The Madden franchise gets all of the “football fanboy” love in the mainstream. It’s easy to see why, the NFL is a juggernaut and the most popular sports league in the United States, it’s only natural that the only video game version of America’s favorite game would be front and center in the cultural landscape. That being said I’ve always been partial to the NCAA Football series, and with EA set to retire the NCAA Football moniker in favor of a less lawsuit filled CFB series I dove head first into the newest iteration of a game that has provided me with hours upon hours of entertainment over the years…and once again came away impressed.
It’s a testament to the developers that I continue to come back for more NCAA Football. With Madden you sometimes hear people talk about being asked to buy a fully priced roster update each new season. With NCAA Football you don’t even have that lure, because the rosters don’t update (well not specifically). I have a pretty good idea of who QB #2 is on Texas A&M but without seeing him shot gunning Pabst Blue Ribbon or selling autographs for money it’s only a hunch.
The heart and soul (in my opinion) of the NCAA Football franchise is the DYNASTY mode and there has finally been some changes made to the recruitment process. One of the stalest parts of the game has undergone of a face lift. Gone are the days of spending your precious time talking to a recruit about your schools ACADEMIC CREDENTIALS when you know their only concern is NFL PROSPECTS. Now, you are given a set amount of points (5,000 during the season, 10,000 during the off-season) and you can use the points in any manner you so choose, dividing them up among your recruiting class and watching as your competitors for reach prospect rise and fall on the rankings board for each player. At times you will be locked out of competition, this means that your prized prospect has dropped you so low on his board that he is no longer answering your calls.
The other major shift in NCAA Football 14 which plays closely with the revamped recruitment system is the Coaching Skill Tree. This — is — BRILLIANT. Essentially during games and during recruitment you earn points of certain achievements. Win a game, that’s 100 skill points, sign a 3 star recruit, have 25 points. Those skills are assigned to either your head coach, offensive or defense coordinator and each person can LEVEL UP if they get enough points. Once you level up you can then select a different skill from the skill tree. I loved this feature because it allows you to customize your head coach and assistants to reflect the type of system you want to run. If you don’t care about the power running game, then don’t waste your time assigning skills from that part of the tree to your offensive coordinator. The skill tree is a GREAT addition to the franchise and really adds some nuance to what used to be a pretty rote experience.
Though there are cosmetic changes, there are also game play changes which make the game more enjoyable and true to the college experience. Denard Robinson appears on the cover of the game for a reason – there is a big focus this year on the option offense, and I loved the changes that were made. Granted I play most of the game as UMass which has a terrible option offense but there are 30 new option types, which is much deeper than in years past and as one of the primary weapons for a ton of college football programs the expanded option adds a ton of depth to the in-game style.
Other than the option changes it’s tough to notice too much difference. I think the offensive lines are better, it’s more difficult to just pile on sacks, I no longer win defensive player of the year awards with my 67 rated left tackle coming in off the edge like Lawrence Taylor. It also feels like the secondary plays a little tighter and smarter, I noticed a lot of safety’s jumping curl routes for INTS while I played which was different from years past. One thing that hasn’t gotten better (and thank god if you’re playing as a lowly MAC team) is that 5 wide sets where everyone runs a streak will often get behind the defense. My UMass offense has more 60 yard touchdowns than 2 yard touchdowns, that should tell you all you need to know.
For many people one of the key parts of the game will be the ULTIMATE TEAM MODE which allows you to build your own team using playing cards of real college football players. The more you play, the more you win, the more points you accumulate, the more packs you can buy and the more players you can add to your team for depth. Randomly throughout the month you will get notices that certain college players are available for free if you log in – right now Bo Jackson and Michael Vick sit on my bench. I’m a huge fan of this mode – I was a proponent of it in FIFA and I love it in NCAA. The ability to build a team through the trading card process is fun and adds a ton of depth to the game, plus playing as Bo Jackson again is amazing – though running to the top of the field and then zig-zagging from sideline to sideline doesn’t work as well as it used to in Tecmo Bowl.
I know this review has been a bit glowing but I’m a huge fan of the NCAA Football series. The negatives are what you would expect, graphically the crowd still looks like cardboard cut outs, and the player models aren’t nearly as detailed as the Madden counterparts. I also don’t like that only some schools have their official mascots in the game – no Sam the Minuteman is devastating to me as a UMass alum.
Overall, I’d highly recommend this game but doing so seem futile. If you’re a college football fan (like I am) you know what to expect from NCAA, and if you’re waiting for Madden than I’m not going to convince you otherwise. If you’re one of those people who have an older version of the game and don’t want to upgrade, I think this year’s game is worth the price. I think the updates to the recruiting system and the revamped Coaching Skill Tree change the game enough, and add enough additional depth that you should spring for it – plus the Ultimate Team mode lets you play as Bo Jackson…Bo Jackson!
Final Score: 4 out of 5