Top Spin 4 Hands-On Preview - Back to Basics
Written Thursday, January 20, 2011 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Some people call tennis “the sport of gentlemen... and Andy Murray,” whereas I call it, a sport that puts some serious strain on your neck muscles. That constant to-ing and fro-ing can certainly take its toll, especially if you cast your mind back to Wimbledon 2010, when John Isner fought it out for over 11 hours with Nicolas Mahut to become victorious in the longest tennis game of all time. In the video game tennis world though, things aren’t as intensive on the neck, and generally, the sport is split into two crowds: the arcadey Virtua Tennis crowd; and the more simulation-esque Top Spin crowd.
Top Spin 3 for instance, really excelled from a simulation standpoint, but was mostly criticised for the fact that it took away much of the fun from the franchise and made the controls too difficult to grasp for newcomers. 2K Czech’s aim for this year’s impending sequel was not, however, to dumb down the controls and make it more pick-up-and-play, but rather to offer users the tools to make it easier to grasp.
When talking about Top Spin 4, 2K Czech President , Stephane Dupas stated, “It should keep the same level of depth, but we need to spend more time expanding it.” Far from ideal for some that were looking for a return to the pick-up-and-play roots from circa Top Spin 2, but their all-new “in-game helper” tools will certainly go some way to breaking down the barriers that Top Spin 3 created.
The new in-game helpers range from permanently showing stamina bars and revealing your timing above your character’s head, to a shot helper and seeing where the ball will bounce. The latter is especially helpful for the most part, as 2K Czech’s promise of seeing different ball trajectories and different places where the ball lands throughout the rally seems to ring true. The main aim is to offer real-time feedback to assist players and it does work especially well. If you could get to grips with the original’s control mechanics, then you can simply leave all of these turned off. For those individuals then, the action on the court doesn’t really feel much different, but for everyone else, the assists will go a long way to helping put the fun back into the franchise.
There also seems like there’s been a concerted effort to make the experience look and feel more realistic too, with everything from the crowd looking far less like a bunch of carbon-copied stiffs and much more alive, to the improved animations and inclusion of signature shots. Simple things like turning direction and throwing your balance from one-side to another can have big implications on the gameplay, meaning it’s harder to recover if you set off the wrong way, but not only that, they look incredibly realistic from an animation standpoint.
“In Top Spin 4, you should care about the strengths and weaknesses of your player,” said Dupas, showing us that Andy Roddick’s sheer power means you should be aggressive and look to end the match early, especially against someone like Michael Chang, who has the stamina of a dog on heat. Watching the match unfold on the big-screen between the duo allowed us to see the huge variety in shots, as Chang looked to spin and slice his opponent around the court. Being a powerhouse, Roddick was up to the net quick, looking to punish even the slightest bit of indecision, but Chang was able to drop more than a few lobs over his head to keep him constantly on his toes. The variety was undoubtedly impressive, but watching Dupas himself miss a few easy shots was either a testament to how the game hasn’t really changed or how he just buckled under the pressure of performing in front of the press.
If you thought there were a lot of lessons in the third iteration of the franchise, Top Spin 4 seems to be taking that to a whole new level. The Top Spin Academy is designed to teach you not only the nuances of Top Spin, but of tennis as well. With Baseline Offence, Baseline Defence and Serve & Volley lessons – both beginner and advanced – you too can learn the valuable lessons of positioning, how to tire your opponent out, timing, how to play to your strengths and how to end a rally quickly. Questions that in Top Spin 3 you were left to figure out yourself. Things like stamina, shot types and such all play in to a much more tactical game of tennis, although, that’s nothing really new from a Top Spin perspective, but everything seems slightly more refined than what we were previously used to.
Top Spin 4, like every other Top Spin know to man, will still offer the chance to create your own pro and take to the courts with him or her. Instead of the RPG-esque one-by-one attribute growth system from previous games, players will now only have to choose one of three areas – serve & volley; offensive baseline; and defensive baseline – for their players to improve. This is where the whole strengths and weaknesses aspect comes from, as Dupas by his own admission says, “It’s impossible to build a perfect character.”
Coaches play a large part in the sequel as well and their strengths can dictate your strengths. Under each coach’s page you’ll find goals and specific objectives to perform, which in turn will offer you rewards that can either improve your attributes or offer you perk-style skills – for instance, “Serve Stick Beserker” will give you increased precision with your powerful advanced serve. If you want to change your play style, then it’s as easy as changing coaches, although changing them will essentially have a positive and negative effect on your character.
Unfortunately, 2K Czech were unwilling to go into much more detail outside of that in terms of new features – I was simply shot down for answers when I asked about the improvements made to the career mode. I can inform you though, that disappointingly, Top Spin 4 won’t offer you that 2 vs. 2 doubles play this year – offering 4 players on 4 separate consoles to play doubles together. It’s 2-on-a-couch versus 2-on-a-couch again. The reason? They weren’t satisfied with the performance of it online which was severely affected by lag. However, in a day where you can play 11-on-11 FIFA online, is that really an acceptable excuse?
Despite 2K Czech’s best efforts to make the game more accessible and approachable, that steep learning curve still seems to exist, even with all the in-game helpers on. It may not be as daunting this time around and the indicators may go some way to breaking down that initial barrier, but Top Spin 4 seems to cater to those that will dedicate themselves to it, rather than those that will just play it on a whim. The “all-new” control scheme that the announcement press release spoke of seems to be nowhere in sight and refinement seems to be the name of the game. Top Spin 4 is shaping up to be a case of more of the same, and for simulation tennis fans looking for a long-term challenge, that’s most certainly a good thing.
Top Spin 4 is scheduled for a March 15th and March 18th release in North America and Europe respectively.