NCAA Football 14 – Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: July 9, 2013
Genre: Sports
Reviewed by David Hillyer

Review Score: 4 of 5


Ah the smell of football is in the air again… college campuses are beginning to come back to life as fall sports athletes arrive. As usual our office sports game junkies come to life as EA Sports begins its big game release cycle with NCAA, Madden, FIFA and NHL in rapid succession. As an added bonus this year we have the drama of lawsuits and interesting changes afoot for college sports and video games.

Just as we were finishing our review, the newswire was abuzz with a sudden statement from the NCAA that they would not be renewing their licensing arrangement with EA. Don’t panic, it only covers the actual NCAA name and logo not the member schools which are licensed through the Collegiate Licensing Company. The timing of this announcement is a little suspect.

A growing number of former athletes are suing the NCAA – basically for making money… a lot of money… from using their likenesses on merchandise and videogames. The merits of the lawsuit are debatable and not for this article. But basically for a few years now EA has done a great job of making their games (and players therein) look and play like their real-world counterparts. In NCAA Football it’s been a tricky situation because the NCAA doesn’t allow athletes or their names to be used by anyone (except the NCAA when they can make money from it). For the past 9 years EA kinda sorta – wink wink – got around this stipulation by putting in generic names and likenesses but providing gamers the ability to edit the rosters, names, and all kinds of physical attributes. The audio for announcing names was even recorded as generic so if you put most common names in the roster, they would get correct audio in game. EA took it a step further by allowing people to share those edited teams with other players on Xbox Live.

It’s been great for us. Within a week of release a fully edited roster was available online. But the problem is several people turned that into a business and charge people $20 or more for updated rosters. One vendor claims to have 25,000 satisfied customers… x $20 = $500,000 income. It’s ridiculous since fully edited rosters are available FREE from our friends at operationsports.com (look in the forums for gamertags to get the roster downloads).

Anyway, the NCAA apparently wanted to wash their hands of the situation since they are heading to court soon. Somebody must think divorcing themselves from the situation makes everyone forget what they’ve been doing for years. But EA probably doesn’t care. They paid the NCAA over $500,000 a year just to use their name. Which as it turns out was more about getting to use the term “March Madness” for their basketball game three years ago. Since EA killed off the college basketball game, next year’s football game probably won’t be much different since all the teams and school logos, chants, and mascots are licensed through another company. So next year we get “College Football 15” and EA can keep their $500,000. They will probably need it. I’m sure the lawyers have EA in their sights.

This year may be the last for an official “NCAA” branded game, but with a long list of improvements NCAA Football 14 should be the best yet. EA has revamped a number of things including the interface. As is the trend lately, NCAA Football 14 now sports a tile GUI similar to Windows 8. Considering the general disdain most people have for Windows 8, they probably should have reconsidered this decision. The best I can say is it’s not horrible. I prefer a more linear menu such as in FIFA 13 – which is more of a combination of the base menu and tile interface. But every time they do a GUI change I end up spending more time trying to find menu items than actually using them. It’s something I wish they would just pick one for the series and devote the resources to other more pressing issues. I suppose the tile interface is needed on some level if people are using Kinect. But how many users actually navigate the menus with Kinect? Few, if any. Everyone I’ve seen playing EA Sports games likes the speed of the controller. Putting tiles all over the screen just adds more searching around the screen real estate instead of having everything in a nice localized menu.

The physics engine has also been updated to be on-par with Madden 13, so the players seem to move with real weight and momentum. If you run into Bubba the 400 lb. lineman, your direction will change appropriately. The physicality of the players also seems much more real than previous years… particularly in tackling. The hits are more realistic. The body types also match with the movement capabilities of each player. Even stumble recovery seems more realistic.

EA have added slightly more control to the players as well. This is a good and bad thing. The addition of hard run cuts, jukes, and acceleration boosts are welcome… however things like hurdling (jumping over) tacklers at times feels more like the classic NFL Blitz game. My fear is the gap between casual players and ‘professionals’ is widening with these new tools. Playing online isn’t a fun experience if the opponent goes hurdling down the field to a touchdown and blowout win. Constant players learn to exploit these tools quickly, and it’s not fun for most everyone else. There are 30 new option types as well as an entire playbook devoted to the Option. This adds another level of realism as the game now calls out the read and pitch keys before the snap – so you will know which defenders to watch and can determine what to do with the football when snapped.

Much of NCAA Football 14 feels like they are borrowing the tech from other games – especially Madden and FIFA. Things like the physics “infinity engine 2” and Ultimate Team trading card style fantasy team are things we’ve seen in other EA games in previous years… except in NCAA they are not as polished or robust. Nothing I’ve played in NCAA 14 is particularly innovative. But it is there, which is a start. It shouldn’t be like this with a game that’s been around over 10 years though.

The general presentation has also been revamped with fresh presentation elements. ESPN integration is much more obvious with ESPN wipes and the usual customizable news ticker. The NCAA 14 team continues to add new fan chants and battle cries in addition to newly recorded crowd noise in more stadiums. Additionally NCAA Football 14 now includes three new camera angles. The wide camera keeps all 22 players on-screen at once. The zoom camera pulls in closer to the tackle box, and the Coordinator view starts out wide but as the play progresses it zooms in on the action. You can even pick different cameras for offense and defense. These are all welcome additions and make the game more fun to play.

There are also dozens of new uniform options even to the extent of EA sending out free uniform updates via Xbox Live. There are over 500 new cutscenes/vignettes between plays. This has greatly improved over last year. NCAA 13 had a fairly annoying artistic camera zoom focus pull which was supposed to make it look more realistic and ‘live’ but ultimately looked annoying and unprofessional. Thankfully this year the between play action is smooth and in focus without any noticeable load times. Much improved.

Ultimate Team has been around a few years in FIFA Soccer. It is very popular – and a good money maker for EA, which is why it’s spreading to other EA games like NHL Hockey, Madden NFL and NCAA Football. Basically it’s a trading card based fantasy team where you buy packs of cards that contain players, resources and team items. You get to build your own club – complete with logo, uniforms, stadium and staff. It’s hugely popular on FIFA in part because you get to build a club with your favorite players by opening packs, trading or buying through an eBay-like auction system. It’s hugely popular with EA because they have quite a racket going where players will spend lots of Microsoft Points to buy packs of cards. You can spend money quickly and build a good team very quickly… for a price…. and EA keeps bringing out a yearly update (where you can’t import your previous years teams) so you have to start over again.

Sound addicting? It is. I was embarrassed to find out how much I’ve spent this year on FIFA 13. “It’s just a few Microsoft Points” I’d say, as I confirmed my point purchase without really thinking about the real dollars I was spending on virtual points. I’m not alone in this boat. I have to wonder why Microsoft is dumping the points for an actual dollar mode.

NCAA Football 14 is kind of a weird animal for Ultimate Team. EA can’t use current real player names so they resorted to licensing 1,400 pros from the NFL Players Association. So players like Payton Manning are in NCAA 14 not for the NFL’s Colts or Broncos, but for his alma mater Tennessee. Randy Moss is with Marshall University and Bo Jackson with Auburn. There are a good group of players – from current NFL stars Clay Matthews to past stars like Barry Sanders, Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker.

As you play games with your team you earn coins by achieving goals in game. You use those coins to buy upgrades, packs or items in auctions. Items and players are rated in bronze, silver and gold and you can buy packs specific for those levels or a mix. There are a variety of card packs such as the “All-American Pack” for 96 Microsoft Points or 7,500 NCAA Coins. That pack contains at least 1 gold or elite player and a mix of 9 other player and team items. You also can get mascots and other unique college items.

You can also do crazy things like buy the All-American bundle of 50 (FIFTY!) packs for 4,000 Microsoft Points. In that pack (box?) you are guaranteed two players rated 93+ at a 33% savings over buying individual packs. It’s easy to run up a credit card bill with this mode… and unfortunately you will end up playing online against people who took the easy route and have a team stacked with all players rated in the 90’s. So if you want to compete, either pay da man or get really really good using mediocre players.

The weakness in Ultimate Team is (again) the interface. There is a long list of items you can’t do – particularly when searching auctions for players. In FIFA I got into the habit of searching for specific players and saving them to a watch list so I could poach auctions at the last second. You can’t save or tag players to a list in NCAA 14. If you see a player you want, you either bid or move on. That’s a huge frustration when trying to build a team of specific players. NCAA Football 14 does not have Ultimate Team available online or via iOS like FIFA so you can’t play this mode when you are away from your Xbox.

If you want to put a team together of former Purdue players, you’ll have to go on the internet and search Google to get a list (there’s about 30 players in the NFL now). While you may not want Curtis Painter (NY Giants backup QB), you will probably want Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints QB). But you better be prepared to pay for him. Getting 85 rated Kyle Orton (Dallas Cowboys backup QB) for 300 coins may seem like a deal compared to 90 rated Brees for over 2,000 coins. But you can’t save them to a favorite list so you’ll have to keep going back to the live auction list and hope you can find your target player before the auction ends. That said, it is really fun to put together what amounts to an all-star team of your favorite schools or players.

Even more enjoyable is putting together a college team from your favorite NFL players. But this gets costly. My favorite team is the Green Bay Packers. While I got BJ Raji for 150 coins, getting Clay Matthews and Aaron Rogers proved more difficult. To get some players (like Aaron Rogers) you may have to resort to playing the Nike Skills Trainer for solo challenges. It’s a series of position specific drills which prepare you to play games. The drills are not terribly fun, but the fact is you learn how to play the game better and be more competitive online. If you unlock the gold level in a quarterback drill, you get Aaron Rogers.

Another excellent way to build your team is EA’s Season Ticket. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to get a whole lot of content for several of EA’s top sports games. For 2,000 Microsoft Points (about $20), you get 3 day early download access to the major EA Sports games, 20% off in-game DLC’s, and the best part is you get over $100 worth of Ultimate Team gold packs. For FIFA, NHL, Madden and NCAA you get 24 packs doled out to you one per week. This is much less expensive than buying the packs normally. If you are really into Ultimate Team, Season Ticket is well worth it.

The Dynasty mode has been updated with the addition of Power Recruiting and Coach Skills. This mode is pretty much as easy or in-depth as you want it to be. While I don’t enjoy the various aspects of coaching, if you want to get into it, NCAA Football 14 delivers a solid experience. Every little thing is graded from your signing of prospects to winning games. You can XP (experience points) for all the little detail things.

Coach Skills provides 18 upgradable abilities spread across two different skill trees – recruiting and game management. The little things matter in these skills. As you increase your Coach Skills you go up levels so things like your kicker getting ‘iced’ may not be a problem if you are at level 3 of ‘anti-freeze’. Some people may see these levels as kind of a cheat, but it adds shelf life to your game – especially for those who are task oriented.

Recruiting Skills is a method to assign points to you where you can recruit players more efficiently. Your offensive and defensive coordinators have separate skill trees to focus on their side of the ball. This has a big effect on how successful you are getting high school recruits. The better your ratings, the quicker you can lock up a commitment through scholarships.

If you don’t want to mess with all the behind the scenes coaching and recruiting stuff, you can always just use the play a season mode. This allows you to take a team through the entire 2013 season in hopes of landing a bowl bid. All schedules are 100% accurate to the real world including neutral-site games. Neutral-site games can be played at Cowboys Stadium, M&T Bank Stadium, Soldier Field and more.

Road to Glory mode is an opportunity to put yourself in the game. Start out as a high school player and as your performance gets better you’ll get recruited by big name schools. Once you complete you high school season you get to pick from your recruiting list and off you go to compete for a spot on a college roster. This is one of my favorite modes, however the high school level needs quite a bit of work. EA thought it was cool to put their staff as players on your high school team – and it is cool… for them. But I’d like to have my high school team be my high school team. I spent time a few years ago putting them in TeamBuilder online, but I can’t use them in the game as a high school team. Also at times the stadiums used are comical. My high school in Ohio ends up playing quite a few away games at some sand and cactus filled area that I’ve never visited in all my years living there.

Online play on Xbox Live is the usual assortment of online modes. EA again ties some neat features in with the internet website. Once again you can use EA’s Gameface technology to put yourself in the game for use in Road to Glory mode. Once you get an Online Dynasty set up on Xbox Live against other players, you can manage your dynasty on the EA Sports website. As long as you have access to a computer with internet, you can take care of your recruiting, coaching changes, and even play the role of journalist by using Story Builder to write up a game recap complete with photos and video that can be posted on social media sites.

Even more interesting is the TeamBuilder mode on the EA Sports website. This online team creation tool was introduced in NCAA 10 and has a fantastic wealth of user created teams (with actual player names) for all kinds of schools and niche markets. Everything from “all-time” best school teams to specific championship year teams are there. You can even find some fun TV and movie themed teams from Star Trek and others.

When you want to create a team with TeamBuilder you get to control everything from the logo, stadium, field, uniforms, mascot, and roster… with some limitations. Certain trademarked names are not permitted. That said, you can upload your own 256×256 logo or choose from existing NCAA schools. You can also design how your field looks from the endzone text to the grass and logos. Uniforms and players are also highly customizable.

The audio this year is again at a high level with returning commentators Brad Nessler and Kirk Herbstreit in the booth. Erin Andrews is no longer with the team (she has left ESPN for FOX), but again have Rece Davis with studio updates and new David Pollack for halftime highlight shows. All these guys do a good job making NCAA Football 14 feel as real as watching a game on ESPN. The announcing, stadium, and general game sounds are all top notch. EA has built up quite an audio library over the years and it keeps getting better.

As NCAA Football 14 transitions to College Football 15 it seems that EA is also transitioning it to be more in line with the rest of its sports arsenal. While the Xbox One/PS4 used game debacle has been somewhat resolved due to user outcry, EA is wisely moving to an in-game purchases model. Nothing in NCAA 14 is crippled, but if you want to succeed in Ultimate Team you will have to choose to fork over some Microsoft Points or spend a whole lot of time playing the game. In our quick-fix society, EA will be raking in some major money from these micro-transactions.

NCAA Football 14 is the best college football game yet. EA does enough to warrant an upgrade from previous versions – particularly with Ultimate Team. But I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s a ‘must-buy’. The tweaks, updates, and additions are welcome – but they all feel like they are just trying to keep up with the other sports titles in EA’s lineup. This is one game that’s certainly a prime candidate for a ‘semi-annual’ version with off-year DLC updates… particularly with EA’s move to more in game micro-transactions. NCAA Football 14 is good, but not great. It will of course satisfy any college football fan and leave you hoping for more next season.