NCAA Final Four 2002
Last fall, 989 Sports released NCAA Final Four 2001 for the PS2. It was by far and away the best collegiate basketball game for the system' uh, by default that is, because until now it was the only college hoops game to make an appearance on Sony's next generation hardware. You may recall that last year, to the chagrin of many sports gamers, EA Sports announced that it was delaying the release of a PS2 version of March Madness for a full year.
Like many titles in 989 Sports' stable of sport franchises, NCAA Final Four 2001 emphasized fast and furious arcade gameplay over realism. Predictably, the game was riddled with questionable AI and gameplay anomalies that left many sim fans scratching their heads (I can't say I was surprised). Unfortunately, with substandard visuals, sloppy controls and unbalanced play mechanics, NCAA Final Four 2001 failed to impress even the arcade crowd. Alas, the game did very little to prevent many disappointed hoopsters from making a second trip back to their local video game retailer (if ya know what I mean).
But after a full year of additional development time under their belts, the developers are poised to redeem themselves in the form of NCAA Final Four 2002. With the promise of state-of-the-art graphics, all-new dynasty and career modes, brand-new commentary and tons of new moves, this year's game attempts to deliver the ultimate college hoops game. But not so fast -- keep in mind that this year it's got competition. That's right, EA Sports' March Madness 2002 will soon be making its PS2 debut. There's no question that Final Four's head start gives it a temporary advantage. But will winning the opening tip-off be enough for it to sink it at the buzzer? Well, there's a whole lotta basketball in between' so let's go to the hardwood and take a look.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Nowadays, if a sports game is released without including some sort of multiple-season mode, it's bound to alienate a lot of people. One of the many complaints about last year's game was that it lacked this feature. I suppose 989 Sports has finally learned its lesson, because besides the standard modes of Exhibition, Season and Tournament, this year's game includes two brand new modes of play: Dynasty and Career.
In Dynasty Mode, you get to choose from over 300 Division 1-A schools to play in multiple seasons. Before the season starts you must choose from one of three coaching ranks, which will determine the amount of control you have over the recruiting process. As a Graduate Assistant, the CPU manages all the recruiting chores. As an Assistant Coach you will have ten visits to use on potential recruits, in an attempt to lure them to your school. As Head Coach, the number of visits increases to twenty. Roster management takes place at the end of each season; replace graduating seniors with new recruits or cut unwanted players. Your goal is to build a winning program capable of capturing the national championship someday.
For all you aspiring coaches out there, the new Career Mode enables you to play in multiple seasons with an eye toward moving up the coaching ladder. You'll start as a Graduate Assistant at a small school and, depending on your won/loss record at the end of each season, you'll receive an overall job performance rating. Perform well enough and you may receive offers for Assistant or Head Coaching positions from not only your own school, but from other schools as well. But don't get too comfortable; if your performance is not up to snuff, you might find yourself without a job.
The two new play modes are a welcome addition, but as with all sports games it's gameplay that matters most. Once you hit the hardwood, it's immediately obvious that the developers have made a concerted effort to make some improvements in this area. First and foremost is the touch-control shooting feature. The familiar up-down meter has been replaced by an upward-moving basketball icon, which you must perfectly line up inside a large circle. While this particular control scheme takes very little time to get used to, I'm not so sure it marks an improvement over the original shot meter. On the two easier modes of play, I was sinking three-pointers like nobody's business. As I moved up the difficulty ladder it became significantly harder, but typically, so did the rest of the game. I still wish the developers of the game would allow the user to change the difficulty setting of the touch-control shooting mechanism without affecting the rest of the game. Since this feature can be turned off, I just assume play the game without it.
Foul shooting seems to be an all-or-nothing affair. On Normal, foul shooting becomes a matter of timing. Trust me, you've seen this before. With two successive button presses, you must line up two moving balls that are placed above the rim -- one moves left to right, the other up and down. You must overlap the two balls in order to nail your shot. Unfortunately, with little or no practice, I was able to sink 100% of my foul shots. On Expert, the difficulty increases tenfold to the point of frustration. Here, you are required to simultaneously move the left and right analog sticks in order to center the two balls above the basket. Ok, no problem, I like a good challenge as much as the next guy. But even after several attempts, no matter how much I tried, I couldn't quite get the balls to move where I wanted them to, almost as if they had a mind of their own. Enough of that nonsense, back to the Normal mode I go (hey, I don't know about you, but I'll take 100% foul shooting over missing every freakin' shot any day). While I prefer the Normal mode of foul shooting, again, it would have been nice if the designers provided a separate difficulty setting for that feature.
Sadly, a few AI complaints I had about last year's game are back once again. First, CPU defenders will cover your players like glue. Trying to maneuver your man to get an open look or take it to the rack is more difficult than it should be. It's almost as if they were connected by an invisible force field or something. Secondly, while playing defense, blocking the CPU's shot is much harder than it should be. The main cause of this problem is the fact that while trying to block, your defenders can't seem to jump much higher than two or three feet (I don't know, they seem to jump ok when they slam-dunk!). Finally, as with most (if not all) basketball video games, you always get the feeling that you have to do everything yourself. On offense, unless you're constantly calling a new play, all too often your non-controlled players will stand around waiting for something to happen (well, get open already, will ya?). On defense, a word of warning -- if you expect to get the rebound, don't leave it up to your teammates. They'll either stay glued to the floor, or simply watch the ball roll away (geez, you're a big help!).
Despite the aforementioned complaints, for the most part, player controls are spot on. Your players move swiftly, with absolutely no lag between button pressing and their respective actions. Two improvements made to this year's game include a new post-up button and the pump fake, which is now mapped onto the same button that you shoot with -- if you recall in last year's game, pulling off a pump fake required the press of a different button. Passing the ball seems to be a little easier than in the past. I don't know if it's my imagination, but there seems to be a significantly lower number of balls that go astray or out of bounds. Of course, the much-heralded (but in my opinion overrated) icon passing is back, and for those of you who prefer it to directional passing, you'll be happy to know that it works as well as ever.
Thankfully, NCAA Final Four 2002 allows you to adjust several important gameplay settings. At the options screen, among other things, you'll be able to adjust the frequency of blocks, steals and foul calls. In addition, you'll also be able to adjust the CPU's shooting skills. It'll take some time, but with a little trial and error (and patience) the game allows you to find a comfort level best suited to your own preferences. This level of customization is a welcome feature, and -- dare I say -- something that should be available in all sports games.
As with most current sports games, NCAA Final Four 2002 supports up to eight players at once with a multitap. Considering the tribulations associated with solo play, this may be the way to go.
The graphics in NCAA Final Four 2002 are almost a carbon copy of last year's game, and to me that is somewhat disappointing. To be fair, during close-ups and replays the player models appear to be slightly more detailed and less blocky, but the differences are negligible. Considering the fact that the majority of your gaming experience will be played from a full-court perspective, these differences become even less noticeable. This is not to say that the graphics are bad -- far from it -- but somehow I expected more from a second-generation title.
The real disappointment is not necessarily in the player models themselves, but rather the way in which they move about the court. As a whole, the animations have been cleaned up a bit from last year's game but they're still a far cry from what they should be (or better yet, could be). I find it kinda hard to characterize player movements. They're not choppy, but then again they're not exactly smooth either. Perhaps "awkward" may be the best word to use here. While frame rate doesn't appear to be an issue -- in the options menu, the pace of the game can be pumped up to blindingly fast with virtually no slow-down -- the apparent lack of quality transitional animations gives player movement a very unnatural appearance. I think part of the problem stems from a gameplay issue that I mentioned in the previous section -- CPU defenders who seem to be glued to the player with the ball, darting about unrealistically as if they were handcuffed to the man they're covering.
All is not lost in the graphical department, however, as the various collegiate arenas and courts themselves are quite impressive. To be honest, I don't watch a lot of college basketball on TV, so I'm not qualified to report on their exact likenesses to their real-life counterparts (though I have no reason to doubt their authenticity). However, sporting realistic light reflections and colorful paint-jobs, the arenas do look nice. In addition, all the courtside trimmings -- including 3D animated cheerleaders, coaches and bench players -- add a nice touch. It's especially cool the first time you witness the cheerleaders, who during timeouts will bring their acrobatics and dance routines to center court.
The fans in the stands are represented by 2D sprites that display the usual looped animations -- stand, clap, sit, stand, clap, sit (you get the idea). It seems that, to save time, the developers created about 30 different fan types which are then cloned throughout the arena. It's almost comical to watch each clone animate in unison, as if connected by one mind (spooky).
You can choose from several different camera views in which to play the game. Unfortunately, there is no zoom feature for any of these camera views. Nonetheless, you're bound to find at least two or three views that display an acceptable perspective of the action.
Overall, the sound effects are standard fare and do little either to hurt or help the game's appeal. It seems almost silly to mention the quality of aural effects, such as the squeak of the sneakers and the bouncing of the ball, because at this point the sound hardware in today's consoles is capable of conveying the real deal and I wouldn't expect anything less than that.
What is worth mentioning, however, is that the programmers did a competent job with the other sound effects, which are not automatic regardless of the power of the PS2. The crowd chants and cheers, for example, seem to be appropriately matched with the action on the court -- as opposed to being a canned, looped crowd noise that numbs the brain. Likewise, on the whole, the commentary is quite acceptable. Billy Packer joins Eddie Doucette in the broadcast booth, and together they offer sensible play-by-play and color commentary. I never felt like I had to turn them off, anyway.
While the audio offers nothing extraordinary, taken as a whole, it adequately articulates the proper atmosphere for a game of college hoops. Perhaps the level of excitement could be pumped up just a tad, but that would be nitpicking for sure.
While NCAA Final Four 2002 improves upon last year's version in almost every area, most of these improvements -- other than the additional (and much needed) modes of play -- are subtle rather than drastic. Thus, as a complete package, it still seems lacking. And that doesn't bode very well for 989 Sports, as most gamers (including myself) would probably rather wait for EA Sports' college hoops counterpart. Accordingly, my advice is to give it a rent and play it, if for no reasons other than the obvious: 1) it's the only PS2 college basketball game currently available (not including last year's disaster), and 2) for comparison purposes when March Madness finally arrives. Now does anyone have any idea what Sega Sports is up to?