is Coach Skills. Reaching team goals in ballgames offers points that the head coach and coordinators collect. Winning a game nets 100, scoring a TD defensively banks in 50 a piece, and so on. These are stockpiled from week to week until enough is earned to unlock abilities that help with recruiting and in game action. The head coach's Game Management section focuses on your matriarchal skills to get your team ready to play. Big Game is an ability that starts players off "HOT" in rivalry tilts, bowls, and championship games. Recruiting ones make the other six days of the week easier. Royal Treatment offers weekly bonus points after players are scheduled and take a visit to campus. Choices for the coordinators focus more on attribute increases like: less fatigue, ball security, tackling efficiency, and so on. At first I thought this new construct to Dynasty seemed frivolous; an attempt to add a new feature just for the sake of reasons to warrant this year' purchase, if you will. But then I thought about how this will have a long term effect over many seasons. If the wins continue, the skills will unlock. Through an extended period of time, the upper hand you'll have in battles will resemble the inherent advantages the best programs in the country seem to have. It'll "not be fair" well before the coin toss.
The next game mode selection of note is Nike Skills Trainer. Akin to the old Spring Drills mini-games from NCAA titles of yesteryear, Trainer targets key gameplay areas and emphasizes repetition and proper technique. The basics running and passing as well as more "focused" things like pre-snap offense and defense are coupled to get you finely tuned to the most effective ways to play. This is done by a two stage approach. The first stage shows you a short tutorial video and flashes helpful hints in text form. A set of attempts are set up featuring just the positions that are crucial to that particular aspect. Successfully execute enough attempts, and you'll move on to the 11-on-11 portion where medals are doled out based on utilizing the skill properly. For example: the new and improved Read Option component to 14 is worth its digital weight in "loot." Sure, you could run it in games without working on the play in Trainer, but you'll be much more effective if you do. So, the Read Option drill's stage one focuses on the "read" of the play side defensive end. A good attempt is making the proper read. The limited amount of players helps keep the point of the work out in focus. Stage two features full O and D, but you understand that the battle is still lost or won off that initial step even amongst full bore chaos. Passing skeletons, running exercises (like the classic smash mouth Oklahoma), coverage techniques, proper audible procedures, it's all here. I haven't played a sports tutorial this thorough since UFC Undisputed 3. Even for the most hardened of NCAA vets, I suggest playing through them once or twice to learn the "ins and outs" that make this entry different from the previous.
A popular Madden mode makes its way onto the college side for the first time. Ultimate Team takes current NFL pros with conference and team all time greats to create higher learning dream squads. Choose any college to represent the mixed bag of talents gifted to you with your first "pack" of players. Most of these will be between the 50 and 60 skill range, which entices you to acquire better talents down the line. Participate in a range of match ups. From Conference ALL TIME games, to Heisman winner teams, to weekly challenges, there are plenty of ways to find out what your team is made of before stepping into the big leagues. Head to Head Seasons mode tosses you into the online arena for a ten game season. Earn enough victories to punch a ticket to an 8 team playoff that culminates to a Championship game for Ultimate Team prizes and rewards. Call me a football geek, but there's something cool to this mode being brought over from Madden. In the NFL, there are several ways talents get shipped from place to place. Players get traded, go into free agency, get placed on waivers and such. This can and does create real life "Ultimate" rosters. Like Wes Welker now sharing the same field with Peyton Manning in Denver. In comparison, big name transfers in the college ranks are rare. And the years a player can stay on a team is naturally limited because of eligibility. So it almost seems this game type is, dare I say, more appropriate in NCAA. I will detail one small annoyance I ran into. The same standard game rules apply in Ultimate, and that includes injuries. Team Management is done at a position by position level. I have two quarterbacks: (Mr. Samantha Steele) Christian Ponder and Cam Newton. Naturally, Cam has a higher rating than Ponder, so I start the former. During a game, Newton got injured. But because I designated him as THE q'back, Ponder wasn't on the roster, so the game chose an extra skill position player to run the position, which effectively made me have to quit the session. An odd happening that could easily be fixed by those periodic "tuning" updates.
A historically favorite option of mine returns in 14. Season takes out the "micro-management" side of Dynasty to just have you playing football! Select a team, play out this year's schedule to fight your way up the polls, and battle for the last BCS championship crown ever (PLAYOFFS NEXT YEAR. YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!). You still get all the "press" of your team's performance being tracked. See how the other teams stack up by peeking at their schedules, look at voting tendencies, read headlines from around the college football landscape, stay on top of the Heisman race, ect. You're also offered basic functions such as adjusting depth chart positions and formation subs. But the week to week administrative demands are lifted, and you won't stick with this team for decades. I personally love this mode. I've never been a huge fan of recruiting randomly generated kids and "landing" their LOI. I have nothing against it; I know people who really enjoy that slight strategy edge. Personally, I just don't receive the same cathartic response, so Season mode is a fine addition for me.
Amongst sport game players, there's an old adage that rings true every year. EA uses Madden to innovate, and NCAA is always a year "behind the 8 ball." Largely, that's true. Sometimes really awesome new gameplay aspects that launch in August with the pro game won't hit the collegiate gridiron for another 11 months. I would argue that sometimes this is a good thing. Anyone remember the Play Maker stick from Madden 2004? While I really like that version of the series, that wasn't the best thing EA Tiburon has ever come up with. So, mark that down as a bullet dodged for NCAA. Flash forward to last year, and the pros got the Infinity Engine. A total transformation of the way virtual football on consoles is played. Enhanced movement, realistic player response, "lifelike" animations, the lot. That's all fine and dandy in theory, but the experiment didn't go over as "peachy" as we all hoped it would. There were many inconsistencies for its first time out. You could tell the backbone was solid, but other things needed some re-tooling to really reach a high level. A ha! A year out, NCAA Football 14 gets the Infinity Engine 2. Most of the main gripes I had with the way Madden felt last year are gone. And what's left is a very fluid gameplay experience that rivals any football title. Ever.
The most evidence to IE2's effect is player control and movement. Jostling the left stick feels authentic. This is how you would actually imagine a quarterback on a scramble, or a return man dancing down the sideline desperately trying to stay in bounds. Those small hitches that still made playing football games kind of "mechanical" are largely deleted in 14. I go back to the Read Option example. Seeing the option take place in real life, it has a sort of "down hill" sensibility. No matter who winds up with ball after the smoke and mirrors show is over, the entire backfield has this anxious pad tilt forward. A sort of coordinated stumble towards the play's eventuality. While it's not quite THAT authentic, it is so much more fluid, more cleanly orchestrated, more fun.
This extends into normal hand-off runs as well. Juking and jiving with the half back doesn't seem as much to do with one's knowledge of correct right stick gestures as it does a more "natural" thumb response to what is seen on the screen. Don't get me wrong, the RS stuff can still be utilized to a great degree, and an effective "loop" can be the difference between a 12 yard gain or six points. It's just not necessary to be a wizard at it to run effectively. The hard cuts and quick changes in direction are so solid with IE2 that I only felt like spinning or juking in the wide open field with only one defender left. I would even catch myself from time to time moving my head and neck in relation to where I wanted to dart the running back (I know, laugh if you must). It's that sort of immersion that gives you enjoyable feedback when marching the ball down the field.
IE2 brings in Force Impact and stumble recovery. Force Impact is basically the old Truck Stick. Appropriately flick up on RS to lower the boom on a would be tackler. This works well with the new gameplay motor in the way you'll initiate a tug-of-war for extra yardage. Keep churning forward against one guy until a host comes in and takes you down. Again, more realism 14 is bringing to the stage. Sometimes, you'll cut a little too close off a block, bump into the lineman or full back, and the carrier's balance gets all out of whack. In these moments, a RS icon appears in the player marker. Tap it back to pull upright and keep going.
Passing didn't feel quite as refreshingly new, but it still improved. I thought it was unnecessarily difficult to pass at times in 13. Ball trajectory & flight path was a little too in the favor of the secondary. This slides back just a touch to create an even playing field once again. The core principles in terms of tossing mechanics, however, return from the last few years. Make pre-snap decisions about a primary target, hot route the play appropriately, and quickly read through your decided progression. But what evens the odds a bit are an emphasis on certain routes and new pass control options. Total Pass Control is a simple gesture of the LS in a preferred direction as you tap the targeted receiver's button. Tuck a slant route behind that Mike linebacker in a hook zone by stepping to the opposite side. Press up to get more air under the ball on streaks. This begins to limit the coverage's effectiveness against an aerial assault. The back shoulder throw is 14's newest passing crown jewel. TPC towards the sideline just before the WR cuts to put the ball where only he can catch it. I think the devs knew they were close to getting the passing formula right last year, but wasn't sure how to keep things fair. This entry gets the concoction just about right when you play offense. But you better be sure dude is open or it will most likely be picked. Be active with pre-snap adjustments and look to a new target quickly if it's evident your primary isn't getting open before you get sacked.
Defensively, things can get a little frustrating at times. I love football, particularly the college game. The reason the NFL is slipping on my favorite sports list is because it's becoming basketball on grass. I'm all for player safety, but the savagery of the game is what separates it from other team sports. I'll spare us my soap box speech of Poo bah Goodell ruining the league, but just know I'm partial to the old school side of pro football (even though I wasn't alive to see those glory days). The college game still seems to be more even. SEC dominance is predicated on playing intelligent and aggressive D. Not to say I just like seeing "3 yards in a cloud of dust" for three hours. But I do despise when two teams hit the endzone so often it turns the scoreboard into a pinball machine. So it's a bit disconcerting to me that the offensive advantages in this game, at times, seem to have no effective check.
I'm belaboring on this point, but the Read Option is a force to be reckoned with. Unless the defense just sells out on run, it's almost a fool proof four to five yards. And because the play is widely run from shotgun formations meant to spread the field, it's tough to not think pass first. Also, pressure on pass plays is crucial to getting off the field. I have forced incompletions with stark zone and man coverage before, but more often than not, it's a long completion without destroying the pocket. Shifting around the d-line and LBs is critical in exposing weak blocking match ups to free up a blitzing back. Don't get me wrong, things really get stringent in the red zone, so the points totals usually stay moderate. It's just, in the heat of drive after drive, it can be infuriating when you feel completely clueless on how to stop rhetorical 10 to 12 yard scampers. My suggestion is to get creative and take advantage of offensive miscues. Stay a step ahead and fight for negative yardage plays so that their play selection narrows down.
The presentation side is just as strong as ever. The ESPN graphics package from last year is back! Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreit return once again to bless the mic and keep you in tune with all the game's happenings. Rece Davis and David Pollack do a quick pregame rundown as well as a halftime report. Additionally, Davis chimes in "from the studio" with updates from action across the country. Again, not much has changes from last year on this front, but if it ain't broke don't fix it. The two broadcasting teams are as believable as possible given the "limited response" nature of commentary in a video game. Visually, this thing is stunning. Character models, the crowd, the atmosphere. The essence of the gameday experience comes through in full/vivid high definition. There are even nice little "nuances." Like if a team stays in the no huddle, you'll actually see the skill position guys in the backfield tilt their head towards the sideline to receive the play. It's that attention to detail that can be easily overlooked, but is much appreciated when you stop and realize you're playing a video game and not watching a game on TV. Featured in 14 are three new camera angles: Zoom, Wide, and Coordinator. Zoom keeps by its namesake and inches the action a bit closer. Wide is that All 22 cam that keeps in frame every player on the field. Coordinator is like the best of both. Starts wide, but narrows in on the important portions of the field as the play develops. The last of the group I love. Using the default, seeing passing angles can be tricky. Coordinator cam shifts the perspective "up" enough where player positioning can be clearly seen. After years of using the default, I tried Coordinator and have kept it as my preferred "outlook."