Let's face it, 989 Sports has gotten a bad reputation over the past couple of years for releasing sub-par sports titles and for good reason. As a result, the hype surrounding the release of NCAA Final Four 2003 is minimal when compared to the other PS2 college basketball games. Can FF be a sleeper and pull the upset?
Presentation/Graphics : 90
I have played my fair share of 989 Sports and although they usually have a nice set of animation moves the player models tend to be jagged in shape. NCAA Final Four must be the exception, as I was thoroughly impressed by the smoothness of the player models. They look similar to those seen in NBA Live, except the players have the same body build. The heights are factored in, but there is no difference in body shape between a 350-pound behemoth and a 140-pound guard. This monotonous is most apparent during a free throw shot, as each player has ankles that make Shawn Bradley's legs look like Warren Sapp's! This isn't a big problem because most college players are thin and not as muscular as their NBA counterparts.
The courts don't appear to be arena-specific, but you can pick out the more renowned courts from others. My alma mater, Eastern Illinois University, plays their basketball at Lantz Arena and the basketball court looks like the one found in Hangin' with Mr. Cooper because it is so narrow looking. The arenas may not be unique or accurate, but they look pretty damn good. The reflections of players shine off the hard wood floors.
The uniforms are not accurate either and I am sure this flaw is enough to turn off some gamers. I played the majority of my games with my EIU Panthers, so maybe only the teams from the bigger schools have accurate unis.
I like what 989 Sports did for the television style presentation. Not only do they have the player of the half and game, but they show a small highlight of that player during the game. The statistics that come up are also very cool and are actually like ones seen on TV. For example, there is a stat layout that brings up the top rebounder and they call him the "Chairman of the Boards."
The only thing that I would like to see, not just in NCAA Final Four, but in all sports games, is the incorporation of in-game highlights with the presentation. I would like to see highlights from my star point guard after his 10th assist or some highlights of my shot blocker after he got his fifth. This happens all the time in a real television presentation and I want to see it in the video games.
Presentation/Audio : 50
For most schools, the fight songs are generic at best and many of the songs are re-hashed. The sound package is nothing compared to NCAA Football 2003. I was expecting more of an emphasis on the chanting and less on band music when compared to the football games because of the smallness of the arenas to stadiums, but I was unimpressed.
I can't stand Billy Packer in real-life and he does play-by-play with Eddie Doucette. Packer's random one-liners kill the commentary because often times he makes a "well, duh!" statement. As a game reviewer, I have gotten a thick skin for commentary over the years, but I can't stand Packer's voice and his smart ass-ness. Doucette does a decent job of announcing the game and integrates stats well into his statements. The duo is about average when compared to other sports games. I generally prefer no-name guys to the celebrity announcers because it seems they have more of a leash and they don't overburden you with their cliché phrases.
Interface/Options : 85
Final Four has a lot of game options to tweak. You have the ability to adjust multiple gameplay sliders and there are eight game modes to choose from. There is an arcade mode that incorporates special moves, but it's not really a good impression of NBA Street or NBA Jam; other than that, there are the typical game modes.
989 Sports has their twist on their multiple season mode where you must work your way up from a graduate assistant at a lower program to a head coach at a prestigious one. I don't like to have the challenge at the beginning, so I am not a big fan of that one.
The interface is pretty easy to navigate, but I have found that many games have become more accessible. I liked how many cool stats that the game tracked and how it has a bubble watch and multiple end-of-the-year awards.
Gameplay : 65
When I first started playing the game, I was really impressed. The game was fluid and the player animation was smooth. The Freestyle capability that EA Sports has so hyped up is also incorporated in Final Four. For those who do not know, what I am referring to is the ability to do special moves like crossovers or behind the back dribbles, by moving the right analog stick. The only fault I found with this is that I could pull off the same moves with the same efficiency with my point guard and my center.
Scoring is also very easy in the game. If you press the shoot button and you are within eight feet of the hoop, you will get stuck in a lay-up or a dunk animation. You shoot free throws by pressing the analog sticks together.
But overall, I had more problems with the game than joys. The biggest problem is the dumb computer A.I. Even on the hardest and smartest game difficulty, the computer has no defensive awareness. The CPU players guard only their man and could care less if a ball handler dribbles right past them for a lay-up. When I played on the hardest difficulty, the CPU was almost impossible to stop. Playing 10 minute halves, I found it hard to believe when Utah State was beating Illinois by 45 points at the half, 75-30. Illinois is a Top 25 team and Utah State will be lucky to make the NCAA Tournament. Utah State also shot like 90% from the floor for the half.
989 Sports has tried to incorporate a touch shooting in the game, which I have found to really, really hate. For gamers familiar to the football games, you have a similar gauge found for kicking in the football games for shooting. Not only does it bog the game down, but it's inconsistent. You can turn touch shooting off, but shooting becomes even more random. And the shooting form is just atrocious! If any of you guys remember what Bill Cartwright's shot used to be like in his playing days for the Chicago Bulls in the early 90's, the form has been brought back for Final Four. It's just ugly. Shooting is an art that cannot be mastered, but is a continual hit and miss (literally).
The ball physics are also bad and this is apparent when a long, errant pass hits the floor. The ball should bounce many times and out of bounds, but when the ball hits it looks like it landed in sand, as the ball just stops dead in its tracks. I thought passing was pressure-based (which would have been really cool), but it's not. As a result, most passes ended up a pop fly lob pass. This makes the game pace choppy and frustrated me.
If I had to make an analogy for the gameplay and quality it would be this: a brand new car that looks immaculate, but runs like the bum off the streets with bad lungs. The game looks great, but the actual game play part is weak. I thought I would get used to the game after a while, but it never happened. Skill was not rewarded and there was a high emphasis on luck.
Replay Value : 75
Recruiting is an average adventure, mainly because it is mediocre when compared to NCAA Football 2003. The game for a gamer that does not mind inaccuracies in the style of game Final Four has, will get some good hours out of this game. There's no online play, but the process of trying to make the NCAA Tournament is still very cool. Nothing in sports in my opinion, tops March Madness.
Overall : 80
Huh? A 989 Sports game that is not a complete flop? Although the gameplay leaves much for my appetite, the rest of the game is solid. If the gameplay can be improved A LOT for next year, we might be looking at the best college basketball game on the market. Although I have yet to play NCAA Basketball 2k3 or March Madness, at least with the gameplay, Final Four is one year away from winning the national championship.