CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- EA Sports' "NCAA Football" franchise has again saved its best for last.
After capping the Xbox and PlayStation 2 era with the excellent "NCAA 06," the developers at Tiburon have found paydirt again with "NCAA Football 14," a game that truly has been a generation in the making.
"NCAA 14" pulls together all of the best features from the series' current-gen iterations, from the ability to customize conferences to the ability to play as former Heisman Trophy winners, mixes in a host of new features and gameplay improvements, and streamlines the entire experience thanks to a slick new interface. The result is quite frankly the best "NCAA Football" game to date and one of the deepest sports games I've had the pleasure of playing.
Dynasty Mode, which regularly takes up the lion's share of my "NCAA Football" time, received many of these updates and upgrades. Small things like a school's history -- its record, championships won and bowl bids -- for each year dating back to 1980 is included, making it easy to see how far your program has come and how far it has yet to go. Coaches records are included, too, thus eliminating a fictional world filled with first-year, 0-0 coaches. Coaches can also now be edited as thoroughly as players, allowing you to set up your dynasty as accurately as possible, right down to the offensive and defensive coordinators.
Whether you pick an existing coach or create your own, you'll earn experience points for everything from scoring a touchdown to having a player picked to an all-conference team. With that XP you can upgrade the 18 available coach skills. Head coach skills are broken down into two trees -- one for game management and one for recruiting. Game-management skills affect things like how well your quarterback performs on the road, whereas recruiting skills can offer more total points or a discount on scouting. Coordinators have their own skill trees, too, allowing you to lessen the likelihood of injury and protect the football, to name a few.
Choosing how to spend your coaches' XP often depends on how you play. If you plan on simming your games, unlocking the skill that eliminates shaky play art during road games isn't much of a benefit. West Virginia's coach began the season at Level 6 and climbed to Level 10 after a 7-6 season that ended with a loss to Nebraska in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Considering the coach level goes well into the 50s, there's little chance your dynasty will be filled with 126 Bear Bryants when it's all said and done.
Recruiting in Dynasty Mode has also been overhauled to present a more accurate representation of how the process really works. Rather than calling potential recruits each week and making pitches in hopes of luring them to your school, you now assign each recruit points from an available pool. The amount of points you assign remains the same unless you change it, while things like offering a scholarship or scouting a player cost extra.
Using West Virginia, I started out with 5,000 recruiting points and had no trouble scouting a full class of 35 recruits and assigning points to each. During the season, each week I would check on my recruits, allotting more points to those in tight recruiting battles and scheduling campus visits when possible. Bonus points are automatically assigned to players when your program meets their needs -- in essence replacing the pitches from previous games. And bonuses are also given for scheduling campus visits with complimentary players, such as a quarterback and a receiver or a running back and an offensive lineman.
Each player's interest in a school is represented via a bar graph, making it easy to see where you stand with that particular player and giving you the information you need to make the most out of your pool of recruiting points. I've never been a huge fan of recruiting in past "NCAA Football" games because it was so time consuming and rather mundane, but this new method is much quicker -- thanks in large part to the menu system -- and the late-season recruiting wars can become quite intense.
I managed to snag the 19th-overall class in my first year on the strength of landing the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the nation, a four-star stud out of Maryland. I wasn't even on his radar when the season began, but I threw the maximum amount of points at him every week and slowly began creeping up his list of potential schools until finally getting a commitment after a campus visit late in the season.
Other new features include a Season Mode (think Dynasty Mode without recruiting), the Nike Skills Trainer, which teaches the finer points of running the option and other facets of gameplay, and the introduction of Ultimate Team, the popular card-collecting game that has become a staple of EA Sports titles.
On the field, "NCAA 14" plays better than the series ever has before. Driving the action is the new Infinity 2 engine, which builds off of what "Madden 13" introduced last year. Players move more realistically thanks to the real-time physics at work, and the days of canned animations are largely a thing of the past. Power backs can bull over defenders and fall forward to gain an extra yard. Speed backs make sharp cuts and can gain a short extra burst thanks to the Acceleration Boost button, which replaces the turbo button. Defensively, tackling -- especially when using the Hit Stick -- is much more challenging.
The developers finally made the various option-style offenses effective, both for users and the AI. It was both frustrating and delightful watching spread offenses like Oregon move the ball up and down the field. Even mediocre spread teams like New Mexico gave me fits at times. AI quarterbacks don't all have Peyton Manning-like accuracy and will throw the ball away rather than take a sack or scramble when given a lane, something that's rarely been seen in this series before.