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989 Sports Final Four 2003

September 17, 2003 Columns No Comments

Review: NCAA Final Four 2003

by Dean Austin

Title: NCAA Final Four 2003
Publisher: 989 Sports
Platform: Playstation 2
Score (out of 10): 6

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Seconds to go in this tight MAC Championship. Top seeded Central Michigan with the ball and down by 2, 44-46 against 4th seeded Ball State. Norman, who has been on fire from long range, comes down and pops a three. Too long, Ball State with the board, 9 seconds to go as they bring the ball over mid court, 8…moving over to the left, 7…dribbling toward the three point line, 6…looking to make the pass, 5…stolen, stolen by Norman! The Chippewas’ shooting guard heads towards the basket. To the top of the arc, goes for three, can he make amends… It’s good! Time runs out and Central Michigan wins the automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

So given the thrilling conclusion above, which really happened, it might surprise you to know that initially I hated this game. First time I picked it up I got so frustrated I put it down after 30 minutes determined to find a way to get someone else to have to review it. I left it a week and came back to it. “I hate it,” I said to no-one in particular “when I have to review lousy games.” But I played it, and cursed the over and back turnovers. I played it, and got frustrated at the free throw mechanism. And then a funny thing happened. I kept playing it, moving through year after year in Dynasty mode, recruiting better players and discovering the nuances of the game. Finally I came to a surprising conclusion. This isn’t a bad game; on the contrary it can be quite a challenge and ultimately satisfying. However you have to be prepared to invest some significant time and also unlearn most of what you may have learnt playing other console basketball titles.

They’ve put in just about everything including the proverbial kitchen sink.

So jump into an Exhibition game and learn the basic controls. Two issues immediately come to light. First it is very easy to tap the pass button multiple times and end up with an over and back half court violation. This is just plain bad game design. I don’t care if it is technically accurate, if it frustrates a player for no good reason, it’s bad game design. Second the shooting mechanism takes time to get used to but once you do it makes sense. As you go to make a shot a shooting meter appears. The ball moves up the meter and to make a shot you have to release the ball when the icon is within the cylinder. To quote the manual, “the ball must fit perfectly with the circular portion of the shot meter to assure a field goal.” Well yes that’s technically correct but it doesn’t tell the whole story. You find that, especially on three point attempts, that it is possible – even preferable – to let the ball only fill half the circle and the hoop will be made every time. However if you are just a fraction over the edge at the top of the circle the ball will clang off the back of the rim.

It is with the controls you first get a sense of unease with the product. The developers have put in just about everything including the proverbial kitchen sink. Sometimes less really is more. I found that the best way to get up to speed was to play a few games with the basic controls and then practice one specific new advanced function per game. Icon Passing and Cutting, nifty features that allow you to deal to a specific player, are well worth the effort.

Graphically NCAA Final Four 2003 looks very nice especially the close ups of the players. The accompanying game team interviews, which are nicely done, make reference to “specula lighting” and how it allows sweat to glisten on the players. All well and good but this is made out to be a special feature when it should be a nice extra. Game play is what is important.

Sometimes it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back. Take the Artificial Intelligence for example. The good news is that if you are playing man to man defense and over play a double team the AI will usually find the open man and have him drive to the basket or hit the open jumper. But knock the ball out of an opponents hand when going for a steal and your opposite number is likely to stand watching the ball bounce harmlessly away rather than diving after the ball. Or worse down 42-28 a team will pound it inside rather than going for the quick three with just under a minute left to play. Are there always bad things going on? Of course not, otherwise it would be a drag. But these issues keep popping up throughout the game.

He’s no Dick Vitale, and I suspect Packer would take that as a compliment.

Play the Quick Start, Exhibition and Season mode but the heart of the game is the Dynasty mode. Here the 300 plus teams are a distinct advantage over the competition. Play as any team from Alcorn State and Yale through Clemson and USF. The object is to build an ongoing Dynasty ala Duke or North Carolina over multiple seasons. Players graduate each year and as the Head Coach you must work to recruit replacements. The recruiting process is a challenge. Especially when you first start out the best players will have no interest in your program. Instead you will need to look at local players who might have an interest because they prefer to stay closer to home.

Each visit to a recruit and you get 10 per round as a Head Coach, increases that players interest in your program. There are 5 rounds of visits at the end of the season. However, recruiting a player heavily does not guarantee that the prospect will decide to play for you. Therefore you have to balance your recruiting efforts and look at multiple prospects. Sometimes even though you want, for example, a Center to back up your junior starter you will find that the best players who want to come to your school play another position. You then have to decide whether to take the best player or the position that you need. Not as easy as it sounds because injuries and fatigue play a factor throughout the season. It’s a fine balancing act and one reminiscent of the Soccer management games that are so popular in Europe.

The MAC Championship described above was a half a dozen years into a recent Dynasty. Although I’d had a couple of good recruiting classes, the previous off season had seen some excellent players come out of the state of Michigan. I’d been fortunate to grab three who ended up in my starting line up, including the shooting guard Norman. Currently I’m about to play in the Sweet Sixteen having knocked off Western Kentucky and Ole Miss in the first two rounds. Even with a MAC Championship and a 20+ win season, I was still given a #12 seed by the committee. Seems the mid majors get no respect in the game as well as real life!

For those of you who want even more of a challenge, in addition to the Dynasty mode, there is also a Career mode where you start as a Graduate Assistant at a small school and try to advance to the Head Coach of a major school. Until you become an Assistant Coach you have no say in recruiting, so dealing with the hand you are dealt can be frustrating but also a nice challenge.

Billy Packer provides expert commentary. He’s no Dick Vitale and somehow I suspect Packer would take that as a compliment. Again it’s adequate for what you need but it would have been nice to have some excitement when Central Michigan qualified for the Tournament. I mean it doesn’t get much more exciting than a three point buzzer beater to join the big dance. Dickie V would have been apoplectic!

The bottom line when it comes to NCAA Final Four 2003 is really quite simple. It is extremely easy to nitpick this title to death as there are numerous problems. And yet it is ultimately a game I enjoyed trying to beat. Rent it, check out the Dynasty mode and then decide if it is worth the price of admission.

989 Sports’s NCAA Final Four 2003 gets a Hoopville 6 out of 10.


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