Previously on MGoBlog: Seth's review of the same.
NCAA 14 hits the shelves today, and EA Sports was kind enough to give us an advance copy to review — for the last four days, I've dutifully ignored the lure of sunlight, company, and basic hygiene in order to cram in as many hours as possible with the game. The things I do for you people.
My review of last year's edition eschewed the normal overview of gameplay and the various modes, instead focusing on how to make another underwhelming, mostly-redundant NCAA an enjoyable gaming experience. For the last several years, the basic debate surrounding NCAA has been whether to drop $60 for a couple gameplay tweaks (and, inevitably, a few new gameplay bugs) or save the money and hope for a good roster update.
This year, EA finally made enough changes that it truly feels like a new game in most aspects. Dynasty Mode got a much-needed overhaul, the gameplay adjustments are mostly positive, and the game as a whole feels more realistic. There are gripes, to be sure, but overall I think this is the strongest NCAA in a while.
There have been enough changes to the gameplay (I know, right?) that even experienced players will want some time to learn the new features and hone their skills. Before doing anything else, I'd highly recommend going through the "Nike Skills Trainer"* — a series of tutorials/drills that covers all aspects of the game. Doing those not only helps you get used to some new controls, especially with the overhauled option (more on that later), but the drills are fun on their own — I found myself hitting "try again" several times to see if I could earn a gold medal in each drill, which unlocks a player for the online-only Ultimate Team mode. The skills trainer replaced the mini-games (option dash, tug of war, etc.), which I miss dearly — while the skills trainer is fun, you can't play against anyone else, and the mini-games were great for quick round-robins with a few friends — but it's certainly a worthy addition.
The biggest change once you're ready to hit the field is in the running game, where EA has implemented the physics engine that made last year's Madden so enjoyable. Running looks and feels much more like real life than in the past — setting up blocks is paramount, size matters in collisions, and there's a bevy of new animations that mostly look great (there are still kinks — a few tackles I've seen defied physics). With a good offensive line, running between the tackles can actually be effective.
More importantly, the option — and spread option — has been completely revamped, and I'd guess most players will find that running it in some form is their favorite way to play on offense. The game now helpfully points out the defender to read at the mesh point (for the read option or triple-option dive) or for the pitch (traditional option) before the snap, and variations like the mid-line option and inverted veer are now in the playbook. Backs maintain proper pitch relationship — an issue in years past — and quarterbacks can take hits without consistently getting injured or fumbling (this varies depending on ratings, of course, but QBs used to be outrageously brittle). The CPU can finally run an effective option, as well, with no more inexplicable pitches landing three yards behind the back; defending the option is hard, as it should be.
The passing game is mostly unchanged. Ill-advised throws are going to get picked off more often than not, which is realistic but also tough for gamers who don't know how to read defenses. There are still a few money routes — thank me later for recommending TE Trail in short- to mid-yardage situations — but I've found I can't predetermine where I'm throwing the ball unless the defense is completely misaligned given my playcall. Linebackers no longer are supermen, which helps; I wish receivers would do a better job on their own of adjusting to the ball in the air, though.
Defense is, one again, pretty damn difficult, especially if you want to play in the back seven. CPU quarterbacks are ruthlessly accurate; on All-American difficulty, my best hope of stopping a pass was to blitz and hope for a sack or throwaway, which along with the occasional drop appear to be the only ways to force incompletions. There are little-to-no mistimed routes, passes just out of a receiver's reach, or panicked chucks under pressure; even with a stellar secondary, interceptions and incompletions were very hard to come by, and instead I had to sell out with the pass rush or play conservative zones to keep YAC to a minimum.
Run defense is largely about calling the right play; from there, unless you're quite adept at linebacker or safety, the way your CPU teammates react is the biggest determining factor in a run play's success — this isn't unrealistic, but it doesn't make for a particularly enjoyable defensive experience. I've mostly lined up as a DT and focused on getting a big push into the backfield, which is more fun than it sounds (at least for me) and can have a big effect on both the pass and run games — collapsing the pocket on a QB is by far the most effective way to stop a passing play, as they often slide right into an awaiting DE.
The good news here is that EA now allows you to set separate difficulties for offense and defense. If you find yourself turning the ball over on half your possessions, you can knock the offensive difficulty down a notch; same goes for defense if you can't get a stop. This is an imperfect solution to a major problem — defensive gameplay is still quite frustrating — but it's still appreciated.
Now here's where things get really fun. Dynasty Mode finally got an overhaul, and it's a good one. First and foremost is the addition of "Coach Skills" — as you progress through your dynasty, you'll earn points for both on-field and recruiting accomplishments, and those points earn upgrades (the details of which can be found here). This adds a RPG-like angle to dynasty that makes it feel like you're really building towards something, not just running through the same season over and over again. You'll have to decide early on if you want to focus on earning in-game boosts (like Coachstradamus, which at its highest level gives you a 25% chance of identifying the opponent's play type before the snap) or an edge in recruiting (Kitchen Sink, for example, raises the cap on points you can spend recruiting individual players). Other coaches earn these same boosts, so you don't just lap the field as your dynasty wears on.
The second major change is the streamlined recruiting process. You get a certain number of points each week to spend on scouting, offering scholarships, and pitching players — those points aren't separate, so you have to find the right balance of scouting and recruiting early on. The critical change is that you don't have to unlock pitches or reset the number of points spent on a recruit each week — you know from day one which pitches a recruit likes and how many bonus points you'll get each week from them, then choose how many additional points to add from your pool. Those points don't change from week to week unless you change them; if you want, you can set your board in Week 1 and then forget about it (though I wouldn't recommend it). Even if you decide to spend time recruiting each week, the process goes much faster — including in the offseason, where the recruiting process has been cut down from a bloated five-week ordeal into a one-shot bidding war (you get a pool of 10,000 points and all caps for individual player spending go away).
The points system adds much more clarity to recruiting; you know exactly how far ahead or behind you are with a recruit, the bonus points your competition is getting each week, and the baseline number of points you'll earn on a given visit. This allows you to be much more strategic when it comes to targeting recruits, especially the longshots. With the roster cap still at 75 (ugh) and yearly scholarship caps at 25, I've found that narrowing down my recruiting board early and bringing in classes of 15-20 recruits gives me the best chance at landing a top class. Other recruiting tips:
- If you can, max out the Scouting coach skill as quickly as possible. There are plenty of "gems" and "busts" in the prospect field, and identifying those guys early is an easy way to cut down your board and focus on the best prospects. This is especially useful in preseason, when you get 1,000 points to spend solely on scouting.
- DO THE MATH. You can figure out precisely how many points you need to give a recruit based on the bonus points other teams are receiving and the weekly changes on a prospect's top schools board. Sometimes, even if you max out a recruit's weekly points, it's impossible for you to catch another program (usually Alabama). Drop those recruits like they're hot.
- After a certain amount of time, a recruit "locks" into a certain number of schools, and the rest are eliminated from contention — the numbers of schools locked in and how early this happens depends on the recruit. It's worth searching the board on occasion for prospects who are still <25% locked in the latter half of the season; even if the prospect doesn't have initial interest, you can often swoop in and pick these guys up late. This is a great fallback if you miss out on a prospect at a position of need.
- Pay attention to pipelines. Having a certain number of prospects from a specific state makes that state a pipeline, and you earn bonus points with a prospect if they hail from that state. Again, it's all about maximizing your limited number of points, so any edge you can find is helpful.
- The game gives extra points for scheduling visits late in the season — your goal with most prospects should be to get their final visit, and the game encourages you to schedule everyone as late as possible. DON'T ALWAYS DO THIS. Visits can cause huge swings in points, so if you have a comfortable lead for a prospect early, bring them in ASAP and you'll probably lock everyone else out and earn his commitment. Scheduling an early visit can also save you from being locked out, though you'll then have to sweat out the recruit's subsequent visits.
Other than recruiting and coach skills, dynasty mode is mostly the same, which is good — that's always been my go-to mode. My biggest gripe is that there is no playoff starting in 2014 — you're stuck with the BCS in perpetuity, which is especially unfortunate since the game occasionally produces some wonky title games. Exempli gratia:
Even worse: Stanford beat Washington by 30 in their simulated matchup.
EA is probably waiting to unveil the playoff (sorry: cofopoff) as a new "feature" in next year's game. This is pretty lame, EA.
Overall, though, the changes to dynasty mode are a big step in the right direction, making an already enjoyable game mode even better. My only gripe with the coach skills is they can sometimes make things too easy — if Coachstradamus tells me the defense is in a Cover 2, I know enough to audible to a play that will gain 15 yards at worst — but you can set how difficult it is to level up, which helps mitigate that issue. The RPG aspect is something I very much enjoy; I found myself tempted to race through seasons so I could pick up more bonuses and build a true juggernaut.
OTHER GAME MODES
Road To Glory — in which you take a player from high school recruit through his college career — is still in the game and, as EA admitted, is essentially untouched. If you liked the mode in years past, you'll still enjoy it. If you didn't — or found it less compelling than Dynasty Mode — then it's not worth trying again.
EA imported their popular Ultimate Team feature — in which you unlock players through in-game accomplishments, then use them in games against online opponents — to NCAA. You can use these players, which include several all-time greats and (until yesterday) one "oh shit, get him out of here", in head-to-head online seasons or solo challenges. I haven't had the chance to delve into this mode in depth, so I won't comment on its merits except to say that it'd be nice if there was an offline option.
If you're the type who just wants to play the game but still want to play for something, there's a new "2013 Season" mode, which is exactly what it sounds like — you play (or sim, though that seems to defeat the purpose) your way through the 2013 season without having to worry about recruiting and the like. This won't be a feature I use but I'm sure some of you will appreciate it.
It's pretty clear at this stage that EA has maxed out what they can do on the PS3 (oh, hey, just in time for the PS4!). There are some minor graphics improvements — players' muscles are more defined, for one — but the atmosphere falls flat at times; players on the sideline look like they're imported from a PS2, the field and crowd often look flat and dull. This isn't a big deal for me as much as the actual gameplay, especially since it's clear that EA has to hold back on minute details to ensure the game runs smoothy (and I'll take that over picture-perfect fieldturf).
In a long-overdue move, NCAA has new in-game camera angles, including a wide-angle view that allows you to see all 22 players on the field. I haven't toyed around with them much — on the first try, I found the wide angle to be a little too zoomed out — but at least there are options now.
As for the sound, you're still getting the same generic commentary in games, and the same repetitive marching band music in the menus (my first move is always to turn off the menu music and sound FX so I can listen to whatever I want while moving through my dynasty). EA has tried to add to the atmosphere by including piped-in music — yes, "Seven Nation Army" is in the game — which you'll either slightly appreciate or hate with the fury of a thousand suns. (Hi, Brian.)
Aside from the BCS tomfoolery, I've found the game pleasantly devoid of glitches or major issues with simulation. The only real glitch I noticed occurred once, when my CPU opponent went into the hurry-up and, with the rest of the offense set, the center stood over the ball until the play clock ran out. That hasn't happened since and the CPU loves to run the hurry-up, so that's hopefully an easy fix when EA releases the inevitable patch.
This isn't a bug, but a new recruiting feature is "complimentary" visits — no, this doesn't mean your coach heaps an excessive amount of flattery on a recruit, but instead that the player is visiting along with recruits of compatible positions (e.g. having a QB and WR visit in the same week). As a writer, or at least a person with a decent command of the English language, this drives me nuts.
This is my favorite edition of NCAA since they moved to the PS3. The run game is a lot of fun, especially the option, and unlike many I think the passing game is enjoyably challenging. Defense still needs plenty of work, especially in defending CPU quarterbacks, but I'm holding out hope that messing with the sliders — or perhaps a major patch — will alleviate some of the issues. (I didn't touch the sliders for this review so I could give a fair impression of the game right out of the box; if you're a serious gamer, I highly recommend checking the Operation Sports forums for tips on setting sliders.) With the improvements to Dynasty Mode, this is the first time in a while I've felt confident in saying a new edition of NCAA is worth the price tag.
Now if EA could just add the playoff and bring back the mini-games, baby, we'd really have a stew goin'.
*Product placement and ads for in-game extras are both quite prevalent. I found this fairly annoying — and I'm sure Ed O'Bannon does, too — especially when it comes to EA suggesting you purchase booster packs for a game that already costs $60. Long live capitalism, I guess.
Screenshot via Operation Sports
I has been nine days since the release of EA Sports's latest iteration of their NCAA Football series. It speaks to the power college football holds over my soul that, for the ninth day in a row, I will play this game for an extensive period of time.
You see, NCAA Football 13 is not a great game. In fact, it's not even a particularly good one. For every advancement from last year's edition, there's a new glitch or gameplay issue that mars the playing experience. This isn't new, of course—you could say the same about every edition since NCAA 05—but it's especially true for a game that had so much initial promise but once again fails to completely deliver.
Then again, I'm still playing, with two active dynasties and a burgeoning Heisman Challenge that weds my favorite NFL player of all time to the school I attended. For me, it's an impossible-to-shake relic of my childhood: eager anticipation, the midnight release (yes, I went there), the first sleepless night (always starting with a Michigan dynasty), the download of fully-named rosters, the ritualistic ass-kickings handed to my little brother, and so on. For me, NCAA is as much a staple of summer as hot dogs and baseball, and I've come to terms with the fact that the game will inevitably disappoint, and I will inevitably spend countless hours playing it anyway.
I know I'm not the only one like this, so this review will be a little different; yes, I'll lay out the positives and negatives, but much of this post will be dedicated to finding ways to enjoy this game in spite of itself. Because let's be honest: if you're reading this, you probably bought the thing already.
The hallmark advancement of this game is the long-overdue overhaul of the passing system. No longer do all your passes fly on the same trajectory, begging to be intercepted by a leaping linebacker or that corner who's not even looking. Now touch passes actually have—wait for it—touch, allowing you to drop a slick pass in between zones or launch a bomb over everyone. I love to run a passing spread or air raid offense, so to say this is a welcome change would be an understatement.
Another long-overdue tweak is the elimination of superhuman defenders; the linebacker playing the short middle zone doesn't climb the ladder to pick off a wide-open post route, and that cornerback whose back is facing you won't stick his hands over his head and somehow intercept that fly route when he's beaten by a good three yards. Again, this is a huge step in the right direction.
On top of those changes, this year saw the addition of hundreds of new animations for the receiver. This is not a video put out by EA, but a highlight I saved from one of my own dynasty games:
The height of realism? Okay, probably not, though it's worth pointing out that I've seen that animation exactly once in the time I've poured into this game. There are many others, including Calvin Johnson-esque one-handers that will make you rise from your recliner before pausing to check out the instant replay in super-slow-mo. This game has its moments, to be sure, and many of them occur when you're airing it out downfield.
The game encourages a far more disciplined approach to playing quarterback, as well. Receiver icons don't appear until the player is "looking" for the ball; an immediate throw after the snap results in an ugly incompletion at best, an interception at worst. The game now executes a 3-, 5-, or 7-step drop for you, and throwing in a rhythm with your drop really does produce the best results. Recklessly rolling out when the play doesn't call for such will usually end in a sack; if you want to take advantage of your mobile quarterback, learn how to step up in the pocket and get under an edge-rushing DE to break a play open. These changes make the passing game not just a new experience, but a very enjoyable one, though there's two large drawbacks that I'll cover later.
In past games, running out of the shotgun was out of the question. In this year's edition, the zone read can be very effective, and all that separates you from a potential big play is correctly reading the defensive end. The "gotcha!" feeling when you correctly keep as the DE crashes down the line will have you strongly considering a move to RichRod's playbook (okay, maybe not).
Then there's the lynchpin of the series, dynasty mode, where you take the reigns of any NCAA team as the head coach or either coordinator and grind your way to the top (or at least a new contract). This year, it's deeper than ever, which should greatly appeal to those who take a more strategic approach to playing the game.
Recruiting is much-improved thanks to the new scouting feature, which gives you three hours a week (plus an extra 20 when setting up your recruiting board before the season) to unlock player ratings before divvying up your available phone call time. This adds to the realism—coaches have much more information in real life than star ratings and an approximate 40 time—and also makes it much easier to choose between multiple recruits at the same position.
ESPN is more integrated into the game than in previous years, with in-game score updates from Rece Davis and a bottom line with scores from all over the country. The updates do get repetitive after a while—Rece only has so many pre-programmed statements—but they're easy to skip if you find them a bother. I appreciate the efforts to make dynasty mode more of a story; they capture the scoreboard-gazing dramatics of college football quite well.
The big gameplay mode addition this year is the Heisman Challenge, and if you've seen the commercials you know you can take players like Desmond Howard, Eddie George, and Barry Sanders and put them on any team you'd like. The presentation here is also solid, as frequent videos featuring the Heisman winners discussing their careers are interspersed into the gameplay. You'll have to decide for yourself if you prefer playing as a receiver, running back, or quarterback; all have their merits and demerits, but it's possible to enjoy yourself at any of the positions.
Issues with computer AI abound and threatened to ruin what should be a great game of virtual football. While the passing game is much-improved, two issues need to be addressed. The first is the rampant prevalence of sacks; if you don't tweak the sliders, expect the DTs to have an absolute field day for both teams. All too often a DT is able to blow right by the interior line and destroy a play before the receiver icons even appear, and it's not unusual to see both teams approach double-digit sacks in a game with five-minute quarters.
Those sacks, however, are rather necessary considering the passing game's other issue: safety play that makes 2010 Cam Gordon look like Ed Reed by comparison. Streaks and posts from the slot are nearly unstoppable as safeties routinely stand still while the receiver gallops past, regardless of the defensive playcall. If you want to win just about every game, all you need is a cannon-armed QB and one tall, fast receiver; the rest is just exploiting the glaring holes in the defense.
It's asking too much of EA to expect them to overhaul the running game and defense in a year where they did so much with passing, but I still have to stick those two categories here. It's difficult to run in the game, though not because the defense is remarkably stout; instead, the running back regularly gets stuck behind the offensive line, helplessly churning his legs while his torso remains unmoved. There are very few unique interactions between the offensive and defensive line, as well, and none of them are particularly authentic.
As for playing defense, it's the same as it was for the last several years of this franchise: completely, utterly meh. I've toyed around with playing every position, but 95% of playing effective defense is still in calling the right plays and not totally screwing up your assignment. When the best you can hope for is often not being the primary culprit on a long touchdown, change is needed. Since so many players default to controlling one of the defensive linemen, I'd love to see EA turn their focus to making that part of the game more realistic and nuanced.
Yes, there are glitches, and they are annoying. These mostly involve defenders simply standing still as the play goes by. Here's a few screenshots of me playing as Michigan against Ohio State as the Buckeyes decide to call an option on 3rd-and-24. Keep your eye on the playside cornerback:
So far, so good; the CB is maintaining the edge.
Sweet, I forced the pitch! That CB should be right there to...
As you can see in that last screenshot, virtual J.T. Floyd—sorry, CB #8—stayed rooted to his spot at the 13-yard line, though he at least turned to watch the play go by.
That's not the only glitch, of course. Defenders often take pursuit angles that will trigger your GERG-related PTSD, even running right next to the ballcarrier for upwards of ten yards before finally taking one step sideways to lay a hit. The play above represents the only time I've seen the computer successfully run the option; most of the time the running back ends up running a good 5-10 yards directly behind the quarterback, making for both a very awkward pitch and a big tackle-for-loss. On occasion, a play will be blown dead as soon as a receiver or returner catches the ball, despite the fact that they're still standing (this one has only occurred a couple of times, but you can imagine the frustration when it does).
Computer playcalling is also an issue. For one, they're far too reliant on screens, calling them seemingly every third play; this does not go well in conjunction with the unstoppable pass rush. Clock management was apparently programmed by Les Miles. In one game, the CPU was driving, down seven in the waning moments of the game but with all three of their timeouts; after a first down stopped the clock with one second remaining, the CPU... tried to hurry up and ran out of time.
Seven Ways To Enjoy The Game Anyway
So, yeah, this is a very flawed game; I have another page of notes detailing various annoyances. But again, I've still spent hours playing and will play far more before summer ends and actual football fills the gaping void in my life. To salvage my gaming experience, and hopefully yours, here are seven ways to either improve the gameplay or enjoy yourself in spite of its myriad issues:
- TWEAK THE SLIDERS: While you'd like the game to get it right the first time, the gameplay sliders are there for a reason, and they can go a long way towards fixing issues like the pass rush and brutally efficient quarterbacks. I started playing with these sliders a couple of days ago and they make for a much better, more realistic game. Keep making little tweaks with those until you've found the sweet spot for your game.
- THE RECLAMATION PROJECT: We've all fired up the game and launched into a Michigan dynasty; it's only natural. Unfortunately (for gaming purposes only), Michigan is a freakin' juggernaut, and recruiting is cake at a school like that. Instead, go for the reclamation project; right now I'm trying to resurrect Ole Miss, no easy feat in a stacked SEC. Or you could go for, as my buddy Noah coined last night, the "Exclamation Project"—take a Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe, or Eastern Michigan and turn them into a national power. This is a great way to keep dynasty mode interesting after a few years, especially with the coaching carousel feature that lets you have a very realistic coaching career path; start at Eastern with the hopes of catching Michigan's eye, for example.
- CREATE A PLAYBOOK: Part of the great fun of college football is the wildly variant styles of play. The create-a-playbook feature is woefully underutilized, in my opinion, as it's great fun to devise an offense all your own and unleash it upon the world. Want seven different Wildcat formations? They're in there. Want to create a hybrid between the spread and the flexbone? As you wish. Want to feature your remarkable depth at tight end and fullback? The wishbone and Maryland I call to you.
- START YOUR DYNASTY AS AN OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: I won't argue with you that defense can be a bit of a drag, and if you agree, why not eliminate it? Head coaches may get all the glory, but you can start a dynasty as the offensive coordinator, as well; while you'll still recruit for your team, when you play the games you'll only control the offense. This is a great way to not only makes the games go by faster, but eliminate the part of the game you enjoy the least.
- TRY A NEW DEFENSIVE POSITION: If you don't like the idea of avoiding defense entirely, try to spice things up a bit by playing a new, more difficult defensive position. If you're usually running as a DE, try middle linebacker, where you can make more plays but also have greater responsibility. If you mostly play linebacker, take a stab at safety. And if you want to get hardcore, man, try your luck at corner; trust me, it's possible to not only survive, but excel there. The game is only as stale as you allow it to be.
- CUSTOM CONFERENCES: Last year, with conference realignment madness in full swing, EA introduced the option of customizing conferences and their BCS bowl tie-ins. That feature appears once again this year, and it's still great; you can recreate the old Southwest Conference, take the Big Ten back to the days of ten teams, or stick all the national powers in a superconference and see who's left standing when the dust settles.
- PUT BARRY SANDERS ON MICHIGAN: Self-explanatory, I hope.
NCAA Football 13 may have its fair share of AI issues, glitches, and shoddy gameplay, but it's still college football, fergodsakes. If you're looking to have have fun while passing the time until September 1st, there are far worse ways to accomplish that end.