Another year on the bench.
For every perennial NCAA basketball powerhouse like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky or Arizona, there is a legion of backwater ball teams that will sooner beat the Harlem Globetrotters than make it into the tourney. Everyone can't be a winner, right? But year after year, those small, nameless schools renew their hopes for an elusive bid, despite history, talent and the entire sports world telling them otherwise.
Likewise, 989's NCAA Final Four series routinely gets blasted by critics and fails to post a winning record. Yet they keep on trying to make the cut, evidenced by NCAA Final Four 2004 hitting shelves just in time for the college hoops season. Unfortunately, it should promptly dismiss any delusions of making the tournament. Instead, this pretender will be spending the year wondering exactly what it needs to do to get off the bubble.
A good place to start would be overhauling the gameplay, which is plagued with every manner of awful mechanic you could imagine. Shooting, passing and jumping are all miserable thanks to the terribly unresponsive control. You'll blow by a defender for an open jump shot, press the shoot button, and stare blankly as your man does nothing. You literally have to hammer on the buttons to get a reaction, but even when you do it's rarely what you were hoping for. Players will gather themselves up and slowly pull the ball back for an overhead pass even when the recipient is standing right next to them. Jump-shooting is spotty at best; it is almost impossible to judge when a guy is at the apex of his jump because he goes up and down so quickly. Half the time players will dunk when under the basket; other times they'll try some ridiculous fall-away hook shot instead of a simple layup.
Speaking of dunking, I was unaware that everyone in college basketball has Vince Carter hops. Every guy on the court can dunk like a superstar. The under-six-foot white point guard for Cal throws down mighty two-handed jams in traffic. Huh?
And onward: The AI is just plain bad. Cranking up the difficulty results in more steals, but so long as you don't pass and just run around for a bit, you'll easily get your defender caught on someone, penetrate the lane and dunk. Defense amounts to getting in between your man and the basket so he doesn't dunk. You can switch from man to zone defenses at will, but watch out " if you select Intentional Foul, it isn't a one-time foul. Rather, it turns intentional fouling "on', meaning your guys will continue to foul until you turn it off. Yeah, that comes in handy.
Even the free-throw shooting is lame, simply requiring you to hold down one button responsible for both power and accuracy. There are so many problems here it makes playing the game a chore and a bore.
Most of this is due to The Little Game Engine That Couldn't. Players move with blazing speed at the default setting, at times faster than the movement of the ball itself. Blind passes are common since players outrun the camera, rendering fast breaks almost useless unless you slow it down, which defeats the whole point of a "fast' break. Compared to what we've seen in the EA and ESPN basketball games, NCAA Final Four's engine is dated and cheap.
That also means the graphics aren't so hot. The framerate is solid, but there's no pizzazz whatsoever here. The players look okay but animate stiffly and awkwardly; transitional animations are far and few between, leading to all sorts of goofy, jerky sequences where players "blink' from one motion into another. The dunk animations are very nice, though, and there's a lot of dunking, so there are a few times when things look fine.
But never sound it. While the effects are decent, the play-by-play and commentary by Eddie Doucet and Billy Packard is absolutely retarded thanks to the painful cries of middle-aged white men trying to sound urban. Responding to a ubiquitous jump shot, Billy responds, "He did not just do that. Did he?" You did not just say that, did you? And don't get me started on their insistence on calling a lay-up a "sky hook." Wrong. The production values are the pits, even failing to include the ability to use the USB headset like 989's own Shootout or Gameday.
While NCAA Final Four 2004 completely blows the gameplay and graphics, it at least gets the NCAA part right as there are over 300 Div. I teams to choose from. Mascots are here too, but are only featured in a fixed pre-game sequence, complete with the scariest cheerleaders since these chicks. They move fine but have expressionless faces, resulting in freaky clown mannequins given the gift of life.
Even the most optimistic of gamers will find little to cheer about here, but believe it or not, NCAA Final Four 2004 does have a couple good ideas, the smartest of which is its mode variety. You can play an Exhibition game, set up your own Tournament or get used to the crummy controls in the Practice mode, but the star of the game is its unique two-pronged approach to Career mode.
Dynasty mode is the typical franchise setup, allowing you to coach and guide a team through multiple seasons. You select what level of coach you want to be " Graduate Assistant, Assistant or Head Coach " which determines how hands-on you get with recruitment. You can also set your team's practice schedule to steadily improve their overall stats over the course of the year. A new Bubble Watch feature gives you a better idea of your chances of making the tournament come season end.
An alternate take on Dynasty is the actual Career mode, which plays mostly the same except you start off having to coach one really bad team in hopes of getting hired to coach a better school. Eventually you might even get the call for a serious contender like Syracuse or North Carolina. These are all good concepts and work well in a college hoops game. Too bad it's this one.
If you're not the single-player type, NCAA Final Four 2004 continues 989 and Sony's excellent online play features. It's really one of the best out there, trumping EA handily thanks to its good layout and great stat tracking, but it's wasted on a product that's simply not any fun to play.
Whoever is coming up with ideas like the two Career modes and the ability to set practice schedules should get promoted. Then, they should go work for a series with more potential. Either that, or Sony should hire people who are serious about gameplay, because NCAA Final Four 2004 clearly is not. As it stands, this bubble has burst.