Whether you agree with my assertion in the previous essay that NCAA 13's recruiting was better than NCAA 14's, I hope I've at least made a compelling case that NCAA 14's recruiting system left a lot of room for Tiburon to improve in its upcoming EA Sports College Football game in 2023. Now I want to provide some constructive feedback and pitch some ideas I have for how Tiburon could improve the recruiting mechanic going forward, by hopefully taking the best of what both NCAA 13 and 14 had to offer.

This essay is also available in video format on YouTube.

Lessons from NCAA 14

The previous essay included a lot of criticism of NCAA 14, so I want to start off this second part by acknowledging a feature in NCAA 14 that I feel is a strict upgrade over 13, and which I would like to see preserved in EA's future college football games.

I think my single favorite upgrade in NCAA 14 is the idea of having "complimentary" and "competitive campus visits". If you schedule players from complimentary positions to visit campus on the same week, you'll get bonus points. For example, bringing in a running back along with the linemen who will be blocking for him will provide bonus points.

But you also have to be wary of scheduling multiple players of the same position. If you schedule 2 or 3 running backs on the same week, they'll see each other as competition, and will lose interest out of fear that your backfield will be crowded, and they'll loose out on playing time to another back in the same class. This is one of the few elements of 14's recruiting design which I feel retains the more humanistic, character-driven ethos from 13, and I like it a lot.

Users should avoid scheduling multiple recruits at the same position to visit in the same week.

14 also makes it much more clear how your performance on the field will impact the interest level of the visiting prospects. In NCAA 13, I was never clear about whether scheduling a visit during a bye week would make a difference, or if it mattered whether or not I won the game (if I played one that week). I always assumed that the prospect was there to watch the football game, so scheduling the visit during a bye week would impose a penalty, and I also always assumed that winning the game improved the prospect's interest, and I assumed that the prospect would also get more interest if the players at his position performed well during the game. But the U.I. for NCAA 13 was never clear about whether any of that was actually the way the game worked, or if the prospect only cared about the 3 recruiting pitches that I try to sell him on during the visit. NCAA 14 makes all this blatantly clear when you schedule the visit by showing exactly how many points the prospect will get if certain criteria are met.

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If you're a fan of college football video games, then I'm sure you're excited by the news from early 2021 that EA will be reviving its college football series. They will be doing so without the NCAA license, and under the new title, EA Sports College Football. I guess Bill Walsh wasn't available for licensing either? Expectations are that the first in this new line of college football games won't release until at least July of 2023, so we still have a a year or more before we'll be playing a new college football game on our home consoles. Sadly might not even have Maximum Football to fill that niche void anymore, since it's unclear of its new developer, Modus Games, will retain the college Dynasty Mode, or if it will be as good. Hopefully they do, and hopefully it's better.

With EA Sports' return to college football now imminent, I feel it's important to take a look at one of the most beloved features in EA's old NCAA Football games, and examine why that feature worked so well, why it absolutely must return, where it may have faltered, and how EA could potentially even improve it.

This essay is also available in video format on YouTube.

It's kind of funny seeing how EA's NCAA Football series has been elevated onto a pedestal since its cancellation in 2013. Contemporary reviews and user scores were often mixed or negative, and aligned very closely with Madden's reception at the time. Yet now, NCAA Football 14 is often held up as one of the best sports games ever, and definitely one of the best football games ever. Are we looking back with rose-tinted glasses? Or was NCAA Football always an under-appreciated gem? I think the true answer is a little bit of both, and we'll explore why in the coming discussion. In any case, the NCAA Football games seemed to enjoy a more cult-like status compared to Madden, with its loyal fanbase often insisting that the college game was better than its more mainstream big brother.

Being the smaller cousin of Madden, I think the developers of NCAA Football had a little bit of a longer leash. Lower sales expectations might have lead to less overhead from both the NCAA and from EA itself, which gave the studio a bit more leeway to experiment with new and novel ideas (some of which worked, and some of it didn't). The studio also benefitted from technological hand-me-downs from big brother Madden's development process, which may have freed up more resources for building supporting features, rather than having to spend as much time on the underlying game engine. By the time of the game's cancelation, it had been receiving yearly engine, A.I., and graphics upgrades that had been developed by the Madden team. Robust customization features such as TeamBuilder and Stadium Sounds allowed for a great deal of personalization that helped to connect the user more to their game. Trophies from rivalry games, bowls, and conference championships provided challenges and collectibles that encouraged users to play the game with other teams in both Play Now and Dynasty modes. The college atmosphere and more diverse playbooks provided pageantry and energy on the field that Madden largely lacked. And the list goes on...

Hand-me-down gameplay from Madden, and lower expectations from EA
may have allowed the NCAA Football team more freedom to experiment with fun new features.

In fact, things have kind of come full circle, with Madden 22 now stealing features from NCAA 14!

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Stray - title

When some of the trailers for Stray started releasing on the internet a couple months ago, a couple of my co-workers were really enthusiastic about it. I took one look at the trailer, and pretty much had the entire game figured out. But the idea of playing as a literal cat (as opposed to an anthropomorphized cartoon mascot cat) seemed novel enough for me to toss the game on my Steam wishlist. I ended up buying it on PS5 though, since the price was the same and my aging PCs might not be able to render all the pretty, ray-traced neon lights of the game's cyberpunk dystopia setting.

Right off the bat, I was surprised that Stray does not feature any kind of customization for the cat. I had a bit of a Mandela effect going on in which I could have sworn that the trailers I watched earlier in the year showed customization. But no, we're all stuck with the same orange tabby cat. At the very least, I feel like the developers could have given the player the option to play as one of several pre-fab cat models. The game begins with 4 cats in a little colony, and it seems like the developers could easily have given players the option of which of the 4 cats we want to play with. Ah well. Not a big deal.

I wish there were options to customize the cat or play as different pre-made cat skins.

After being separated from the other 3 cat buddies, the one playable cat must navigate a walled-in dystopian cyberpunk city to find its way back out to its colony. This is done by progressing through a linear route through the environments and completing collections of 3 various types of activities:

  • Run away from hostile critters,
  • Explore small sections of the city populated with humanoid robots for keys, collectibles, and lore,
  • Do some light stealth.

Cyberpunk cat tower

The best parts of the game are easily the exploratory sections, as they are the most free-form and best utilize the novelty of the feline protagonist. The levels all have a significant vertical element to them, and the low-angle camera gives an impressive sense of scale. All the spaces are very small horizontally, never representing more than a single city block, but they are easily doubled or tripled in terms of traversable size when the vertical spaces are factored in. A simple, 3-story tenement building might as well be the Empire State Building from the perspective of your foot-tall feline avatar.

If the player isn't routinely looking up, climbing where you can, and squeezing into tight spaces, you'll likely miss a lot of the game's secrets and collectibles. Though if you are testing the verticality of all the spaces, you should find most (if not all) collectibles without much extra effort or thought.

A stray cat must navigate a cyberpunk city inhabited by robots.

This gameplay would probably be a lot more impressive if not for the fact that it isn't doing anything that every other open world adventure game since Assassin's Creed has been doing: climbing and rooftop parkour. Even though the levels are 3-dimensional, paths to the heights are usually clearly signposted and railoaded, and the cat can only jump or climb onto places that specifically have "jump to" prompts. There are no leaps of faith for this cat. All the challenge is simply observational: is there a clearly-visible path to the place I want to go?

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Hell Let Loose - title

Hell Let Loose is one of the most un-welcoming games for new players that I have ever played -- at least in the modern era of video games since in-game tutorials became common place in the early 2000's. There is no tutorial or practice mode of any kind. For a standard, run-of-the-mill online shooter, that might not be a huge problem. But Hell Let Loose is not your standard, run-of-the-mill online shooter. It's a slower-paced online shooter based heavily around squad tactics, in which death comes quickly from out of nowhere -- especially for players who get isolated from the support of their squad. It requires much greater communication and coordination from players, and it has a complicated role system in which each character class has very specific duties on the field, all of which are required for an army to be successful.

There are various roles, all of which are necessary for victory.

As such, the complete inability to ever be able to learn those roles and how they work is a huge problem! There is a "Field Manual", which explains, in text, the basics of the game and each role. But it's an information overload, and a new player can't really be expected to absorb it all.

There is no tutorial or boot camp,
like in other similar games.

Straight to the front

The developers, Black Matter Party, is a small team, and I know that creating a guided, playable tutorial to explain such a complicated game would not be easy and would require a lot of budget and person-hours to create. Being an exclusively online, multiplayer shooter with no single-player campaign, means that creating A.I. bots for practice is well beyond the scope of the game. But if I could just practice by myself, and be able to freely switch to any role at any time, it would go a long way towards helping to learn the game.

At the very least, the ability to drop myself into an empty offline arena n order to run around, practice each weapon, practice the equipment of each role, and learn the map itself, would be very helpful. That shouldn't be too hard, since a basic offline sandbox mode doesn't require any additional assets, scripting, or A.I. programming. It also probably wouldn't be too hard to drop in some target practice dummies scattered around the arena for me to shoot at, and maybe also some friendly dummies for a medic to practice reviving. I don't see any reason why that wouldn't be doable, even for a small team.

The unfriendliness towards new players likely scares a lot of people away from this game, and its reputation as being un-welcoming to n00bs probably limits the number of players who are willing to even give it a chance, despite the fact that it seems to have garnered mostly favorable critical reviews. This creates a cyclical problem. The low player count means there aren't enough active players to support and maintain beginner servers. Heck, this game is lucky to have more than 2 matches open at any given time. Matches are, thus, dominated by skilled, experienced players, who are able to spot and snipe the less-experienced players from a mile away, before the poor victim has any clue what is going on, or that he or she is even in danger. This makes the game even harder, further pushing away new players, keeping the player-counts small, and further widening the gap between the few dedicated players and the scrubs like me.

Much of my play experience consists of running across fields or forests, and then promptly dying.

Most of my play experience in the first few weeks of play consisted of me running across a field, or through a forest, or into a village, only to be instantly killed by an off-screen opponent. Or if that opponent is on-screen, it's probably just 2 gray pixels off in the gray distance. There's no kill-cam or anything either, so I have no idea who killed me, or where they were. I have no idea what weapon they were using, or whether I was even killed by gunfire or by a grenade Or maybe I stepped on a landmine, or was hit by artillery bombardment or a mortar, or was strafed by a fighter plane. Are those things even in the game? I don't know -- or at least, I didn't know during those early play sessions. If I do get shot, I have no idea what gun my killer was using, whether he was standing, squatting, or prone. Was he was behind cover? Was he was looking down the sights or shooting from the hip? I don't know anything about what killed me.

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Portal - title

Portal is one of the best and most successful video games ever made. In the current climate of table top board game manufacturers trying to license every property that they can possibly get a hold of, I guess it only makes sense that there would have been a board game based on the Portal video game. But what could a board game designer possibly do with the physics and gravity-bending environmental puzzle-solving concepts of the 2 Portal video games? Cryptozoic's answer was to not even really try. While they did manage to come up with a unique and novel board game design, it's a design that I don't feel really does justice to the title's namesake.

You will be tested, and then there will be cake

Portal: The Uncooperative Cake-Acquisition Game is based around a modular, evolving board concept. 15 tiles are placed on the table in three rows of 5. At the end of each player's turn, one tile is removed from the right edge of the board (the "Old Edge"), flipped over, and moved to the left edge of the board (the "New Edge"). If a player controls a majority of the test subject pieces in the removed tile, he or she is given a set of rewards printed on the tile. This may include being able to place additional test subjects in order to establish more control over the board, being able to place or move a turret or Companion Cube figurine, or placing a victory point token on the board (which takes the form of a plastic slice of cake).

Any player piece(s) on the removed tile are also destroyed. Test subjects are returned to the respective player's supply, but any cake slices (which are victory points) are placed in the "Incinerator", and are removed from the game permanently. The objective of the game, thus, is to place as much cake on the board as you can, while also trying to keep that cake away from the old edge of the board so that it does not become incinerated. What makes this a somewhat challenging puzzle to solve is that the conveyor belt nature of the board is constantly pushing everything towards incineration.

Tiles move from one end of the board to the other, like a conveyor belt.

Each players' test subject tokens can pick up a piece of cake (belonging to any player) and carry the cake with it when the test subject moves. This is how players protect their own cake from the incinerator, but it also allows other players to pick up a rival's cake and move it closer to being incinerated. Thus, the competitive and subversive element is introduced. Players must try to maximize their own resources, while simultaneously trying to minimize their opponents' resources.

Oh, and there's also a couple of portal tokens which allow test subjects to move long distances across the board (and potentially take cake with them). And there's also a GladOS cardboard cutout, which does absolutely nothing except to mark which test chamber tile is being incinerated and recycled. The actual portals in the game's namesake, and the primary villain of the games, thus feel under-utilized. The portals just provide an extra opportunity for long-distance movement, but the game is completely playable without including them at all. They aren't even remotely necessary -- let alone fundamental -- to the board game's design, the way they are in the video game.

Turret and Companion Cube are nice 3-D plastic models,
but GladOS is just a cardboard cutout.

It's also a shame that the GladOS token is not a 3-D plastic model. The turret and Companion Cube are both plastic models and look really nice, so it's a shame that GladOS didn't get the same treatment. If she had, I could easily see this game's pieces becoming part of a nice little display diorama on a shelf somewhere when they are not in use for actual play.

In general, the board game lacks the spatial puzzle-solving element of the video game. The board is constantly in flux, and so a large focus of the game is on manipulating the physical space of the game board, and there is a certain degree of spatial-puzzle-solving present. But from my experience, most of that manipulation feels pretty rote and predictable. While there are certainly the occasional opportunities for really creative plays (especially when ability cards are used to modify various game rules or give the player extra powerful actions), the bulk of the game is pretty straight-forward.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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