Like I said in my coverage of GameBreaker, I’ve got a special place in my heart for collegiate sports. Aside from the spectacle and tradition attached to each game, there’s much more heart and emotion that can be found in every hard-fought match. Personally, I think it’s because players haven’t been corrupted by multi-million dollar contracts, sneaker deals, or sports drink endorsements. Players play for the love of the game, pure and simple, often leaving blood, sweat and tears on their particular field of battle. Well, in case you haven’t been paying attention, college basketball season recently started, and seeking to capture the fiery spirit of the game, 989 Sports has released NCAA Final Four 2003.
Like most other basketball games on the market, Final Four has random Quick Start matches and Exhibition games for fast tip-offs. If making your way through a full season isn’t interesting to you, but you’d like to jump into post-season play, you can play for your chance to win the NCAA Championship by accessing the Tournament mode. Or, if you’re feeling like your skills are a little rusty, you can work on your timing within Practice mode. However, most of the similarities quickly end right there. Yes, Final Four has a Season Mode, where you can take over as the head coach of a team and attempt to lead them to the Big Dance. With over three hundred teams Division 1 teams included, Allowing for the talent found at certain schools over others, that may or may not be a tough task to accomplish. However, if you discover that your players can’t hit three pointers to save their life, or they run out of energy during the second half, you can change their days and hours of practice. This way, you can strengthen the fundamental skills they’re lacking while leaving their other abilities alone.
Taking a page from Gamebreaker, Final Four allows budding coaches their opportunities behind the reigns of an organization with both their Dynasty and Career modes. Dynasty mode allows you to build up a program over numerous years, working with and strengthening the quality of players that attend your school. Career mode, on the other hand, involves building up a program to contend for a National Championship run while also looking to advance your occupation from graduate assistant coach to the head coaching position at a Top 10 school. Assembling your coaching supremacy in these two modes will inevitably involve the graduation of players and the recruitment of new prospects. Based upon the level of difficulty you choose, you will be given up to 10 visits to different regions of the country in the hopes of swaying incoming freshmen or transfers to your program. At the end of the off-season, you establish both the team roster for the upcoming years as well as the starting order before you make your run for the title. In Career mode, having a winning season can provide you with plenty of coaching opportunities at ranked schools around the nation to choose from, while having losing streaks can demote you to a much smaller program. Finally, if you’re not interested in the administration or simulation of coaching, you can activate the Arcade mode, an accelerated game with tons of fast breaks, limited foul calls and plenty of offense.
Visuals within Final Four, for the most part, are rather good. The 3D models of the players are nicely articulated, appropriately built and move very smoothly down the court. You’ll be able to detect facial animation that expresses emotion, like frustration or exhilaration. Similarly, they’ll clap their hands in celebration or throw their arms out in disgust based upon a refs call. The lone downside is that there’s a limited amount of body types and faces assigned to the models, which can make it seem that both teams hit the court with 10 of the same player. It would’ve been nice if you could pick out the stocky 3-point shooters and the larger, taller centers based on their body size. Similarly, you shouldn’t see a player’s face on your team appear on a player’s face on the other side, which happens at times during replays. Dunk animations are nice and varied, and you’ll definitely be able to tell when a player takes it to the house with a jam versus a light finger roll lay-up. Depending upon how well your player is doing within the game, you may just find one of these slams making their way into the player highlight reel. Adding to this is a specular lighting effect that aids in light reflections on the court, as well as the calculation of sweat and muscle sheen on players. A very cool effect, to be sure, but one that you might not notice immediately, probably because it doesn’t have that much of an impact on gameplay. But it’s a rather nice piece of eye candy. Speaking of eye candy, the game also includes plenty of background animations that are beautifully done. For instance, cheerleaders will break out into specific dance routines at the beginning of a game as well as halftime. A very nice touch that adds to the realism of the game.
A little extra attention must be paid to the crowd animations as well. While Final Four does the ubiquitous 2D crowd, these guys are full of specific movements. Need to take a foul shot on an enemy court? I hope you aren’t easily distracted, because you’ll have a crowd full of crisply animated thunder sticks and wavy snakes shaking in your face. Home team tearing off on a massive scoring run? You’ll notice the crowd leap up in excitement. If you’re a visitor and want to shut these fans up, sink a basket and watch them sit down in dejection. This is truly a well-designed background animation, and it’s great. Camera angles are very good as well, tracking action flawlessly without imparting confusion or losing the ball in transitional breaks.
Final Four does score from downtown in the sound department. The number of fight songs, chants, and other school specific sounds is phenomenal, and, depending upon your alma mater, make you pull out your team colors. What’s even more impressive are the voices that you will hear during the game. Players who are open will specifically call for the ball. Coaches will yell commands or comment on the in-game action. Cheerleaders will lead the crowd in songs, and the crowd will yell back at the players. The thing that’s so cool about this is that you’ll be able to detect exactly who said something based off the timber of their voice and the direction it comes from. Commentary within the game is probably the weakest feature. It’s decent, and the attempted banter between play-by-play and color commentary isn’t bad, but what you’ll inevitably notice is that there’s an odd lag between onscreen game action and their statements. For example, you may hear about the other team’s dunk five to ten seconds after you’ve retrieved the ball, passed it down the court and responded with a basket of your own.
Final Four features some of the fastest action on the video game court today, truly capturing the spirit of the college game. Fast breaks, sprints to the lane and a quick dish for a three, or a monster rejection are trademarks of a collegiate match, and there’s a solid command of that pacing within the title. Supporting this is a solid control scheme that lets you stop, pop and drop shots on a dime. Seeming to be a healthy mix of EA Sports’ FreeStyle system and an improvement upon 989 Sports’ own scheme within NBA Shootout, there’s very little that you won’t be able to execute using jukes, fakes, or steals. There’s a solid post presence within the title, allowing you to control the lane faithfully with a center before passing the ball out to an open man. The only hang up that you might find is that it’ll take a little more time that usual, even for basketball vets, to get used to the new controls.
You’ll also discover that the game is very accurate to their real life counterparts. For example, you’ll discover that perimeter powerhouses such as Kentucky will retain their three point supremacy, while teams that attack the boards like Arizona will give you plenty of trouble in the lane or driving to the hole. The AI follows these models faithfully, and on higher levels of difficulty can give you a scrappy, hard fought game to the very last second. You’ll even find them running similar offensive and defensive plays from the school’s playbooks. You’ll also notice that players on your team won’t just stand still or run through the motions as they move on either side of the ball. If a player recognizes a fast break, they’ll sprint along with your controlled characters. If they notice a potential opening to steal the ball, you’ll see them gamble to leap into a passing lane or pressure an opponent for a quick turnover. This intelligence can be a double edged sword, as you’ll also find that they can sometime inadvertently leave the basket wide open with their enthusiasm. You’ll also find at times that the computer will not be smart with its placement of your teammates, sometimes placing fellow players out of bounds when you need to inbound the ball. There are other moments when the passing can break down as well, forcing you to rely on the icon passing scheme solely, which can seem somewhat jarring. Finally, a quick gripe is that Final Four doesn’t feature online support. What would seem to be a natural feature for the title, especially for friends and alums of rival schools to talk smack to each other back and forth in an environment feeding their zealousness has unfortunately been excluded, and this game strengths would stand out even more if it had been included.
Overall, however, NCAA Final Four is one of those titles that manages to fully embody the sport that it was designed for. A fast paced, tightly controlled game with tons of depth within its gameplay modes and plenty of eye and ear catching additions makes it one of the better basketball titles to come out in a while. College basketball fans would definitely be proud to call themselves alums of this title.