NCAA Football 14 review: In the trenches

Option-style offenses seem to be high-risk, high-reward, if NCAA Football 14 is to be believed. The game offers an entire Spread Option playbook that showcases the 30 option types now in the game. Running a read option offense has become my favorite way to play the game, to the point that I recruited players to my Dynasty team (Syracuse) for their explosive, option-friendly abilities.

I also fumble the ball a lot, primarily on triple option and shovel option plays where I have three choices: hand the ball off to a running back, keep it as the quarterback or pitch it to a third player. That third choice may as well be the "turnover option," as defenders converge on my player and initiate a collision so quickly that my quarterback will either fumble the ball or pitch it directly into the defender's hands.

I've found these option plays to be boom-or-bust in NCAA 14, much like the entire game. %Gallery-186624% NCAA 14 features the latest version of the Infinity Engine introduced in Madden 13. It's a big leap for the NCAA series in the same way it was for Madden; collisions are much more realistic thanks to the addition of real-time physics, adding more variety and fluidity to interactions like tackling. Runners no longer trip over their teammates (as seen in Madden 13's version of the engine), instead reaching their arms out automatically to shuffle around other players. It's a subtle change, but one that will certainly impact the way you run the ball.

Just like the switch to the Infinity Engine for Madden, it's not without hiccups. EA Tiburon promotes the latest version of the physics engine as having a new "Force Impact System." This is supposed to account for momentum, speed and mass when dictating the outcome of collisions, but that doesn't always hold up in practice. In one instance, I encountered a 5'7", 175-pound runner that trucked through four larger defenders that converged on him, and he gained seven extra yards after contact. Two of the defenders didn't assist in the tackle, but crumbled under their own weight like ragdolls. Given the runner's low trucking and break tackle ratings, it's an outcome that probably shouldn't have occurred. Overall, the Infinity Engine seems to benefit runners instead of tacklers in NCAA 14. Using the bolstered read option offense accounts for most of my favorite moments from the game, physics issues notwithstanding. The engine is a clear step forward for the series, but it could use a little tuning.

Visually, NCAA 14 looks similar on the field, but there are a few key areas where the game differs from last year. Player vignettes during pre-game and between-play moments capture some of the emotion you'd expect from players, from boisterous enthusiasm to late-game weariness. The general menu system and interface uses a pretty, large tile-based structure, and doesn't seem to suffer as much slowdown as last year. Stadium crowds seem to roar louder, chant more and make home-field advantage seem more viable. Players also have three new camera angles to play with this year: zoom, coordinator and wide, each offering alternate views of the field. Unfortunately, I encountered plenty of frame rate issues. The game would begin to seriously chug on occasion, even in single-player modes and in the middle of plays. These frame rate problems also creep into online play, which remains largely unchanged from last year.

A brilliant visual addition is the circular stamina meter. As players accelerate and perform spin and juke moves, stamina decreases and makes these moves less effective. Players got fatigued last year, of course, and adding a meter is only a small change, but it encouraged me to let go of the trigger and save some stamina when running the ball, which was a good habit to get into and led to more success in the ground game.

Expect a few more of your habits to change this year, thanks to a shift in Dynasty mode's features. "Power Recruiting" takes the place of last year's faux phone call recruiting and boils it down to a pure points system. With a single pool of 5,000 points to use for both scouting players and convincing them too attend your school, recruiting has been substantially simplified. Coaches and coordinators now have an RPG-like system of their own, as they earn points and upgrades from positive actions on the field and through recruiting.

NCAA 13's recruiting process may not have been an accurate reflection of the work of a real-life head coach, and some players may appreciate this new, simpler approach, but I found management in Dynasty to be much less interesting this year. Sure, the points system is more streamlined, and it's easier to jump in and out of recruiting menus, but successfully snagging top-tier talent for my three-star ACC school didn't feel particularly rewarding. There's not much strategic excitement to simply piling the maximum amount of points on the most talented players. Dynasty could also use a little more spice in terms of story-building features – you won't find anything like Madden 13's in-game Twitter feed, for example – and overall the mode falls a little flat.

At least Dynasty received some attention this year, though. There are virtually zero improvements to the single-athlete career modes, Road to Glory and Heisman Challenge. Last year's gimmicky Reaction Time feature, which allowed players to pull a trigger to initiate a limited "bullet-time" moment, can now be disabled. That's good news for defensive players, since strafing and Reaction Time are still bizarrely mapped to the same button. The new camera angles are a boon for defense as well. Otherwise, these modes are the same as last year. I took a quarterback to a six-star program (Oregon) with ease on All-American difficulty, turning him into a top prospect. In other words, Road to Glory is just as easy and unsatisfying as it was in NCAA 13.

One mode that's new to NCAA 14 is Ultimate Team, the card-collecting mode made popular by EA's NHL, Madden and FIFA series. Unsurprisingly, it operates very similarly to Madden's Ultimate Team mode, with players opening card packs containing limited-use, real-life players that represent the schools they attended. Unlike Madden 13, you can play in a head-to-head "season" against human opponents, which is a fun addition. I also enjoyed seeing a broad variety of players on my team, each from their college years, from Auburn's Bo Jackson to Stanford's Andrew Luck. Still, this is essentially the same mode seen time and again in other EA Sports games.

In fact, Ultimate Team is a great example of how NCAA 14 is certainly enjoyable, but also dry and unsurprising. I enjoyed Dynasty mode, but building my school up to a top-ten program isn't any more interesting than it was a year ago, and the changes made to the recruiting process actually made the outcome less rewarding. With the thrill of the broadened option offense in NCAA 14 comes both the benefits and the flaws in the Infinity Engine, issues that I hope can be ironed out with an update or two. As a whole, NCAA Football 14 is boom-or-bust; with all of its big gains this year, it missed some opportunities to be truly excellent.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of NCAA Football 14, provided by Electronic Arts.

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