NCAA Football 14: The Kotaku Review

The meanest thing I ever did in high school I did to a senior on the football team. His teammates were in my computer class, snickering about his hope of playing big time ACC football. I was a scrawny sophomore trying to be popular. I helped them forge some Clemson letterhead, and signed it "Head Coach Danny Ford."

They made me hand-deliver it to him that period, while he was in Spanish. The ringleader of this plot, a defensive lineman, handed me a stolen hall pass and the letter. "Tell the teacher it just came into the guidance office," he said. I did. I looked Chad dead in the eye and crapped all over his dreams.

None of those big football players were around when Chad came looking for me later.

The point is that practically everyone who plays high school football gets a recruiting letter. One of the numbnuts who put me up to this got one himself. From Army. So when I play NCAA Football 14's Dynasty mode and see Army and Clemson ahead of me for the attention of some one-star tight end with a peachfuzz beard, I don't bat an eye.

Not only is recruiting a wider-net trawl than previously depicted in EA Sports' NCAA Football series, the reality is that a ton of prospects are more interested in a school than that school is in them. Like Chad. That's more properly represented in a tighter and yet more compelling Dynasty, the game's core career mode, thanks to an overhauled personnel management system. Other changes and inclusions, great and small, legitimately make this edition—which was in dire need of a new look after three capable but broadly repetitive entries—the best in the series' 21-year history.

There are new ways to run an option offense (and read the defense against it), new means of running the ball, mildly better run blocking to support it, and a real-time physics engine that helps everything greatly. But as nine out of 10 users start a dynasty, and a lot left it early because of the time consuming process of finding new talent, I'll start with that.

In previous editions, practically all contact with a prospect was deliberately initiated by the user through a time-consuming (and looking back, kinda creepy) phone call system. It matched the public's popular concept of how big time programs wooed big time blue chips. Coaches at West Virginia came in and told EA Sports, more or less, this isn't how it works. The relationship is maintained in other ways, too.

NCAA Football 14: The Kotaku Review

Now, during the season the game has you assign points from a pool—zero to 500—to demonstrate your interest in that prospect. That stands for the ways programs stay in touch with their targets—yes, phone calls, but also letters and other mailings, asking a coach for game film, whatever. Hell, maybe it's the lease on a Dodge Charger for the guy's brother. The emergent narrative is boundless here.

Following that, your school gets bonus points for a number of variables—having what the recruit wants, whether it's academic prestige or TV exposure, or just that a lot of kids from his state go there. This kind of passive aggregation of talent mimics the other end of the relationship, one not found in pro sports simulations where money and contract terms do all the talking: Some kids want to play for a school before the first letter is sent.

I ran a dynasty as Kansas, a bad team in a major conference, to see how this worked. Theoretically I'd see enough interest from mid-grade prospects while still having to bust my ass for four- and five-star graded talent. Scouting, introduced last year, provides enough of a fudge factor for strivers like the Jayhawks. Some kid out in Waco is ignored as a three-star prospect, and then you send a coach to look at him and it turns out he's an 81 overall. I found such a guy, at offensive line, and he and two other all-rounders would define my season more than any game in it that I played.

For players who were lesser talented, or played positions of lesser need to me, yet still interested, I was able to still recruit them while devoting most of my effort to the prize catches. Several weeks I set my point value to zero on some guys—good ones, too—and still came back No. 1 on their list. To have maintained that position in the past would have required a one-topic phone call and pretending to care about his opinion of our weight room.

There are still some weird burps in the new process—like seeing a four-star guy list you as his number one choice, but he has a "dealbreaker" that won't let you add him to your list of prospects. In this case, it was "proximity to home." There's nothing I can do about that, son; we're not moving Kansas to you.

On the whole, though, recruiting set up a second story that made run-of-the-mill games in past years absolutely pivotal. In week nine, not only was Kansas playing archnemesis Missouri (I realigned conferences, a feature that's been present for two years), I had nine recruits at Memorial Stadium, five of them my highest priority, including the three secret five-stars. We overcame a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter and tied the game with a minute left. The 27-24 overtime loss was absolutely crushing. When I went back the next week, one of my golden boys had a new favorite team, and the two others still had me in a distant second place.

You can get back into a recruit's kitchen if you have a perk called the "lockbreaker," which is part of a skill tree introduced this year. A head coach will have two trees: game management and recruiting. Coordinators have game management trees only. This system subtly extends the most value to the series of any design choice. In past years, beginning your career as an offensive or defensive coordinator meant you only played one side of the game, while still handling all recruiting. Now, if you're a coordinator, you can use all of your head coach's recruiting perks while you advance your game management tree. If you take a new job, you may re-spec your coach, including adding recruiting perks if he becomes a head coach.

It makes starting out, as I did under a guy like Charlie Weis (who's still fat but goes by another name here, as everyone does) a lot more interesting and viable. As a rookie head coach—which you still have the option of being, at any school—I'd be recruiting against bigger schools and better coaches with fewer tools—like extra recruiting points at the beginning or the end of a cycle, or a last-ditch second chance with a blue-chipper who says no. If you want to go coach USC, it may not matter, as everyone wants to play there. For programs like Kansas, Illinois or State, you'll be in trouble.

This is still a video game, not just a sports management simulation. NCAA Football 14 added Madden's "Infinity Engine" of realtime physics and with it, a true feeling of momentum that again makes running the ball more accessible and true-to-life. That said, if you were a heavy user of trick moves, this game will frustrate you at first. In past animation-based editions, jukes on the right stick were needed to get your defender going in the wrong direction. Now, a juke is more like shaking your ass while standing still. It needs to be followed with a spin or another move, to the point that I gave up on right-stick jukes and just made hard cuts on the left stick, for the same effect.

Thanks to the reintroduction of the speed burst with the right trigger, and defenders more vulnerable to overpursuit, left-stick running works more fluidly. The right stick features a series of combinations that look like fighting game moves—juke this way, half-circle that for a juke-spin combo—but the only place the game exposes this move set is in a loading screen, which is ridiculous to me. Spins keyed by the face buttons, by the way, still take too long to initiate.

The nerfed, hidden, or arbitrary speciality moves may be necessary because blocking is improved. It's a promise made every year, and like every year, it still has its flaws. Along the line of scrimmage you will see more intelligent play. Not all the time, but you will. When it works, it looks like this:

Note how the center goes left to engage the lineman, the right guard pushes out to hit one linebacker, a pulling guard comes around the back end to take care of the other, and there is huge daylight for me to run through before even reaching the line of scrimmage. Now, when it doesn't work, you see something more like this:

The left guard at first properly double-teams the lineman, but not really. He sort of kisses the guy, then releases to go pursue the linebacker, whom I should have taken one-on-one. Either way, with a double-team on the lineman, I can still get six yards out of this. Instead I got one. This may seem like a small thing, but it adds up, and on third down in a tight game, it'll drive you nuts.

The further you get from the line of scrimmage, the more unreliable your blocking becomes, regardless of position. Downfield blocking is still plagued by oblivious teammates, who either ignore a guy directly in front of them or make a beeline for someone else on the other side of the play, stumbling into you in the process. That said, what NCAA 14 has done on the offensive line at least makes standing tall in the pocket and—dare I say it, even stepping forward in it—much more viable than in the past. I took sacks only when I held the ball too long or went outside the tackles. In all of those cases, I was being dumb, not the game.

The opposite of pocket passing, the spread option, which most distinguishes American football's college game from its pro version, is given much more attention this year. But it will take a lot of practice—especially in the triple option, where you're managing a lot of on-screen information. Fortunately, the game now flags with an icon the two defenders your quarterback must read, whether handing the ball off on a read-option, or pitching the ball, or shovel-passing it. The latter, when you pull it off, will make you jump out of your chair. It's that awesome, and is sure to be a go-to play online. (As hard as running the option is, defending it, as a human player, is even harder.) But the defenders' moves—whether to attack the pitchman, the quarterback, or the handoff—are so subtle, a player needs a lot of exposure to how a team defends the option to properly exploit it.

NCAA Football 14: The Kotaku Review

Though there's a skills trainer to help you through it, the option was still so complex that when I picked my dynasty, I went with a pro-style offense just to keep things simple. Kansas still employs a few read options, and with them I could frequently string together eight- and ten-play clock-chewing drives while getting my ass kicked by the best of the Big XII (though I did smash Nebraska, in Lincoln, for the first time since 1968. Again, in my realigned reality, the Big 8 and the Southwest Conference merged after SMU got the death penalty.) My problem is that the Kansas defense is abominable. The Jayhawks went 5-7 in my first year and yes, I'll blame that on the defensive coordinator. Our top running back also was injured twice in the season.

Still, with recruiting, there was something to play for every week. After the Missouri loss, I used Coach Weis' unlock skill to get back in the conversation with my top three recruits. One of them had his campus visit at our arch-rivals, those no good son-of-a-bitch bastard Kansas State Wildcats, ranked No. 25, when we met in the final week of the season. I made it my mission to ruin that visit and bomb them out of the polls.

If you don't want all of this intrigue and time management (and advancing weeks in NCAA 14, like its predecessors, still takes forever) there's a new Season mode, which strips out all of the off-the-field stuff while giving you a no-frills 12 games and a postseason, like the series' progenitor, College Football USA '96. The difference is that, once you're done with a year, that's it. You don't play a 2014 schedule with the same team.

Otherwise, there's a new Ultimate Team mode that, give the devils their due, is interesting and worth a try. Based on the same model as Madden and NHL and FIFA, you assemble packs of real-world pro players based on their ratings in college. This team can play head-to-head with other Ultimate Team users, or take on offline challenges, such as beating the best team in a particular conference or, down the line, a team from the current season that had a great week.

NCAA Football 14 is not a flawless game. Presentation, particularly the booth commentary, will need a lot of attention next year. I enjoyed Rece Davis' studio introductions but unless it was a rivalry game, they got repetitive in a hurry. Someone needs to cut analyst Kirk Herbstreit's mike, too; he is prone to talking over the next play as he expounds on your failure in the last. EA Sports also did nothing with the singleplayer modes Road to Glory or Heisman Challenge from last year. That's regrettable, but they are much more playable with the new physics and option controls, though the bullet-speed "Reaction Time" ability makes you almost super-powered.

For a game that badly needed more than a fresh coat of paint, NCAA 14 came through in the end—much as I did against Kansas State, where we won 17-0. I know, a shutout, from this sieve of a defense. And in the offseason, when you're given 10,000 recruiting points in a no-limit game for all the stakes, I came home with my three golden boys. It was the greatest 5-7 season I've ever had.

That feeling, and not winning championship after championship, is where a great sports video game sets itself apart. At times, NCAA Football 14 can make you fight for every yard, but it still earned every inch of attention I gave it.

To contact the author of this post, write to owen@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @owengood.