I remember being so addicted to the NCAA Football series during my freshman year of high school that I begged my grandmother for money to buy the latest edition. Money was always tight in my family, and she easily could have told me to shut my trap and go do something productive, but she knew I'd do what it took to pay her back in order to get that game.
An hour later I already had a copy – Meijer was conveniently located directly across from my house for all of my shopping needs – and I was glued to the television, recruiting and winning games for San Diego State in hopes of getting my virtual dream job at Michigan. This was before Brady Hoke had taken over at SDSU and voiced his dream of becoming Michigan's head coach, so it was pure coincidence that I was walking the same path that Hoke took.
Years later I found myself at the University of Michigan, playing in an online dynasty against some of my friends from high school. I knew a lot about the game – both football and EA Sports' NCAA Football – and it eventually became clear that I was breaking apart the dynasty by winning too damn much. Some of my friends dropped out, eventually ending our online conference. This lead to a three-year stint in which I played little to no NCAA Football on the Xbox; this was partly due to me needing to focus on this thing known as school, and partly due to the game becoming absolute crap.
I'll always remember a particular short-tempered friend of mine cursing through his microphone after watching a "psychic" linebacker turn a full 180 degrees to intercept a slant route. This happened far more often than it should have, and it was only one of many major bugs in the game. The running game was terrible because of the physics engine, the option game was so whacky that you could pitch the ball through your gut to a back behind you, and more modern plays like bubble screens rarely every worked like they should in real life. EA Sports was reeling.
Then the company answered its angry mob of NCAA Football fans by changing its physics engine altogether in this year's edition. Their campaign begged bloggers and fans to "Keep it real", but would the game actually offer up an unfamiliar feeling of realism? I've played through the game and its many modes to give you that answer.
Opening It Up
Go to Meijer, or Wal-Mart, or Gamestop, or wherever else you buy your video games, and tell them that you want the one with Denard Robinson on it. It's that easy. You'll notice a few new things immediately after putting the disk into whichever console you happen to be running.
First off, the menus have all been revamped. You'll press start and notice a bunch of squares and rectangles on the screen that resemble a college football version of Windows 8. I like the design because it lets you see everything the game has to offer in plain sight: the Dynasty and Play Now modes are square in front of you, and you see a little gear in the corner that immediately makes you think of settings, in case you want to change something right off the bat.
Sports games have become more and more menu-heavy as they become more in-depth. Menus used to be nearly useless when the Madden series first rolled out; the only thing a player had to do was select a team, and you might not see a menu again. Things are different today, as players look to manage teams' depth charts and recruiting boards in dynasty modes that put massive stress on menus. The new EA menus do a good job of making things easier on the eyes and less painful for the brain. It also feels like there are increased load times, but only at crucial transitions during game play, which reduces the amount of time you wait while navigating through menus.
So far, so good.
Modes, Modes and Modes
Play Now and Mascot Mashup
These two classic modes are still great ways to pick up the sticks and play against someone instantaneously, or just play a game against the CPU for practice. There are also online matches, which will consume you whole if you aren't careful. The Mascot Mashup mode is hilarious and also great if you want to play with two perfectly balanced teams: the mascots are all rated 99 across the board, so there's no excuses for your friend to make when you trample him by fifty points.
Some people like to pick up the game an play out the upcoming season, or simply simulate it and see where EA thinks each team ends up based on their computer ratings. Season mode allows you to do just that. There's no recruiting to hamper your timeline, so just play your twelve-game schedule and see if you're lucky enough to play for it all by the end. I enjoy building teams from the ground up, which is why my favorite mode is..
Dynasty mode is the reason why people purchase this game; it's surely the reason why I purchased the game every year when I was younger. This year's edition is deeper than any before, allowing you to create a coach from scratch, start as an offensive or defensive coordinator, build your recruiting board and eventually become a head coach.
Creating a coach is fun and easy, although there isn't too much customization that comes along with it. Plug in your name, select a body type and shirt/hat combination and you're on your way. The real fun comes when you start winning games and accumulating experience points, which allow you to purchase coaching upgrades. Win enough games and you can become a virtual Greg Mattison, giving your players' ratings a boost by upgrading specific coaching attributes such as "Road Closed", which boosts your players' ability to get off of blocks and stop the run. I would normally find things like this to be a bit corny, but EA did a great job of incorporating it in a way that doesn't hinder the dynasty, and you could skip it altogether and be just fine.
The recruiting portion of the game has been changed dramatically. Gone are the times of allotting time and making phones calls to players. Now, you simply have X amount of points to spend on recruiting every week, and those points go toward scouting and recruiting. It used to take twenty minutes or more to do one week's worth of recruiting, but now you can assign points across your recruiting board and get on with your life. I like it, although some might complain that recruiting has been watered down too much.
Online Dynasty also remains an important part of the game, allowing you to play through dynasty mode against your friends through the internet. This mode alone makes the game worth it if you have a handful of friends who are decent at the game.
Road to Glory
Want to win a Heisman? Road to Glory is your mode. First, create your player, customizing everything from size to bicep bands and beyond. You won't jump right into the college game, instead playing out an entire high school season to earn a better star rating, which will give you your fair share of schools to pick from. Perform well and schools like USC and Michigan come calling, but perform poorly and a handful of MAC schools will be your only suitors. It's as cutthroat as real life, which makes it pretty damn fun.
You'll begin to earn coins if you play the game enough. These coins allow you to purchase player cards, which purchase the rights to add legendary players to your ultimate team, which you can in turn use in an Ultimate Team "season". Win enough games in the season and you'll make the ultimate playoffs, which sound difficult. This mode is fun for the college football nerds who want to see Chad Henne throw a deep out to Randy Moss, and it's also a good measuring stick of how much of the game you've played.
Nike Skills Trainer
This is a side mode that teaches you the basic controls of different parts of the game. You can learn the new option controls or put your favorite team through the Oklahoma drill. I won't goo into too much depth, but it's good if you're new to the series and want to earn some extra cards for your Ultimate Team.
Talking In-Game Action
This is where the producers of the games make their money. The series already has two awesome mainstays in Dynasty and Road to Glory, so improving the on-field action is really the only way to further the game.
The thing I was excited for in this year's edition was the new physics engine. Madden totally revamped its system in recent editions, taking away the "suction cup" feel and replacing it with a feeling to true-to-life football contact. I was skeptic of the advertisements for NCAA 14, but I must say that EA made a massive step in regaining my trust with this year's game improvements.
Physics have and always will be one of the hardest things for video game producers to recreate. Old editions of the game felt cheap because running backs could spin through piles of defenders, get caught up in a stiff-arm animation with one defender and waltz into the end zone. EA Sports tried to get rid of this in recent editions, and it did to some extent, but this year's edition thoroughly destroys the last few.
I realized just how much of an improvement the producers had made when I intercepted an Everett Golson pass with Raymon Taylor, only to be accidentally trucked and flipped onto my head by a charging Thomas Gordon. Running with the ball feels totally different, as defenders can now lunge to swipe at your legs, no longer diving and sticking their arms out to no avail. That alone makes the game much better, but the ability to stick your hand on the ground or dive forward for extra yards after having your foot swiped makes it all that much sweeter. Oh, and you can make sharp cuts without your player totally stopping to make a 180-degree cut. It feels real.
The biggest benefactor of the physics engine is the run game. Run power-O and watch as Derrick Green puts his hand on the back of a pulling Kyle Kalis, only to spin off of a tackle attempt and stumble forward for a gain of six yards. The option game has also been revamped, and I can personally attest to the zone-read's new playability. The inverted veer has been implemented, along with just about every counter to the option available. Add it all up and you've got a running game that is much more fun to play, and also much more useful in the game.
Other positive changes have been made as well. The hit stick is no longer as simple as flicking the stick, and it isn't very reliable. Move and hold the stick in order to make a square-up big hit, or flick the stick and make an attempt at a lunging blow. Be careful, though, as both can result in complete whiffs that allow the ball carrier to continue moving almost untouched.
Not all is good in the game, but you can always expect glitches and weaknesses in a video game. Pass defense remains difficult, and sometimes receivers will catch a ball and stop running for no reason whatsoever. This gets frustrating when you throw a crossing route to a slot who doesn't have a defender with ten yards, only to turn at walking speed and get trucked by a safety who is screaming down to tackle you. You found someone wide open and gained a yard. This is my only major complaint with the game, so I consider it a win for EA Sports.
The Overall Takeaway: Is this game worth $60?
Yes, yes and yes. I was expecting massive disappointment and physics that didn't live up to the billing, but EA Sports did a fantastic job with this game. Dynasty and Road to Glory remain fun as hell, and the in-game improvements are great. The option game and all of its counters make the game worth it, and that's before you take into account the new physics engine, which really does make the game feel real.
It has been a long time since I've been able to say this with a straight face, but this game is worth every penny, especially if you're a diehard college football fan.