It wasn't the first time someone's remarked that a game looked like real life.
With the holiday, I happened to have plenty of multiplayer opponents and family members wandering by, offering their feedback on this year's NCAA Football game. "It looks like TV!" one person said, as swooping title cards pushed the action from one play to the next. They had a disappointed look on their face as I fiddled the right stick back and forth to check my passing routes before a play. I guess that element didn't look like it was on TV, never mind that the camera was behind my player's back.
I'm not really that enthusiastic about simulation sports games, probably because I don't watch the big game on TV every Sunday (how many big games are there anymore?) or because I've never been a particularly athletic person, but NCAA's create-a-player-and-take-him-through-college-life Road to Glory mode feels more like an RPG than a sim at times. You have to make a player (I named mine Fartface), and then take him through an entire year of high school before you can land at a top-tier school. Only Atlus RPGs take that long to get to the meat-and-potatoes you paid for, but NCAA's final outing before the next generation of consoles iterates just enough to stand above last year's game, while maintaining everything that came before.
Consequently, that's the modus operandi for scholastic athletes, right? Grow your precision, strength, and performance capabilities without losing any part of your game (or your studies). Road to Glory makes that apparent, with every week offering a practice or position-battle and a game against other schools, alongside computer-generated analysis and stats. What I'm trying to say is that I wasted no time in starting RTG and ignoring every other mode in NCAA Football 14, despite the well-populated menu screen. I ignored Play Now, Dynasty, Ultimate Team, 2013 Season, and Online modes in favor of my favorite method of virtual football, but that wealth of options represents a ton of pigskin for fans. Obviously, Play Now lets you play right this second, but the rest remain deep, varied experiences.
While as a player I'm more interested in making a dude with a funny name and embarrassing every school in the nation with that on his back, Dynasty presents a more relaxed and stat-oriented game. If you've played the mode before, you'll probably remember thinking, "Holy crap, why is this taking so long?" Thankfully, new adjustments allow for much faster gameplay, including Coach Skills which allow you to focus on key components of captaining a top-tier program. Power Recruiting also takes the boring-sauce out of scouting and signing, but still offers the fine details you might want in making big picks.
Ultimate Team and Online modes return as you'd expect, but the 2013 Season offers a Road to Glory-esque track without the feeling that you're sitting on the couch while sitting on the bench in-game. Pick a team and play the entire 2013 season with them, controlling both offense and defense. It's Play Now for people who want some semblance of progression with their impatience. Certainly with the presentation improvements, I wouldn't blame you for wanting a more cinematic and complete experience.
New camera angles, new half-time pageantry, and a stadium full of in-game color commentary make playing a match more and more like watching a broadcast, although it remains impossible for this simulation sport to avoid repeating its lines. Still, the wide camera angle normally reserved for "All 22" coach's film eliminates the frustration you might feel in having wide receivers off-camera, and dynamic angles give less simulation-minded players a dedicated view on the action. The spit-shine remains less obvious due to the nature of yearly releases, but this is the apex of NCAA Football on current consoles.
Other small but impactful presentation details get pushed aside by the introduction of new physics from the Ignite engine, allowing you to lean on momentum as much as stat-padding. Running the ball, breaking tackles, or reaching for that extra yard all feel incredibly satisfying, and every match looks better for it. No longer do canned animations interrupt a player's forward motion. Fartface saw no openings during one game and broke out of the pocket for a run. At first I thought an errant defensive lineman would stop him, but I leaned forward in my seat and urged my player on until he pushed through the crowd and made the first down. Stumble recovery and impact hitting or trucking might sound like marginal improvements, but stacked against last year's game, it feels way too satisfying to force plays like this.
Ultimately, physics and the Reaction Time mechanic are the only marked changes to my favorite Road to Glory mode, so the improvements there are passable. Defensive and running adjustments also take small steps towards perfection, but in the end, NCAA Football 14 looks and feels as it should. College football allows for all these different angles on the action, so EA Sports has ensured that your choice of simulation is truly up to you.
If you haven't picked up an NCAA game in the past few years, but remain a fan of collegiate football, this is practically a must-buy iteration as it'll feel like a revolution to anyone still pushing players through NCAA 10 or 11. On a year-to-year basis, 14 grows more than it maintains, even if it stands in shadow of the looming EA Sports Ignite engine.
Review copies provided by publisher. Based on Xbox 360 and PS3 versions.