It's entirely appropriate that Nick Collison is the cover athlete for 989 Sports' NCAA Final Four 2004. Currently missing the entire 2003-2004 NBA season after undergoing surgery on both of his shoulders, Collison accurately represents the state of Final Four 2004--broken and in need of some serious rehabilitation. The game is hopelessly primitive in almost every conceivable way.
The problems start with the graphics. Player models look decent, but their animations look stiff and somewhat robotic. The crowds have a laughable lack of detail, and the arenas are very generic. Additionally, the floor is strangely vacant. While the team benches are included, there are huge spaces on the floor that are empty in those places where you'd normally expect to see fans in the expensive sideline seats. Don't anticipate seeing any cameramen, fans, or cheerleaders along the empty-looking baselines either.
The biggest problem is that the game seems to lack any sort of transitional animations. Going from a running dribble to a shooting or passing motion often results in the player "popping" oddly from one motion to the other. You'll also see players sliding over the court as if they're ice-skating. This is particularly noticeable when you get your players set in a defensive stance.
The sound is nothing to write home about either. While the basic sounds of the game, like dribbling and dunking, are passable, the crowd doesn't seem to be a factor. The game's announcing is particularly terrible. Handled by Eddie Doucet and Billy Packer, the duo seems to have graduated from the three-word school of broadcasting. They hardly say anything aside from short, nondescript phrases, like "Takes the pass," "Snares the board," and "Not so fast."
As far as gameplay goes, Final Four 2004 seems to have an odd sense of pacing when it comes to how fast the players can move. The default run/walk speed seems normal, but if you use the turbo button, your players all seem to run faster than a track sprinter. Controlling a guard while on defense, we were able to literally run circles around the opposing point guard as he walked the ball into the frontcourt. Players going up for a dunk seem to go into slow motion as they crouch down and gather themselves for the leap. Then, all of a sudden, the game seems to speed up unnaturally as they jump up and down with blinding speed. It's as if the animators used a taut spring as their model for players who are leaping up for a dunk. It all adds up to a game that feels entirely herky-jerky and lacks a sense of grace or fluidity.
Perhaps the worst problem--in a game that seems to have no shortage of them--is that the controls are totally unresponsive. For some strange reason, the game will often fail to register button input from the controller. You frequently have to pound on the pass or shoot buttons to make anything happen, and when you do, the results are usually unpredictable. Inbounding the ball after a made basket is a great example. If you press the pass button without pressing any direction on the stick, the passer will often choose to toss a high-risk pass all the way downcourt, instead of just flipping the ball to the point guard who's standing right in front of him.
Players in Final Four 2004 jump up and down so quickly that it's difficult to time your perimeter shots. Why settle for a jumper when you can get a dunk on almost every possession, though? Much like 989's NBA Shootout, you can simply run your player back and forth to try and get your defender caught up in a pile of bodies; after you've accomplished this, you've freed yourself for an open dunk. And why not? Even short point guards seem to have the ability to throw down vicious windmill dunks and two-handed tomahawks in Final Four 2004. If you can't shake your man, simply wiggling the right analog stick will unleash some juke moves that will quickly cause your defender to stumble. Again, even the tallest and clumsiest of centers seem to have the ability to break down defenders off the dribble. Overall, there's not much need to worry about ball movement--as in real college basketball--and the computer doesn't seem to change up its defensive schemes to try and fool you.
Final Four 2004's dynasty mode is the very definition of bare-bones. There is no create-a-school function, and while the game includes a create-a-player feature for single season and tournament modes, no such feature is included for dynasty play. This is a rather big problem because none of this year's freshmen crop seems to be included in the team rosters. Once you pick a school, you can choose to name your coach. After that, however, you have few options. Accurate schedules for the 2003-2004 season are available, but you're not allowed to customize your schedule at all. After the initial season, your slate of nonconference games is chosen at random--and you're stuck with it. There are no slider settings to dictate your team tendencies as you simulate through the season. About the only interesting feature available is that you can set your team's practice schedule and dictate which facets of the game they will work on in practice.
The off-season recruiting is mindless. You can peruse lists of high school players from around the country, view their stats, and see how much interest they have in your school. All you have to do is visit them several times to pique their interests, however, and at the end of the recruiting period, you'll have several players you can choose to sign on as new freshmen. There's absolutely zero strategy involved. You just keep visiting the players you want, and, hopefully, their interest levels rise enough so that you can sign them.
Yes, the game includes an online mode that has an impressive feature set that's similar to 989's pro game, NBA Shootout 2004. You can chat with other players in the lobby, communicate on message boards, and participate in tournaments. But the question begging to be asked is: For a game this bad, does online functionality really matter?
Final Four 2004 is, without a doubt, the worst basketball game released this year, college or pro. It offers a subpar effort--across the board--in graphics, sound, gameplay, and extras (like the simplistic dynasty mode, for example). If you're looking for a basketball game to buy, steer clear of Final Four 2004.