I recently got the chance to attend an EA Sports event and had roughly 20 to 25 minutes of hands-on playing time with NCAA Football 14. Producers Ben Haumiller and Larry Richart stated there is still time to tweak and adjust some of the gameplay, so it’s worth noting and stressing my experiences were with a brief playtime from an early build of the game which probably won't fully represent the final product.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here are my impressions of what I observed.
NCAA Football 14 gets the Infinity Engine 2.0, and it's much better than last year's IE on Madden.
The first thing EA showed was a highlight reel of some of the new animations coming from the more mature version of the Infinity Engine. As expected, I saw a lot of new animations for the series, especially considering this is the first year of the Infinity Engine for NCAA Football. We saw quite a few big impact hits, collisions, stiff arms, dive tackles and stumble recovery animations.
While the highlight package showed off many big hits and animations, I didn’t see many of the over the top big hit animations during my gameplay session. I can't remember a single instance when a hit looked incredibly over the top, so it looks like you will only see the animations demo'ed on occasion. There were, of course, some big hits but none seemed over the top.
Comparing the Infinity Engine 2.0 to the original Infinity Engine Madden NFL 13 has, it was clear to see that Infinity Engine 2.0 has cleaned up many of the odd looking animations that were seen last year. Problems like player arms and legs getting into crazy and odd looking positions, post-play stumbles and falls, running into the back of their offensive lineman and getting tackled were all cleaned up. During my play time, I didn’t see one instance of players falling over other player’s legs post-play or arms getting bent behind their backs as they fall to the ground.
Last year, if you recall with Madden NFL 13, the running back would bounce backwards and/or most of the time end up getting tackled by their own offensive lineman if they happened to collide during the play. This year, with player avoidance, you will see players put their hands out and sort of try to weave their way through traffic, which definitely makes things look more realistic and eliminates those goofy play outcomes.
New this year is stumble recovery.
As for stumble recovery, I could have used it just once during my playtime, so it doesn't look like it's going to be something that happens with a lot of consistency for those who might be worried about it. When it happened, I pressed on the right stick too late and immediately fell down, which hopefully signals we will not be able to easily keep our feet with stumble recovery.
While the running game has definitely improved, I still see some funky running animations. The animations of the actual runner does look a bit odd sometimes. It’s as if the fluidity of the running animations just isn’t there. The foot planting itself looks good, but the actual running is almost like a gliding or hovering across the field. It’s much easier to see in replay, but you can still notice it during gameplay on certain animations.
As mentioned in previous previews, there are 30 different option packages. I’d say, if you can think of the option package, it’s most likely in the game. EA wants users to feel comfortable with using the option, so during the pre-snap, you can see who the read key and the pitch key is, those players will be shown with a P or R label above them. I didn't see an option to turn those keys off. Either way, it's a no-brainer for the hardcore guys, but for the beginners or users that aren't familiar with the option plays, it shows what you should look for during pre-snap.
I had a blast using Oregon and their spread option packages. There was one play where I had a running back in front of me and another behind me. I ended up throwing the shovel pass by hitting the wrong button (incomplete) while my running back had nobody near him, but it was very pretty to watch unfold. It was obvious, I should have pitched the ball outside, but just to see the play unfold the way it did, was very nice, even if it didn’t get me anything.
Zig-zagging is said to be elminated, but we still saw a couple of instances in our play time.
The running game has been improved with the removal of S-running (swerve running as EA calls it) or as most of us at OS call it, zig-zag running. Instead of running in a curve like fashion when making drastic direction changes, players will now make sharp, deep cuts or stutter steps to get to where they want to go, making the running look more realistic. Not all of the zig-zag running has been removed, I still saw it in certain instances. Maybe it was because I didn't jerk the stick from one direction to the other and gradually made the turn and cut?
I'm not sure why I still saw some instances of zig-zagging, but with the small sample size, I did see it happen twice so it's not fully elminated just yet.
EA Tiburon has also added a new fatigue feature into running moves. While using different moves, sprint burst (right trigger), etc., you will drain an energy bar which will be under your player to show player fatigue. That means you can’t juke and spin like crazy every play, as there is a more realistic balance of fatigue within the game.
Run blocking has been improved as well. You will see lineman target who they need to with block targeting, open field targeting, blocking match ups and impact blocks (which come with new animations). While the offensive and defensive line “patty cake” animations are still there, I did see more of a push from both sides of the ball up field or in the backfield, depending on the play that was run. Sometimes I saw a couple of offensive linemen push their defender all the way into the linebacker on running plays and other times, I also saw pushes from the defensive line into the backfield.
Blocking has had serious work done to it this season.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see the pocket collapse on the quarterback. There were times when I saw offensive lineman pushing DL five yards down the field, instead of patty caking at the LOS. Same goes with the DL pushing the OL towards the QB. However, the pocket wasn’t quite collapsing as it should. There is some sort of push, which is better than what we have had, but it’s not quite there yet.
Blockers are now acting more realistic though. Blockers aren't just turning around to find the nearest guy that doesn't have a shot at making a play. Instead, players are blocking who they are supposed to block, including at the next level and even further down the field if needed.
On a passing play, I saw a taller receiver against my 2 shorter defensive backs out jump them both to come down with a nice catch. The wide receiver then spun away and took off for a good 10 yards before my defenders caught back up to him. While you could tell the wide out was the taller of all three that jumped, it would have been nice to see more of a battle for the ball between the players. Instead it was the same old 3 players jumping straight up with no real interaction between them. The outcome of the play was realistic, but would have loved to see some more physical interaction between the players, whether that be all three players jostling for position or the defensive backs trying to swat the ball away.
The AI really took some chances deep and were aggressive with their offensive playcalling, at least in the half that I played. USC was throwing deep, running screen passes and running the ball fairly well in my game.
On one particularly play I had called a cover 3 and the safety played the ball as you would expect him to in a cover 3. However, on another play while in a cover 2, the safety was nowhere to be found. Maybe it was a blown coverage, maybe not. It was unfortunate to see, since it happened with so much regularity in NCAA 13.
The AI is beefed up this year, but how much will take more time with the game.
The AI had a few fairly good drives against me with one ending up in a user pick in the end zone, which would have easily been a pick-six last year, but I was run down from behind from one of the speedy receivers at my own 25. It’s possible pick sixes are tuned down this year, hard to say, but I for one liked what I saw on that one specific play.
During punt returns, I didn't see much of a difference with the AI in terms of blocking for my own punt return or watching the AI in punt returns. I did see the AI make a few subtle moves, but the blocking didn't seem to change much. While I only punted once, as did the AI, I was definitely looking for more changes than what I saw with the punting game. I did notice the AI was slightly better on kickoff returns, but my limited amount of play time was not enough to judge this portion of the game definitively just yet.
There were times last year when utilizing the option where players would simply look lost, run the other way and occasionally even stopping completely as you charge towards the sideline, I saw none of that. In fact, players actually looked like they knew what they were doing. Players seemed to be trying to stay within a good range no matter what you were actually doing, instead of getting lost, heading the other direction or completely stopping.
There was an offensive pass interference call made in one of the other games playing behind me, but I didn't see many penalties called in my games. If you were looking for improvements on penalties, I wouldn't get your hopes as my limited experience seems to indicate there are no real improvements in this area.
Defensively, you can see players breaking down to get the best angle on the ball carrier, but I still saw some instances of players taking bad angles, especially on bigger plays downfield.
It did seem as though it was easier to play defense, I was making tackles w the LB that I wasn't able to even sniff last year. Also of note, last year when switching players on defense, you would occasionally switch to the wrong person and then before you knew it, he was completely out of the play.
This year, the NCAA team has added some sort of defensive switch assistance, so players aren’t quite so out of position. I saw this in action once during my session, I switched to the wrong player, then switched to another and instead of seeing the former player all out of position, he would automatically get some sort of assist from the AI to get back into position as the game somehow recognized my mistake and corrected it.
-You can set the offense and defensive difficulties separately this year. So you can actually set the AI offense to Heisman and place the defense on varsity.
-While a lot of work has gone into the running game and Infinity Engine, I'd still like to see better foot planting with the running backs. With the obvious improvement in the upcoming FIFA 14, I would assume the team borrows some of that for the next-gen systems.
-I really wish I would have played Army vs. Navy, just so I could have seen how the AI option game was run. I really need to kick myself.
-I didn't get to see the AI in hurry up mode, but it was mentioned that players that keep doing it will definitely need to sub players in and out, because of fatigue. Stamina is affected play-by-play, so you will need to work those subs more this year than ever.
-On incomplete passes or punts, the ball physics still don't seem to be right. Would love for the team to look at actual ball physics for that reason alone. It's almost like the ball goes flat sometimes.
-Still seeing the running backs carry the ball like a loaf of bread on some of the tackling animations, I wish they would cover up the ball. Only saw it twice, but still…
-The one thing I'd love to see is a crack back block, from little WR's. There were instances where that animation can be used, but it seems they haven't implemented it.
-I noticed quite a few trucking animations in the trailer, but didn't see any animations where I or the AI lifted a player off the ground, so it's good to say that animation must not play out very often.
-Would love to see animations where defensive players reach for the ball carrier or even take a slap at the ball, when out of position, instead of just missing and awkwardly turning around to chase.
I really wish I would have had more time to play NCAA 14. From my very limited sample size, it does appear the game has taken a step forward -- but there are going to be nagging issues which will still be in the game this year. I’m intrigued most by what seems to be the revamped blocking and how that might play out over a longer course of time.
We should have more play time with NCAA when E3 comes around in June. Until then, we’ll be sure to share any and all updates we receive.