Much like in the rest of 989 Sports' lineup, the main attraction in NCAA Final Four 2003 is the diversity of the gameplay modes that it offers. Instead of featuring just the basic season, tournament, and dynasty options found in other games, NCAA Final Four essentially has two different dynasty modes, an in-depth season mode that lets you have tremendous influence on the team you're coaching, a custom tournament option, and arcade and practice options. Unfortunately, also like the rest of 989's lineup, NCAA Final Four just doesn't even come close to what the competition offers in terms of gameplay--both in the fundamental mechanics of the game and in its technical aspects.
Most of the problems with NCAA Final Four 2003's gameplay are directly tied to the offensive game. The passing game in Final Four is particularly bad, not only because the passing is slow and unresponsive, but also because it's plagued by a weird quirk where the player you're passing the ball to will automatically pass it back if you happen to press the pass button a second time after passing the ball. If this was supposed to be a beneficial option, it isn't. In fact, you'll likely find yourself frustrated when it happens while you're attempting to set up a play, but it's even worse when a player is throwing a ball inbounds, only to have the ball thrown back to the player out of bounds because you accidentally pressed the pass button a second time. This quirk notwithstanding, the passing is quite slow and imprecise, to the extent that the ball seems to just hang in the air for a few moments before getting to its target.
Shooting the ball also has its own set of irritating characteristics. NCAA Final Four has 989 Sports' touch-shooting feature turned on by default, so whenever you shoot the ball, a small graphic will appear next to the player indicating the best time to release the ball. In one sense, it's a useful feature, because the jumping animations aren't very smooth, making it difficult to tell when a player has reached the top of his jump. Though, at the same time, the touch shooting can be distracting, since you have to look at the graphic instead of any possible defenders in the area. Thankfully, you can turn this feature off, but you'll start to notice that players will rarely miss inside shots, no matter how ridiculous those shots might be. Lastly, there's a general inconsistency between inside shots and dunking--when a player is completely open underneath the basket, he might just pull up for a standard jumper or attempt to pull off an odd-looking reverse layup. Even when running the fast break, players will often just stop and shoot a jumper instead of dunking the ball.
As if these problems weren't enough, NCAA Final Four has another strange issue on the offensive side of the ball. Like its NBA counterpart, Final Four features a control scheme that maps juke moves to the right analog stick. Surprisingly, this feature to seems to work a little better in Final Four than in Shootout, but you'll notice that whenever you use one of these dribble moves on a defensive player, the offensive player will literally move right through the defender. For example, if a point guard has the ball at the top of the key and breaks out a stutter-step move to get past the defender, then half the point guard's body will travel through the defender's body as the point guard moves forward.
Those willing to overlook such problems--and there probably aren't many of you--will find that the modes in Final Four are actually quite interesting. The season mode takes you through a season of NCAA basketball, giving you the opportunity to take a run at the NCAA tournament. What makes the season mode so interesting is the fact that you can set up a practice schedule to help improve different aspects of your team, ranging from shooting and rebounding drills to running and weightlifting. In addition, it is possible to control not only how much emphasis you place on individual drills, but also how many practice hours there are per week.
The dynasty mode offers similarly interesting features. At the start of the dynasty mode, you can select a coaching position, whether it's graduate assistant, assistant coach, or head coach. Obviously, as a graduate assistant, you can't make many key decisions or get involved in the off-season recruiting process, but it'll be much more rewarding to work your way up into the head coaching position. If you start out as a head coach, then you will get participate in the recruiting process, which involves paying visits to prospective new players around the country in an attempt to increase their interest in your program. The career mode functions similarly to the dynasty mode, only you're forced into the graduate assistant position and will have the opportunity to move up depending on how your school performs. The better your record at the end of the season, the more opportunities to move up you're likely to receive.
From a visual standpoint, NCAA Final Four 2003 is a little below average. The player models are reasonably detailed, but a few of the player faces are a little too blocky. The graphics for the crowd in the arenas are the same crowd graphics that the developers have been using for a few years now, and as a result, the crowds can look a little too fake at times. But there are some nice animations, particularly when the opposing team is trying to make a free throw. The arenas in the game also aren't entirely accurate, and it seems like there are just a few generic templates that are used.
Unfortunately, NCAA Final Four fails to capture what makes college basketball so exciting. The only time any sort of band music starts playing is when the game is paused, and the crowd really isn't all that dynamic, save for the generic cheers and boos and the the crowd noise aimed at distracting players at the free-throw line. The commentary in the game is far too robotic, and there's not enough interaction between the play-by-play man and the color commentator to make it interesting.
NCAA Final Four 2003 offers a great take on the typical basketball game modes. Essentially, the game has two different types of dynasty modes, an in-depth season mode that allows you to train your team as the season progresses, and the basic tournament, arcade, and practice options. However, the gameplay has far too many flaws to make any of these modes intriguing enough to warrant a purchase. There are a couple of other college basketball options that are certainly worth considering over NCAA Final Four 2003.