NCAA Final Four 2001 Review
The graphics found here are representative of what I touched on in the introductory paragraph, some things are done well, yet several are done poorly. To avoid the negative tone that my 989 reviews tend to take these days, I'll start with the positives. The arenas are all nicely detailed, right down to the overhead lights reflecting off the floor. The crowds are nicely done, and some of the spectators in the front row are full polygonal models that will stand up and cheer for their team. The team's benches look nice, not the actual seats, but the players. At one point I noticed one of the substitutes tying his shoes before entering the game. Coaches roam the sideline, but they don't look like their real-life counterparts. It would be asking a bit much to see the coach of Elon rendered for this game, so I can't complain. Each player's face is individually done, though you will notice the same faces pop up on different teams. This is something that I most likely wouldn't have noticed had it not been for some of the particularly bizarre looking people found in the game.
989 claims to have "More than 1,000 Motion Captured Moves" in Final Four. I didn't count them, so I suppose we'll have to take their word for it on this one. The dunks are impressive, the player animations are well done, the players move quickly (60 fps) and smoothly. Last but certainly not least is the addition of cheerleaders. If the movement into 128-bit gaming is to be known for anything, it's bound to be the return of cheerleaders to sports gaming. Double Dribble had them, Tecmo Bowl had them, and now we can add NCAA Final Four 2001 to that illustrious list. The cheerleaders don't do a whole lot (Just like in real life), but they add a nice "collegiate" feel to the game when they do their routine during timeouts.
On the other side of the coin we have things that were done not as well as what I just described. The first thing is something that I was not going to write about until I found it advertised on the back of the box. It reads "Choose your favorite college team and play in their exact arenas." EXACT is the exact word they use, and it's a blatant lie. I attended James Madison University and was a member of the "Zoo Cage", the group of freaks that sits under the basket tormenting opposing players about every physical or mental flaw (Going to the wrong school) that we could find. The point is I spent many hours watching basketball there, so I know EXACTLY what it looks like, and it's not what is found in Final Four. It looks similar, but it's not the same. The same thing goes for all the other stadiums I was familiar with, close, but not EXACT. There appears to be a growing trend of companies exaggerating their product on the back of the game cases (Anyone remember WSB2K1 for Dreamcast?), but rest assured that if it happens with a game I am reviewing, I will bring the matter to light.
Although I've touched on the player models briefly, it was only to praise their realistic, if not slightly creepy looking faces. The rest of the player's body does not live up to the standards of a next-gen "cyber-athelete". On some players, the smaller guards in particular, the head is disproportionate to the rest of their body. While not "Beetlejuice at the end of the movie" disfigured, the players don't look as good up close as the ones in NBA2K1 do. Another issue is the complete lack of an animated backboard. When my 260-pound center throws down a two-handed slam, I would expect the backboard to show reaction to this behemoth suddenly hanging of its rim, but I would be wrong of course. It never affects gameplay, but a shaking goalpost would do wonders towards conveying the power found in some of the game's nicely animated dunks.
In keeping with the theme of mediocrity, let's move on to the audio department. The crowd is standard fare, I've heard better and I've heard worse. 989 has insisted on using the same tired pep-band song that they used in Gamebreaker, the song wasn't very impressive then, and it's even less so now. Speaking of unimpressive, that's exactly how the commentary of Quinn Buckner is. Like Gamebreaker, Buckner is the lone voice in the announcing booth, most likely alone because of how bad he was. After enduring a few games of him repeating himself I was wishing that 989 had one-upped Gamebreaker and gone with a zero-man broadcast. The only thing I enjoyed about Quinn was his high-pitched "Misses!" that he would exclaim on a rare CPU missed field goal attempt.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the gameplay found in NCAA Final Four has more highs and lows than the stock market did last year. In keeping with the positive attitude I've adopted for this review, we shall delve into the postives before we examine the negatives. The most important thing of all, more important than graphics, sound, or replay value, is that this game was fun to play. Despite its flaws, which I will detail later, I had a great time playing my friends in this game. Whether playing "my school vs. their school" or a classic "Duke vs. UNC" contest, the games always seemed to be close and if nothing else, intense.
Though it may seem small, I found all of the menus in the game well organized and easy to navigate. When the game sports over three hundred teams it's important to make them easy to find, and 989 has done a fine job of making selecting a team as painless as possible. You can either go through each team one at a time in alphabetical order, or skip an entire letter by pushing the L1 or R1 button. After going to the pre-game screen you can watch your team shoot around and warm up for the game. I know it has little to do with the gameplay, but I'm trying to find positive things to say.
Now it's time to take a look at what's not so good about NCAA Final Four. To start with, the "Touch Shooting" is worthless. Although I recognize the fact that the developers are trying to bring some innovation to the game, it fails miserably. The key to shooting with the Touch Shooting is to hold the shoot button down until your power bar is in the green area. If you are successful in doing this, your shoot will go in, assuming that it is not blocked. While this makes how well you shoot a direct variable of your ability to perform this simple task, it's simply too easy. If you were playing Bubbles, Michael Jackson's chimp, he would probably manage a fifty-percent FG percentage, and that is much higher than what chimpanzees usually shoot, trust me. A typical game against the computer involves both teams shooting between eighty and ninety percent from the field. "If it's so easy, why don't you shoot 100%?" you may ask. Usually the only time I missed was when I thought I was going to get a dunk (which has no meter) and instead had to shoot a three-foot jumper (meter required) instead. By the time I realized my seven-footer didn't have the hops to dunk from two feet away, the meter was past the green and I would throw up a brick. Other times I simply missed because I decided to shoot from the center court logo to see if I could make it. Once in a while, I would miss a shot not because it was not a dunk, or a half court shot, but because of the computer fouling me. Usually it's me that runs around fouling people while desperately trying to block their shots, but this time around the computer picked up the slack and did it for me. Even on routine jump shots, the computer would foul the guy with alarming consistency. This held true whether I was on offense or defense, the CPU was an equal opportunity fouler. How this was not caught in the play testing stage I'll never know, so we'll just have to deal with shoddy AI until 989 starts testing their games.
When not burning the net cords with my sniper-like jump shooting, I was trying to push the ball upcourt with the fastbreak. Instead of Magic and Kareem running Showtime, my team looked more like Bill Murray and Porky Pig in SpaceJam. The icon based passing was clumsy, the give and go was unusable, and the "Special Dribble" wouldn't have gotten me past my mother. Of course I could forego the chore of bringing the ball upcourt and just heave it down to the opposing basket when I inbound the ball. That's right, if that fullcourt press is stressing you out, just chuck the ball all the way downcourt to your forward, who is chilling by the goal. While this is only an issue if you choose to exploit the problem, it can be tempting to throw the ball down there to pick up some easy points.
The last problem I wish to discuss here is one that I feel should never be a problem in sports games, and that is the camera. For some reason the camera moves at tortoise-like speeds during the game. This problem usually occurs on a fullcourt pass, while inbounding the ball, or during a period of quick passing. It's almost as if Stevie Wonder took over the camera and is slowly searching for the ball handler. Sometimes, as if to make up for its slowness, the camera will zoom ahead of the ball and focus on where it is going. This headache-inducing camera is something that should have been cleaned up before being released to unsuspecting gamers. After virtually any dunk or lay up, the fun-loving gang at 989 decided to show you a replay showcasing your offensive prowess. Even when the replay option is turned off, you can't just stick to playing basketball. No sir, you've got to endure pointless close up shots of the guy who just made the shot, running back on defense. If it's something that breaks up the flow of the game that much it should be something that I can disable in the options screen. Maybe a little more focus on gameplay and basic camera function is in order before developers start implementing all their little bells and whistles.
The replay value in this title is severely hampered by a few major issues. First, and the most glaring is the lack of a dynasty mode. This is now a standard feature in most college games, and the fact that it is missing seems like 989 knew they had the only basketball game out, and that gamers would buy it with or without this feature. Another standard feature sorely missing is the "Create-A-Player" mode. Where it went, I don't know, but I am amazed that a sports game released in 2000 that costs $50 can be released without this basic element. It's insane.
While it may seem like I wanted to attach an explosive device to this game and mail it back to 989 Sports, that's really not the case. 989 has succeeded where it is most important, they have made a fun game. That is what upsets me most about the problems found in this and many other releases of theirs, a lack of quality. If they took a little more time, ironed out some bugs, changed a few things around, this title would have been fantastic. As it stands now, NCAA Final Four 2001 is a title best suited for people who don't own a Dreamcast and NBA2K1, and are in desperate need of a next generation basketball game.
7/24/2004 Aaron Thomas