You can load all the physics, all the momentum, all the jukes and trucks and fakes you want into running the football in a video game, but it all unravels when the right guard just watches as a free linebacker strolls into the backfield and cleans your transmission. No matter how good the rest of NCAA Football has been, this has always been its worst controller-throwing moment, for years.
Well, yes, this is the time of the year when we talk about what the next edition of the game will deliver, and the time of the year when we get promises that something has been fixed. Last April, it was the end of robo-linebackers and "suction blocking." This year Larry Richart, a producer on EA Sports' football gameplay team, vows they have fixed or at least substantially improved blocking and offensive line play.
How? They put a real-life lineman on the job.
Clint Oldenburg, working in a yearlong fellowship at EA Sports, was a three-year starter at Colorado State and later a fifth round NFL draft selection. "Along with [producer Mike] Scantlebury, we had him go through every single defensive front and every single run in every playbook in the game, and set which scenario the offensive lineman should be targeting," Richart said.
Blocking intelligence (or the lack thereof) has been more reactive to this point—you can sometimes see linemen's assigned blocks swapping back and forth if you bring up playbook view before the snap. By coding in who a lineman should be taking out in each situation, it's hoped that boneheaded play, like double-teaming a guy already driven out of the picture to let a defensive end or linebacker shoot through unmolested, will be cut back considerably.
I'll still want to see how this plays into downfield blocking, or how a pulling guard responds, on plays where blocking must take place well away from when and where the ball was snapped. Taken at face value, I see it as the biggest and most overdue gameplay improvement, and since Richart's team works on Madden as well, we should see some kind of upgrade there, too.
Still, NCAA Football 14 is touting other features that may grab headlines or back-of-box bullet points better. Yes, the Infinity Engine—Madden's real time physics—will make its NCAA Football debut this year. Everyone expected that. The game also will make ballcarriers' stiffarms more useful, while implementing some momentum restrictions that cut down on the figure-eight and S-pattern running that delivered some ridiculously unrealistic gains.
Most importantly, you're going to see a player's stamina during a play, and watch it drain as a long run plays out, or as he chains together a juke followed by a spin followed by a truck, with each move decreasing in effectiveness as his stamina runs out. "If you're scrambling with your quarterback, you're more likely to get a less accurate throw at the end," Richart says.
This should cut down on that multiplayer staple, the quarterback's 198-step drop followed by a sideline-to-sideline run followed by a laser beam to the flanker. Last year, NCAA Football 13 hardwired 3, 5 and 7-step drop animations into some plays to keep players from instinctively laying back on the left stick, but they still did it anyway. With play-to-play stamina—which will be informed by a player's rating, and will be less in fourth quarter or in overtime than at the start of a drive in the first quarter—cheap stuff can be more easily neutralized.
Stiffarm has been a ballcarrier move I've rarely deployed because its effect was largely cosmetic. The guy stuck his hand out, and still got dragged down or blasted out of bounds anyway. Richart says they've added new animations that, combined with the Infinity Engine physics and some momentum tuning, makes a stiffarm more useful, if not necessary. "You can be running with your stiffarm out, as runners do, to wall defenders off," Richart said. "It's been rejuvenated with some new animations, like how you see guys in real life just punch defenders off, you should really see the true impact of a stiffarm."
Billing the Infinity Engine as "more mature" thanks to analyzing a year's worth of gameplay in Madden NFL 13, Richart says goofball happenings like a player getting his arm stuck behind his back, or comical post-play pileups as everyone goes back to the huddle, have been weeded out. In what should be good news for New York Jets fans, buttfumbles—where a ballcarrier attempting to follow a blocker or thread through the line runs into a lineman's ass and goes down—will be less common. Ballcarriers will have contextual animations that put up their arms and subtly steer them "around the manwall" as Richart put it, even if you're laying on the stick going straight ahead.
When a player is hit and stumbles, but isn't brought down, the right stick will now allow him to do one of two things: Flicking back within a window of time (dependent on a player's rating) will recover his balance and continue the run. Pushing forward is a bailout maneuver that tells him to dive as far as he can. "If you're stumbling, and you see a safety bearing down on you, you'll probably want to dive rather than try to recover you balance and expose yourself to a huge hit," Richart explained. But if you get nicked and you're free in the defensive backfield, this can keep you in the play.
NCAA Football always leads with gameplay in its pre-release hype, details that tend to be forgotten by the time the game comes out three months later. But I'm going to hold Richart to this claim of smarter blocking and line play when I get my hands on a copy in July. The Infinity Engine may offer the opportunity for stronger stiffarms and a bulldozer-like truck move. But if I don't have to use those things because the right guard took out the linebacker like he was supposed to, then that is where the game will have made the most improvement.