Title  : NCAA Final Four 2000
Platforms  : Sony PlayStation
Publisher  : 989 Studios
ESRB Rating  : Everyone
Game Rating  : 8.8
Review by  : Jason LeBlanc

With the popularity of sports, video games now enjoy updates as regular as Microsoft software. This year's entry in the collegiate basketball sports category is NCAA Final Four, a PlayStation game from 989 Studios. 

The sweet part of the game is in the gameplay. There are four different levels: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. Each level increases the AI of the other team. Mastering freshman level is easy, but trying senior prematurely can get you smacked around. There are some great moves, like icon passing, which allows you to assign an icon (circle, square, X and triangle) to the other four men on the court and then pick which to pass to. This feature eliminates having to press the directional pad in the direction for the player you want to take possession of the ball, and allows long, down-court passing. Another neat move is to pump-fake a shot, watch your opponent jump to block, and then dribble around him for the easy two points. 

The players themselves have neat moves, and a variety of different dunks, which appear at random. There are some fancy dribbles, and certain button sequences allow for special moves like fakes and offensive picks which really add to the game's realism. You can also select how the players shoot. One method involves releasing the shot at the peak of the players jump to increase the shotmaking percentage, while the other utilizes a histogram bar to aim for a "target zone" within which to release the shoot button. 

As the game progresses, the computer tends to learn what moves you are most likely to try, so producing buckets by using the same moves over and over usually only works a couple times, and then the computer "reads" you strategy. 

NCAA is full of options. Game modes include tournament, season, or exhibition, depending on how long you want to play. The speed of the play can be set on a 100-point scale. The default pace of 50 is a bit slow; the game moves much smoother at 100, though the lower speeds are helpful for learning special moves. The game also provides full statistical tracking, and a file for records which can be saved to the memory card. In fact, when running through a season, the game tracks standings, as well as teams on the bubble to make it to the playoffs. They even have two polls: one according to the writers, and another according to the coaches. Optional features include injuries, player fatigue, and fouls. 

NCAA takes a while to get used to, especially with the configuration of the shooting/passing/blocking buttons. It's easy to hit X instead of O when launching a three-point shot from 3/4 court, leading to a heckling by the commentator. However, the number of variant teams available is impressive, with each having grades in categories such as shooting and passing. While the difference between a 75- and 80-point skill mark isn't noticeable, it is more difficult to take a 50-point team overall and dominate than with a 93-point team. 

But the game does have some annoying parts. The constant auto-replays detract from the pace of the game, so turn off that feature as quickly as you can. Another problem is changing players on defense. Pressing circle calls for the man closest to the ball, but you don't always want that person; sometimes you want the man in front of the driving player, not the man that happens to be behind him, who can't do anything to stop him. But because the player behind the driving opponent is closer, that's who you get. Either that, or wait for the opponent to get closer to the man you want, but by the time you get him, the opponent is already moving around this newly selected player. 

The graphics are better than the average PlayStation sports game. Player detail is unexpectedly high, though isn't stunning: for example, facial features aren't highly distinguishable. Background graphics are of the basic, plain, blocky variety. But at high points in the game, fans cheer and clap with clear movements, even some eating and drinking. A very nice touch. 

The background music is a cool funk beat, but not overbearing. The commentator, an actual ESPN analyst, is a neat addition to the game, coming up with clever and sometimes amusing clips, like "tickling the twine" on a swished shot, or exclaiming that the other team "needs a basket" when trailing badly. Another cool effect is there is an option for the 6th defensive man. Under certain circumstances, the home team can get the audience to cheer and rally behind them to "razz" the other team. 

NCAA Final Four is a fun and challenging game, but it's not for everyone. Sports enthusiasts will naturally enjoy this title more than other gamers, but even they will find it has its little quirks.


This article is copyright (c) 1999, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Gamebits, 01-Nov-99