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Sean Pettibone


With more than 300 teams and an improved player interface, 989 Sports' NCAA Final Four 2003 is a comprehensive college basketball simulator for the PS2. Featuring improved player models, tweaked controls, an improved General Manager mode and much better graphics, this is the best installment in the series to date, but is it enough to compete with the likes of EA and Sega? We play the game and find out.

NCAA Final Four 2003 represents a significant improvement over last year's game in a number of departments. Players will find all 300 college teams and players represented in this year's edition along with unique rosters and playbooks for each. This means that the game will include every major conference including the Big-10, PAC-10 and the Big East. You can play inter-league games exclusively or go for a national schedule for a broad cross-section of challenging opponents. The game is very deep in this regard and with such a comprehensive selection of teams, fans from UCONN to UCLA should be able to find someone to root for. In addition to real-world schools, this basketball game goes deeper and offers a more accurate of the behind the scenes action, which can sometimes be as important as what happens on the field.

The gameplay is fairly straightforward and should be easy to get into for both hardcore sports fans and casual gamers. As you'd expect from any modern sports title, Final Four 2003 offers many different styles and modes of play. Final Four 2003 supports both solo games and multiplayer action for 2 players. The modes are pretty standard though this year's edition is notable for including a brand new practice mode where you can learn and practice your various techniques and polish your skills. This mode is quite helpful in getting you accustomed to the controls, especially mastering the difficult foul shots, and timing of the special moves. An exhibition mode is also included, where you can pit any two teams against each other. The exhibition matches can also be set to arcade rules for faster play and wilder special moves, to allow for faster gameplay. You can also play a full-season or skip straight to the playoffs and championship Sweet Sixteen and Final Four rounds in the Tournament mode. Once you've selected which mode, you can also adjust the rules before the matches. You can match length from half to full time, set the player fatigue levels, which types of fouls (blocked balls, dribbling, charging, etc.) will be enforced, the level of injuries and how often the CPU opponent steals the ball. Once you're done with this, it's time to hit the court and tip-off.

Once the action begins and you should notice immediately that the controls have been improved. Passing is more intuitive this year thanks to the use of icons which allow you to control which player you're giving the ball to with little effort. The gameplay is unrelenting and fast but the controls are up to the task with the responsiveness is excellent at both ends of the court. Running, passing and dribbling are accomplished using a single button, allowing you to play a good offensive game and quickly switch to defense with little effort. In addition, there are many special commands that make the players perform fancy dunks, spin moves, dribble fakes. Advanced moves such as pulling the ball, shoulder fakes and alley oops are available as well. These keep your opponents off-balance and keep the momentum on your side. Using both analog sticks simultaneously allows. In addition, there are on-screen player stats displayed, which shows you who your best players are which is a good thing considering how many teams are included. Once you get on the sidelines, the game becomes more difficult, since the control scheme is changed dramatically, through the use of a shot gauge which seems difficult at first but becomes more intuitive as you become accustomed to it.

Final Four 2003 also includes two vastly improved coaching modes. There are two of these: Dynasty and Career. In Dynasty mode, you manage your team's roster, recruit players and trade them over a period of years. What's interesting about this mode is that recruiting players is a multiple stage thing where you have to find the best high school players by visiting different schools. You select the one you really want then train them at the college level until they're ready for the big time. This is an interesting sidelight to the main game and gives Final Four 2003 additional depth. Players can also play as an aspiring coach in Career mode. In this mode, you star off at a smaller school and work your way up to larger campuses. After each weekend, the teams are ranked in the national polls and the coaches are likewise given status reports after each season, and can get job offers at bigger schools if they perform well.

Visually, the game looks fantastic thanks to the improved player models and increased animation. In addition, there are new camera angles that you can select. The game looks sleek with excellent rendering and some new special effects that give the players a convincingly realistic look while making their animations all the more life-like. As noted earlier, the game now offers on-screen icons, which don't hinder your viewpoint and display a lot of useful information. The camera angles are excellent and allow you to see the majority of the action without losing a lot of detail. Further adding to the slick presentation is the commentary from Billy Packer and Eddie Doucette of CBS Sports, which adds to Final Four 2003's excellent television-style approach. This edition looks much better than last year's edition and is a slick-looking title with a good interface that helps to immerse you in the action.

989 Sports has a checkered history, but with some really good recent releases, things are looking up. This year's college basketball shows improvement in most of the important elements to create a satisfying simulation of the sport that rivals the polish of the developers' competitors. The controls are excellent, and the gameplay is fast and frenetic, especially in the fun pick-up-and-play arcade mode. It's not NBA Jam, but it's really fun. For an action-oriented title, it's surprising that NCAA Final Four 2003 offers a lot of depth with comprehensive moves lists that don't detract from the on-screen action. The variety of moves makes the game more interesting and players easy to command thanks to the intuitive controls. An excellent practice mode allows you to learn the nuances of the controls painlessly. Further helping is the on-screen icon passing system, which is also intuitive and easy to understand. A slick presentation helps things go down easily, and the character models look impressive, especially in the close-ups. Finally, the comprehensive back-office GM modes add a lot of depth a strategy to the game and make it all the more engrossing. Overall, this is a highly-polished title and is an excellent choice for fans of the college game.

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