On academic probation.
There's always been a discrepancy between the quality of pro and college basketball games. Frankly, the college game doesn't get the same treatment. Name a college b-ball game that's on par with the NBA 2K games, NBA Street or even the NBA Live series and I'll graduate you myself.
In the case of NCAA Final Four 2002, the discrepancy has widened to a crater. I don't know who thought this was a good starting point for next-gen college ball, but he should be booed out of the arena and forced to wear a chicken mascot suit for the rest of his life. The game is strictly community college.
But from the outset, you'd think the game rocks. The fancy shmancy intro sequence features real footage interspliced with cool little animated ballers going nuts on the court. I was hoping that somehow this represented a game mode or something. Turns out all it represents is where the developers threw all their time and money.
I'll get the nice bits out of the way quickly. You can play as over 300 Division 1 teams in Season or Franchise modes. You can take on the role of the GM to whatever extent you see fit, from basic roster changes to recruitment. With a boatload of stats and nifty little touches like different polls, awards and a 'Bubble Watch' (when you get close to Tourney time), the game is at least thorough.
The gameplay, however, is thoroughly bad. This begins with the graphics, which look marginally souped up from the subpar PSX Final Four games. Player models are elongated and ugly, but this is nothing compared to the rigid movements and laugh-out-loud bad animations. Passes are flung with little regard to collision detection. The crowd looks like one giant, ugly bitmap with cheap, repetitive animations dotting the scene. Though the framerate is steady, this game is about as next-generation as my old Chuck Taylors.
Things get worse when you actually hit the court and try to control these guys. Players seem glued to the ground and don't cut sharply at all. Penetrating the lane for a dribble drive is awkward at best. Dunking, which is often where developers spend most of their time working on motion captured moves, is jerky and unsatisfying.
However, NCAA Final Four 2002 features the same 'Touch Shooting' meter that past iterations have enjoyed. When you take a shot, a little meter pops up. You need to let go of the shot button when the cheesy cartoon basketball is in the cheesy green circle. Swish! It's a nice try, but it gets out of hand once you get used to it. After no time you'll be hoisting up threes like they're going out of style. Just watch as your power forward leads the conference in 3-point percentage.
The artificial intelligence is brilliant...for a goldfish. For an AI program, however, it's pathetic. Offensive players just sort of mull about barely running plays. The difficulty levels just mean more/less steals and harder/easier to blow by your defender; at the higher levels, it's near impossible to get by a guy guarding you, despite your so-called 'juke' moves that occasionally just don't even work at all. Players will eventually get hot if they make a few shots in a row, in which case the CPU will keep forcing the ball to the same guy, but aside from that there's very little evidence of any sort of programming niftiness beyond the mechanics of Dr. J vs. Larry Bird.
In fairness, the game offers some options sliders to allow you to better customize the game to your liking. If you want fewer steals, just slide down the 'steals' option. A nice touch, but this kind of tweaking shouldn't be required to have a decent experience. Sadly, it is.
At least the game tries to get the college thing down by featuring cheerleaders who shake their ta-tas during a timeout. Great thought, awful execution. When they say "throw you hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care," I think they mean you're supposed to wave them in time with the beat. Instead, these poor floozies just sort of go through subpar motion-captured moves while randomly throwing one arm towards the sky as if grabbing for a cup that's just out of reach.
If you're looking to stir up some early March Madness in your PS2, wait until EA's offering shows up. It might not be a winner, but at least it might make it to the tourney. NCAA Final Four 2002, on the other hand, was sitting on the bubble when it burst.