June 27, 2008
Tennis is one of those sports that you either love or hate, as it doesn’t seem to appeal to the mere casual onlooker. That being said it could also be argued that it is one of the oldest videogame staples, if you count Pong as being an accurate tennis simulation which I guess is stretching things somewhat. Still the simplicity of the rules is evident: get the ball over the net so that your opponent can’t hit it back and with such simple mechanics you’d think creating an accurate representation would be devilishly simple. That’s not the case because, as with any sport, matters are a lot more complicated than they appear at first glance. With so many shots, reactions and skills on show, tennis players are extremely indomitable athletes and it’s often hard to replicate that without an overly simplified arcade style feel (see Virtua Tennis) that can leave purists cold. Thankfully, or not for us amateurs, 2K Sports has gone the other way and turned this latest Top Spin game into the most life-like portrait yet.
There’s not a glut of tennis games available for the 360, with only the previous Top Spin and Virtua Tennis 3 offering any serious competition at the moment. So with the tennis season in full swing and, probably not coincidentally, arguably the tour's biggest event in Wimbledon just around the corner the time has come for a new game to try and take a shot at glory. Though with Smash Court Tennis and a new Virtua game both right around the corner it really needs to make a good impression to lure first-time players in.
If there’s one thing that let down the last Top Spin it was the clunky graphics and building block style players. You can tell that this version has been given more than just a moderate facelift as the players look extremely life-like, though you do feel that they have been given that airbrushed finish as in some cases they seem to look better than they do normally. The players all move, sweat and grunt like the real thing, if you doubt my word just check out Roger Federer's lush head of hair to see what I mean. The courts are also superb re-creations though the obvious absence of Wimbledon (replaced by a dubious Dublin event) is disappointing. If there is one thing that lets the side down it’s the cardboard cut out crowds that display no emotion whatsoever. In an actual tennis match there will be constant ooh’s and aah’s as the players stretch for every ball but that simply isn’t the case here and it feels as though the crowd couldn’t care less who won or not. It just about kills the atmosphere and detracts from the overall excitement of the game. It’s a shame too as the music on offer is actually not too bad for once and makes a refreshing change from the rock style nonsense that seems to be pushed down our throats with every EA sports game.
The first stop for any budding tennis pro will be a quick trip to school and it’s here that you’ll run into the game's fundamental flaw: the controls. I can appreciate that the developer has set out to make an accurate simulation but the controls seem to have stepped over the border from tricky to downright frustrating. Pushing down a button starts your swing and letting it go at the right time makes you hit the ball, the longer you hold the button the more power and placement you’ll get from your shot, but hold it too long and your shot will be mistimed and the ball will end up flying out of bounds. You can also add further power and accuracy through the use of the trigger buttons, but this adds even more risk and requires precision timing. The fact it took me more than two hours just to get through the tutorials tells its own story and this game is never going to be one that you can just pick up and play. That it makes the game more realistic is beyond question but the controls just never seem to get to the point where they are totally intuitive. If you stopped playing the game for a couple of weeks and then came back to it, I just feel that you’d have to spend just as long picking it up again as you did the first time. For a sports game this is pretty unacceptable as surely the whole point is to simplify the game they are representing and make it accessible to all, as the whole reason people buy sports games is to be as good (or better) than their heroes and that’s a feeling you’ll struggle to get playing Top Spin.
The Player Creator offers a wide range of customisation tools so that it will only be a matter of minutes before your mirror image is able to step onto the court. As with the last game you can earn points to upgrade your character's statistics by winning matches, and also nab unlock points allowing you to buy your future champion some swanky new kit too. The Career mode offers a steady progression through the ranks but the variety is strangely lacking, even compared to its predecessor. The seasons consist of easy and hard events (referring to the level of competition you’ll face) and winning will earn you points to improve your ranking. Doing well in a tour will see you progress to the next stage of your career and that’s it. You basically play the same tournaments over and over again with the only difference being the location you’re playing in. The whole process soon becomes a bit dull and could have done with breaking up a bit. Top Spin 2 allowed you to play in special events, mixed doubles, have friendly banter with a rival, help your country in Davis Cup matches or improve through training. You see my point here, as all of this is missing and the career seems more like a random chain of exhibition matches rather than anything meaningful.
Improving your character in career mode does also serve another purpose, as you’ll be using that same person every time you head online. You can indulge in Player Matches with your friends or head onto the World Tour for some ranked fun. The set-up is actually pretty good, as you can play minor events for some one-off glory or try and battle your way through the Masters and Grand Slam events. The only problem here is that you can only play someone in the same stage of a competition, so if you reach the final of the U.S. Open you’ll have to wait for someone else to do likewise before you can get a game. My other gripe is that there are only fourteen tournaments on offer and completing them all doesn’t result in you starting a new season – instead each season lasts 15 days (real time) and if you do all of the events on day one you’re stuck there waiting to play them again for another couple of weeks. This time could have really done with being reduced. It’s also a shame that there are no options to have Ranked doubles either, as two players battling against the odds would have made things a lot more fun. On the plus side, there was very little lag present in all of the games I played but people do have a habit of quitting once they start getting beaten which takes the shine off your success.
There is nothing wholly original on the achievement list and the fact the developers have lazily used a giant number 3 for EVERY picture ticks me off greatly, if they can’t be bothered with original pictures then what hope do we have for original achievements? That being said the list is a nice mix of simple tasks and challenging ones, though as you can zip through most of the single-player mode on Very Easy you won’t have too many problems. I wouldn’t recommend that though as the achievements needing you to play on Hard difficulty require a lot of practice and skill to pull off. The online achievements actually show a nice bit of variety, and even the obligatory ‘Play X number of games’ has been made user friendly as you don’t have to win, which means people are hopefully less liable just to quit if they are faring badly. That being said the side is dramatically let down by the presence of an achievement that makes you play in 5 World Tours online. The tours last a mandatory 15 days each, regardless of how many matches you play, so you’ll be hanging onto the game for a while to get the full 1000, making it pretty unsuitable as a rental for completionists.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing this game despite the fact it seemed to be trying to put me off at every available opportunity. Once you get the hang of the frankly off-putting controls you’ll start having some fun, but I can never really see this game becoming a fan favourite simply because it takes so long to get into the swing of things. Even after over one hundred games played I still found myself forgetting to release the button to complete a swing or not getting the timing right for a few shots in a row. The Career and online modes are both a bit lightweight too, though they will provide a fair few highlights while at the same time seeming like the same old same old. The game could have done with taking itself just a little less seriously and in doing so would have made itself a hell of a lot more accessible.
Decent, if vaguely uninspiring, soundtrack and the usual tennis sound effects and grunts. Frankly though it would have been nice to see the players and crowds get a little more involved.
A vast improvement with some excellent life-like professionals and a pretty comprehensive player creator option too. While they’ve tried to make the grounds fairly unique they all suffer from the same problem of flat and insipid crowds.
Horrendously tough to master due to the control system which, while innovative, is far too fiddly and unresponsive when you are up against the higher levels of A.I. The season mode also has very little variety with no different events or mini-games to break it up.
A superb representation of tennis, but one that will sadly take almost as long to master as the real thing. Once you ‘get it’ though you’ll wonder why you ever struggled in the first place and winning a five minute rally becomes the source of immense pride.
A decent list that covers a nice array of on and offline tasks, you should be able to get the vast majority of achievements just by playing through the Career mode once though and asking you to do most of the same events again in Tournament mode is a bit much. The real killer is having to play in 5 online tours for a mere 20 points – as they take a minimum of 15 days each to end so you’ll be stuck with the game for at least 60 days. What a pain.
A great simulation that is actually a victim of its own success, as while we all realise that tennis is a tough sport to master in real life we’d expect it to be a lot more accessible on a console. This game will frustrate a lot of people before they’ve even made it through the tutorials and the season mode is fairly light too. Worth a play but only if you have the patience to practice, practice and practice some more.