Keep choppin’

Growing up in New Jersey, collegiate athletics always took a backseat to the professionals. That’s probably because we have a lot more pro teams in the area than legitimate college teams—and because the pros win a lot more championships. So, when it comes to college football, there’s only ever been one choice when it comes to pledging your allegiance: the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

It was an easy choice, then, when it came time for me to decide who’d play the starring role in my NCAA Football 14 Dynasty. I’d continue the work that current Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano started in Piscataway a decade ago, trying to further drag the name of Rutgers athletics out of the Division I muck.

Unfortunately, playing NCAA Football 14 is kind of like rooting for Rutgers: You do it because it’s the only option available. While a few tweaks here and there do add to the experience, most of this release comes across as a sad, mailed-in, final effort on this console generation before we get into the pomp and circumstance of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. And with no one to give them any competition, it’s no surprise that NCAA’s bar continues to fall.

Speaking of low bars, one of the new additions to NCAA is the Nike Skills Trainer mode—a fancy way of saying “tutorial.” If this is your first time playing an NCAA game, the Skills Trainer is a safe way to not embarrass yourself when you actually get out on the gridiron, providing you with the ins and outs on how to run the option and how to put just enough touch on that pass into double coverage. But like with the rest of NCAA, numerous, frustrating logic flaws will probably have you wanting to take your lumps on the field instead.

First off, no tutorial should ever teach a newcomer to football that it’s OK to throw into double coverage. That goes against the most basic rules of the game, and the fact NCAA tries teaching this shows how far the game is up its own jockstrap. Also, the success criteria on several drills seem completely arbitrary. Several times in the option tutorial, I “failed”—and that’s because even though I made the pitch at the proper time, the play still got busted up by the AI. The reverse also happened: I didn’t make the pitch, got a huge gain, but since I was—according to the game’s broken AI—supposed to make the pitch, I failed. Once you’re in a real game, color commentator Kirk Herbstreit will even remark that getting a gain on a misread option—like I did in the drill—is “always a win.” Not according to NCAA Football 14, Kirk.

And this, I found out, would be the first of many logic problems I’d encounter throughout the game. Maybe this stems in part from the fact that college football rankings are a joke, based on an arbitrary voting system to determine the best teams and players in the nation. Maybe EA Tiburon is simply trying to simulate the “human” factor of many sports, but in a videogame, I need a little more AI and a little less “human” than what NCAA 14 provides.

The next failure came at the end of my first Dynasty season, when my Rutgers Scarlet Knights went 10-2 in a schedule that include five Top 25 teams—only losing to eventual (and undefeated) conference winner University of Houston and perpetual powerhouse Notre Dame—and were promptly relegated to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. While fighting world hunger is certainly something to aspire to, that particular bowl game is anything but. To see my team, who finished with a No. 13 ranking and just two losses, get a worse bowl than schools with 8-4 and 9-3 records and lower rankings was infuriating.

But it wasn’t as infuriating as when my star running back, who amassed a stupendous 2,100 rushing yards and 16 TDs over the course of the season, wasn’t even nominated for the Heisman. I’m not saying he had to win it, but when the next-highest rusher was more than 500 yards behind him—and when that back managed to get nominated—the whole situation started to seem a bit ridiculous.

So, like I said, logic problems galore. But EA Tiburon has also made several changes that do improve on the overall experience. The recruiting system has been streamlined, so you now assign a limited number of points toward prospects that you wish to recruit hard, with bonuses given for random factors the particular recruit cares about. How close is your school to home, how much you win, how much playing time you promise, and more play into a recruit’s willingness to sign with you. This streamlined approach lets you get back and play your next game quickly, without spending hours trying to beg the top prospects to come play for you.

Of course, another added feature in Dynasty Mode is the new RPG-like progression system of your coaching staff. While this is finally a way to give more weight to wins and how well your team performs in games—a critical shortcoming of previous NCAA incarnations—this system feels like it throws off the balance of the game. After a while, the upgrades remove much of the challenge. More in-depth scouting, kickers that never freeze, fewer penalties on the field, and boosts to your team during critical game moments are just a few examples of the new “powers” your coach can have. Those are significant buffs, and since the core gameplay doesn’t ramp up to match your newfound abilities, it feels like you’re turning the difficulty down as you get better at the experience. A more effective way of doing this would’ve been giving players a choice of three or so boosts off the list of dozens you can unlock. That way, everyone’s coach would be a little different, but the game balance wouldn’t be upset in the process.

Another addition to NCAA this year? EA Sports’ card-based Ultimate Team. It’s about time this popular mode made it into NCAA, and die-hard players can now pick up Bo Jackson, Peyton Manning, Barry Sanders, Randy Moss, and more to make a superteam.

The core physics engine has also been modified—using an updated version of the same tech that debuted in last year’s Madden—in an attempt to provide a more realistic tackling experience and improve the run game AI, which it does on both accounts. For the most part, this might be the best actual football experience from the NCAA franchise to date, even if it’s at the sacrifice of in-house originality.

It’s just a shame that the engine doesn’t bring along more realistic visuals, too. NCAA 14’s graphics, by and large, still look like they’re from the beginning of this console generation—and the glitches don’t help with the lack of polish, either. Mind you, EA promised that a day-one patch would correct some technical bugs, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that my experience included abysmal load times, a half-dozen crashes, and players who would literally stand still on the field in the middle of plays. With all the bugs I encountered, it had better be a massive patch.

Even still, I had fun with NCAA Football 14. I can’t deny that. It’s still football, and it still feels satisfying when you get a pick or score a late TD to ice a game. Ultimate Team and the streamlined recruitment process were nice touches, too. But when I look at NCAA, I can’t help but think to myself: If I were a true college football fan, why would I want to play a game that’s not bringing its very best to the field? In the end, it’s the same reason I root for Rutgers and not USC or Alabama: because I’m stuck with no other choice.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 07.09.13
A few tweaks, a couple of tacked-on modes, and some better mechanics from the borrowed Madden engine can’t overcome the basic logic flaws and imbalances that seem to be annual staples in NCAA.
The Good Ultimate Team debuts in NCAA; streamlined recruitment process.
The Bad Poorly balanced RPG-leveling system for coaches; logic problems galore.
The Ugly A lack of competition continues to result in a lack of ingenuity.
NCAA Football 14 is available on Xbox 360 and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for PS3.