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NCAA Football 14

(EA Sports; US: 9 Jul 2013)

Recruiting is known as the lifeblood of college football. Though player rankings are not infallible, without high-level recruiting, college programs struggle to compete on a national level. Various methods go into real-world recruiting including official visits, calls from coaches, and camp appearances, among others. It’s telling then that NCAA Football 14 eschews a clumsy simulation of this process for a gamified system of point allotment. In the franchise’s seminal Dynasty game mode, recruiting is still as important as ever, but instead of continuing to map the actual process to a stilted (albeit improving) digital experience, the developers have implemented a system that has no analog in college football.


It’s notable that the game’s marquee feature is trending away from realism because as another NCAA Football iteration hits the market with minor improvements—barring a new physics engine, which is promised every year—the game’s lack of realism shines through as strongly as ever. Perhaps these are the disillusioned words of a seasoned NCAA player. Those new to the series will likely find much to enjoy in NCAA 14, but for anyone who has played the series year after dutiful year, this may be the breaking point.


The physics system in NCAA 14 is indeed improved. Tackles are no longer a set of canned animations. Gone are the days of defenders coming in proximity and warping into a tackle animation as you run to the sideline. Instead, your players will break through weak tackles and continue running. But the presence of a true physics system highlights one of the game’s biggest flaws: the lack of player skill in developing discernible play styles.


Decades ago, the zone read radically changed college football schematics and is currently being adopted by progressive NFL teams. It stands as one of the few aspects of NCAA 14 that requires actual skill. The running play involves “reading” an unblocked defender and forcing him to commit to either the quarterback or running back. In NCAA 14, like in actual football, you can actually screw up a zone read. It takes some skill to recognize how the defenders are reacting on screen and then perform the correct action. But once you start running in the open field, play styles evaporate. Though small, shifty players and bruising running backs are differentiated by skill ratings, a player’s ability to play in space or run over defenders is limited to button presses and AI running angles.


The problem is that the AI rarely makes a mistake. One way in which you can motivate defenders’ actions is by “setting up” plays, something that has been available as an option in the series for several years now. But defenders seldom choose bad angles to attack the ball from or to cover their assignments from, thus defenses appear robotic.


That’s not to say that all NCAA Football players are the same. There’s skill and planning that go into playcalls, but after extended exposure to the series and the game, NCAA 14 feels more like the soccer simulation Football Manager. In this famous soccer sim, players painstakingly manage the administrative duties of running a soccer team and offensive/defensive schemes. The games themselves are simulated.


What makes NCAA 14’s contemporaries engaging is the way in which players of MLB: The Show and NBA 2k create unique characters with strengths and weaknesses that can be felt in the gameplay. Too often in NCAA 14, playing as a quick-footed running back feels no different than a bowling-ball full back in the open field when a defender comes to make a tackle. Plowing over defenders requires pressing forward on the right analog stick while spin moves and a defender’s reaction to them still feel predetermined. There’s no learning curve to running with the football, creating an arcade-like experience.


Similar problems exist in the passing game. Throwing the ball accurately takes nothing more than pressing the receiver’s corresponding face button. There are slight adjustments that can be made as the ball is being released, but simply pressing the pass button will send the ball flying to the exact location. This universal inauthentic accuracy creates a game that’s ripe for exploits and one which demolishes suspension of disbelief.


I don’t pretend to know the solution to these problems, but with year after year of stagnation and exclusive rights to both college football and the NFL, it’s clear that the NCAA franchise only cares about improving the gameplay experience insofar as it increases retail unit sales. The inability to make meaningful gameplay improvements places NCAA 14 in the same realm as roster updates and DLC rather than another marquee release from a once-great developer. Maybe the next generation will provide better.

Rating:

Chris Gaerig is a user experience designer with a Bachelor of Arts in English and American Culture as well as a Master of Science in Information specializing in human computer interaction from the University of Michigan.


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