At E3 I got a chance to take a look at NCAA Football's progress in the EA booth. I got full hands on time with the game and was allowed a lot of access to EA's NCAA Football franchise. From what I could tell, the franchise has come a long way in just a year's time.
Looking the Part
NCAA Football 14 isn't coming to Next-Gen consoles, but that doesn't mean it can't look good on the current generation of consoles. The colors really pop this year and the animations, coupled with Infinity Engine 2.0 really make it shine.
The presentation has been greatly improved. I personally love the screen wipes and cut scenes whenever a big play happens. Sometimes when smaller plays happen, a quick cut scene appears with players reacting to the play that just happened. It's quick and executed nicely. When big plays happen, expect to see some fired up players, when smaller plays happen, expect a cutscene that is a little more subtle.
For example, you will see a player drop an interception and the cut scene will show him looking at his hands in disbelief, as teammates slap him in the head. After QB sacks, you will see players jumping around fired up. Then there are smaller ones, where a good tackle is made and teammates will give a small helmet bump or tap to the head. I really enjoyed seeing these small cut scenes. Cut scenes don't appear after every play, but they are well timed and definitely coincide with what just happened on the field.
During loading times, you can see star player ratings, among other things in a tabbed environment. During Dynasty mode, even more will be seen. Overall, menu navigation is very quick, no slow down or choppiness at all, when skipping through various modes within the menu system.
Also, Brad and Kirk have recorded new story lines for inclusion in the game this year, but I couldn't hear any of it because of the E3 environment. It would have been nice to hear them talk about the drive stories and such, but we'll know more about that tomorrow when the demo hits.
You've Got an Option
I wanted to make sure I saw an Army vs. Navy matchup, so I could see how well the AI ran the option attack. I haven't enjoyed the option attack in NCAA Football games over the years because the AI never ran it correctly. The AI was always making dumb decisions, and losing yardage was the norm.
All of that has changed this year. The AI will absolutely punish you with the option. Not only do they run it very well and with a purpose, in the open field instead of running straight at you, they make moves that'll throw you off. It truly feels like you are playing against a human instead of the computer AI at times.
Whereas before, you would see the AI running straight ahead with no awareness, you now will see an AI player coming and instinctively you get ready to lower the boom. This year, the AI will stiff-arm you or spin away, leaving your defender in the dust as the AI celebrates another six spot on the scoreboard.
It was a pleasure to see the AI finally making smart decisions.
On The Field Stuff
Zig-zag, S-running, swerve running whatever you want to call it, was definitely not completely removed, as I saw it on occasion. In open space, it seems the AI can sort of get lost. I noticed a few times an easy TD could have been scored by the AI, but for some odd reason, they ran straight instead or took a quick step towards an oncoming defender, instead of towards the pylon. This seems a small thing that could be fixed, even before release.
On passing plays, if the QB senses pressure (and if he is a running QB), you can bet he's going to take off. For other QBs, they need to stay in the pocket, because when throwing on the run the accuracy will take a dive. Quite a few times I saw QB's throw on the run and either throw a duck that was picked off or just thrown into the dirt, nowhere near a receiver. There were also times when defenders actually hit the arm of the QB forcing errant throws. AI QB's have tended to shy away from their #1 receiver over the years, this year the AI will look to throw to them more often.
The usual patty cake animations from the trenches are seen, but they have added a few different animations, adding some visual variety. But the big news with the line play is the movement along the line of scrimmage. There were times when I saw defensive linemen pushing offensive linemen towards the quarterback. On running plays, I saw offensive linemen pushing defensive linemen into line backers. Run blocking in general is leaps and bounds better than last year.
While those are good signs, controlling a defensive end or tackle continues to be a disappointment. I did get a couple of sacks with a DE, but most of the time I was getting stonewalled in place, never getting a sniff at the quarterback. I had no luck at all with the DT. You can tell the blocking in the running game was worked on more than the blocking in the passing game, but that is not to say I didn't see any improvements in the pass blocking. It was just less noticeable.
I noticed an occasional issue with late game AI, but it is better. A couple of times I saw a run play when the kneel to end the game would have been the obvious call. I didn't ever witness the AI calling a pass play during those situations thankfully.
When down, it seemed as if the AI knew what they needed to do. When I was up seven with just under two minutes to go, the AI ran passing plays and called timeouts realistically. I didn't see any head scratching run plays or anything brain dead like that. With just a few seconds left in the game, the AI tossed a Hail Mary. During my hands-on experience, I did only see a handful of close games so my experience wasn't complete with NCAA's late-game AI just yet.
I only saw a few screen passes from the AI. One was defended well, other times the screen pass looked very nice as the AI QB timed his pass w/o getting sacked, which is the key. This was improved over last year, where there were too many sacks on AI screen passes. Bubble screens actually work this year, so get your defense ready for those. To test how well the defense played the deep ball, I called up 4 vert quite a few times. I never saw a wide open receiver. DB's and safeties reacted as they should. It was a short sample size, but a good sign nonetheless for the safety play, it's been improved somewhat at least.
All The Small Things
The new coordinator camera view is going to be a hit. While it is great in the running and passing game, kickoff and punt returns are finally fun again with the camera. To see the field from a view like this brings the game to another level. The coordinator camera has to be seen to be appreciated. Once you use the coordinator camera, you probably won't go back to any other camera view.
Some of the "Little Things" I saw. I saw sideline tip-toe interceptions, yes INT's! I mean sure the receivers can do it, but you never saw that w/ defenders. Great addition. Offensive players with the ball will use that stiff arm and sometimes use it very well. Actually saw a WR stiff arm his defender 10 yards up the sideline, then lose his balance in a very cool animation. I didn't see it often, so hopefully it doesn't happen at a high frequency with more time behind the sticks. Offensive linemen really look to hit their assignment, this is especially noticed on running plays. Lineman will not magically turn around to block someone simply because they are chasing or close, they are looking ahead to block to get more yards.
The Infinity Engine looked good, animations and everything. There were still occasions where there was an odd animation, but nothing close to last year that we saw in Madden NFL 13. Foot planting was much better, but sliding hasn't completely gone away.
Not only can you change the difficulty level for the offense and the defense, you can also change it in user vs. user games. I wasn't able to test that feature out.
Player composure and the match up stick have returned. You can see how your matchups look before the snap. It looked familiar to what was in the game years ago. Basically, if a player is getting beat or a receiver is dropping balls, they will lose some composure, so you will know when to attack a defender or shy away from throwing to a particular struggling receiver. Unsure why it was taken out, but it's good to see that it has returned.
The team is working hard to make sure we can import NCAA Football 14 draft class rosters into next-gen Madden NFL 25. It has already been confirmed that you can import draft classes on current-gen this year.
I didn't enjoy NCAA Football 13, but thoroughly enjoyed my limited time with NCAA Football 14. And I can't wait for the demo on Tuesday.