Last year, I gave 989 Sports's college basketball game the highest score among its EA Sports and Sega Sports competition. I truly believed the game best copied what real college basketball is about: tradition, rivalry, and passion. With the real-life college basketball season among us, how does NCAA Final Four 2004, now in its sixth version, fare?
Presentation/Graphics : 80
The graphics package, similar to other 989 Sports games, is very clean, and I think the main reason for that view is the simplicity of the player models and stadiums. There isn't much details in the faces, but some players sport tattoos. The stadiums are also fundamental. By comparison, March Madness blows away the look of Final Four, a game that lacks the extra patterns on uniforms or more roundness and variation in the facial structure that the EA Sports product has. That said there isn't much to complain about. I think 989 Sports knows its limits in this area and while no jaws are dropped, the game doesn't look awful, either.
Presentation/Audio : 70
I still haven't played a college basketball game yet that has truly captured the crowd involvement. I didn't feel any crowd emotion when I played this game. I couldn't tell whether I was playing a North Carolina/Duke game or I was watching from the 7th hole of the U.S. Open. The crowd chants were half-assed, more or less, as they added nothing to the game. In addition, there was no band music, a staple of college sports.
The play-by-play is too basic and cookie cutter for my liking. The timing seems to be dead on, but there was too much "Mr. Obvious." I just made a first-half three-point jumper; I don't need for the play-by-play announcer to repeat that emphatically.
Interface/Options : 75
Pretty standard stuff here. The game options include practice, exhibition, online, tournament and dynasty mode. While the dynasty mode is interesting because you must first begin as an assistant coach at a small school and work your way up the ranks, it's nothing new to the series. No major additions were added, similar to how EA's NCAA Football added the Sports Illustrated magazine cover feature. 989 Sports has long had the best online options and customizable features, but it's too bad there aren't many competitors online as most of their games are rough on the edges in gameplay and lag in sales. For as cool and critically acclaimed as the online addition, you can't really play online by yourself.
Gameplay : 60
Last year I finished my NCAA Final Four review with this sentence: "Final Four is one year away from winning the national championship." Ouch. But I honestly believed with some tweaks and face lifts, this game could really grab the top spot of the college basketball genre. Unfortunately, many of last year's problems remained, and in some cases, worsened.
The biggest problem from last year was a faulty defensive A.I. Too many times last year I would drive to the basket uncontested by a computer opponent. A good defense works almost like a pulley, when one defender must slide over to help out a teammate, another player then must do the same. In the games that have duplicated this the best, defenders at least slide over initially from the next closest offensive player. In Final Four, it's not uncommon for a ball handler to pass two or three defenders en route to an easy lay-up. The defenders look so clueless sometimes that the scene plays out like Metal Gear Solid, the acclaimed spy action game: there stands the unaware security guards (or the defenders) while the undetected Solid Snake (the ball handler) strolls by undetected.
I do concede that basketball games are by far the hardest games to make because of its upbeat pace and constant movement. I'm not expecting swarming bees, but I'm also not going to accept gargoyles. This lack of fluidity and game pace is also deemed unacceptable as so many other games do it quite well.
Although not a problem last year, the shooting is now a new nuisance, as they nixed the old shooting meter system for a more traditional "press button down and release it at the pinnacle of the jump" method. The response time is slow and too often there is a second delay before the shooter finally jumps. This kills the continuity to the game, especially when a breakaway layup is turned into a drop-step skyhook. The shooting accuracy is awful once again, most games dwindling in the 20 to 30 percent range.
Also, the game blatantly travels during a jump stop animation. Think of the old Patrick Ewing strides across the lane without the initial dribble. So bad is the traveling violation that the player looks like a running back in a football game as they stride to the basket. I checked the instant replay: there is no dribble at any time.
The gameplay is also laced with turnovers, steals resulting from players who seem to have forgotten where they are and what they're doing and sporadic strategy. For example, a coach called a timeout with 18 seconds left in the first half, down by three points, and set up an out-of-bounds play. They passed the ball in and the CPU player shot the ball immediately, almost like there was 1.8 seconds left. I grabbed the rebound, drove down the floor and scored. With five seconds left, the CPU didn't call another timeout (they had five), but rather dribbled out the clock. Weird.
I can't really say anything great about the gameplay, aside from a few sweet animations. When you block a shot near the basket, if the angle is just right you'll swat it off the backboard. The dribbling moves, geared either by the triangle or right analog stick, are slick. Some teams apply full-court pressure when they're down, but no teams, Louisville and Kentucky included, did it as a full-time thing.
Replay Value : 60
This game is frustrating to play. It's as simple as that. The dynasty mode is fun to sim and move your way up, but the recruiting simulation model is messed up. In four different trials, the top players in the country were either squatty (6-5, 270 pounds), short (one player was listed at 5-9), or undersized (a 6-8 center). While I understand there are always exceptions, the recruiting model was not accurate enough to true life. Done correctly, college basketball recruiting is amazingly fun as it requires less micromanagement than its football counterpart resulting in more of an ownership feeling. You remember every top recruit's name. The online model is great, but what good does it do when the game blows?
Overall : 71
I'm vastly disappointed with this game. I clearly remember being excited about last year's potential for the future. I thought 989 Sports would finally come through with a top-notch college basketball game, something that I don't believe has ever been done.