Doesn't even make the Tourney.
College basketball is arguably the most exciting form of the sport. Unlike the often slow-moving and deliberate pro game, college ball is filled with playground zest and youthful energy. The players know that playing well could mean the difference between buying a new house for mom and renting a room in mom's house.
So when Tournament season rears its head, we all like to sit up and take notice. One of these guys might be the next Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. One of these teams might make history.
This year's college b-ball video games, however, are hardly the stuff of history. In fact, both NCAA Final Four '99 and EA Sports' March Madness '99 lack the polish, sophistication, and overall gaming goodness that you'd expect from the two leaders in the sports race. Frankly, both games stink.
NCAA Final Four '99 serves up plenty of college stuff. With over 250 Division I teams to play as or against, it beats out March Madness '99. You can play an Exhibition game or run through a full Season and try to qualify for the Tournament. Pretty standard fare.
Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. The polygonal players move realistically thanks to motion-capture, but aren't nearly as sharp or defined as those in March Madness. Up-close replays show poor seams and rough edges, though this isn't that big of a deal (you don't play the game from the 'in your face cam'). On the plus side, the frame rate and game flow is excellent; things never really slow down and the action is pretty up-tempo. Compared to the incredibly irritating choppiness of March Madness, NCAA Final Four's smoothness is a breath of fresh air.
The sound gets monotonous. It mainly consists of generic college fight songs mixed with crowd cheers, though none of it is very dynamic or appropriate. Broadcaster Quinn Buckner calls the shots, but his play-by-play is limited to a couple of catch phrases, none of which are particularly insightful. For instance, in one game I was up by 40 with 2 minutes left. The computer was just crossing half-court when Quinn exuberantly cried, "This is a crucial possession for the home team!" Sure, Quinn. Maybe they'll sink a 41 pointer.
While the presentation isn't as complete as March Madness '99, things picks up a bit in gameplay. The control is simple and effective; players respond quickly and the smooth framerate helps the game's playability. In general, however, there just isn't any need to call plays or set up an offense.
One new element is the 'Shot Meter,' an optional gauge to use when shooting. Rather than just trying to time jump shots like most other games (a seemingly random principle), you can refer to a little meter that pops up when you shoot. If you release your shot within a certain area, you'll make it. The size of this area changes from shooter to shooter and the distance from the basket. This would be a cool addition, but ends up leading to outrageously high shooting percentages. If you're an avid gamer with strong hand-eye skills, you can drain just about every shot. 81% from the field is a wee bit too generous...
To help recreate the college atmospere, NCAA Final Four '99 includes a '6th Man Meter.' The home team is able to pump up the crowd 6 times per half, presumably to give them team a temporary advantage. However, all you really get is an increase in crowd noise. There just isn't any way to tell if you're actually playing better (i.e. making more shots, creating more turnoves, etc.). This could have been done much better.
The AI is pretty weak. As you increase the game difficulty, the defense just gets a little tighter. The CPU runs the same old plays regardless of which team it's controlling. That's the extent of it. Yawn.
Oddly, the game was shipped with a few irritating and quirky bugs. For some reason, certain players are absolutely unstoppable. For example, I'm currently playing through a season as Cal. The Cal shooting guard is apparently a legendary stealer, recording well over 20 per game in Final Four. This incredible defensive prowess leads to serious offensive opportunities, which explains his 52 ppg average. Amazingly, he hasn't been selected First Team All-American in the real world, or even in the game. This demonstrates some lackluster play testing, to say the least.
Other bugs include an occasional 'Minutes Played' error. While I swear that my second string power forward rarely plays more than a few possessions a game, he's somehow leading the whole Division in total minutes played - well over 3000. Mind you, a college basketball game lasts 40 minutes. He'd need to play in 75 entire games to amass that total, yet I'm only 8 games into the season. Hello?
And the bugs continue. In one game, my starting point guard got into early foul trouble, so I pulled him. His replacement got called for a foul a few minutes later, but somehow the original guard was issued the foul. I thought this was just a weird one-time glitch, until the same thing happened again. Eventually my starting point guard fouled out while sitting on the bench - truly an amazing feat. [Makes you wonder what he does on that bench ~Ed] Needless to say, I'm not impressed with the quality assurance.
In the end, inexcusable bugs and uninspired play keep NCAA Final Four '99 from even making the Tournament. Since many of you are wondering whether to get this game or March Madness '99, I suppose I should make a recommendation. So I recommend that you buy NBA Live '99. The college boys ain't worth the money this year.