March 18, 2011
To put it bluntly, Top Spin 3 was a tough cookie to crack and was completely unfriendly to newcomers. So much so that a lot of people barely made it through the tutorials before giving up, as the mix of button-timing and split-second risk shots that the game required proved to be asking a touch too much. It was a shame, as beneath that gruff exterior there was a deep and satisfying tennis game just waiting to be explored. This time around 2K have opted to make things a bit more user friendly to negate the steep learning curve in a bid to get the series back on track – perhaps there is some truth to the old adage “You cannot be serious.” Well, not all of the time anyway.
The most notable and obvious improvement in Top Spin 4 is also the most important one, as the controls have been refined and streamlined to make things a lot easier for all skill levels. Risk shots have been dumped completely and now you can opt to charge your shots for more power or just tap the buttons for greater control and precision; it’s a far more intuitive system and easy enough to pick up. Timing is still an important factor in your game on the court, but things are helped immensely by useful onscreen prompts, which you can then disable once you have got into the (literal) swing of things. Once you’re ready to step up a level, then you can abuse analogue serves, drop shots and inside-out cross-shots to great effect. Everything feels a lot more responsive and much more engaging than last time out.
With the game now more of a joy to pick up and play, the next major hurdle is the career mode. Tennis is obviously not as easy to judge as most other sports and the ranking system is convoluted to say the least. However, Top Spin 4 manages to keep things entertaining while still having a very handy staged progression system. To start with you can craft your own player, male or female, with an impressive array of customisation options. You then start off as the lowest of the low and by meeting certain criteria, such as winning a set number of events and getting a bunch of fans, you become a bit better known, as well as rising up the rankings. Each month you can play one preparation match or event, and then head off to a tournament. It may be fairly simple, but you always feel like you’re making progress as new events open up as you climb the ranks, leading up to Grand Slams and International competitions.
The main gripe with the career really ties in with the difficulty of the game itself, as if you play on any level below ‘Hard’ or ‘Very Hard,’ then you’ll be in for an easy ride. You can win most points under that level in just a few shots, even against the best players, and things don’t seem to get much harder even when you are tussling with Nadal in a Grand Slam. Some characters seem far too scripted as well, with one opponent double faulting on his first serve of the match EVERY time I faced him. It makes things a little too serene, but at least this can be remedied by simply upping the difficulty.
Every game that you use your created player in will see you rewarded with XP which you can spend to upgrade their skills. There are three main disciplines on offer; Serve and Volley, Baseline Offence and Baseline Defence and each focuses on certain attributes to enhance. The maximum level is 20 and it really makes sense to stick with one skill all the way, as splitting your points will result in a fairly unbalanced character. While this system makes it easy for players to choose a strategy and stick with it, it would have been nice to be able to allocate individual points as you saw fit to create a player to suit your own style rather than be forced into one of three categories – you know, like Top Spin 3.
The beauty of the system though is that you can then take your created player online and compete for ranking points against your ruthless peers. Obviously, it makes sense to get a fully developed player before dipping your toe in the online arena, but you can always stick to ‘Player’ matches if you’re just after some friendly fun. Otherwise you can compete in tournaments or quick matches for points, and the handy online system has a useful icon that shows if there are available players in any of the tournaments you are competing in – which is a milestone for common sense in a sports game.
You can also take on your friends locally via exhibition matches, or the nice ‘King of the Court’ format, which is basically a winner stays on setup and perfect for humiliating your friends and family. You can also dip into the ‘Academy’ to brush up on certain skills or just go one-on-one with the ball machine to get your timing down. The emphasis here is on accessibility and the game succeeds on all fronts in making a game that is not only good to look at, but also easy to pick up and play.
Achievement hunters are in for less of a grind this time around as well, especially in the online arena. You still need to put some time into the career mode, but progressing through the ranks is fun and rewarding so it never feels like a chore. Online you will need to bring your ‘A’ game in order to get everything done, but at least players are plentiful and matches are lag free. The 1k should be within reach of anyone prepared to put in the time, although the one thing that grinds my gears is the arbitrary luck based achievement of getting a point on a net cord hit – something that could happen in your first game or might never happen at all.
Top Spin 4 essentially improves on the last entry in the series by a substantial margin and really opens the door for newcomers to experience a more simulation orientated tennis game than its nearest rival, Virtua Tennis. More has been made of the multiplayer mode and local play too, so it opens it up for a lot more than just a single-player experience. The only gripe could be that the game may have gone a bit too far the other way this time, and can seem a tad too easy at times, but once you bump up the difficulty then the challenge is just right and points are won or lost based on your own skill rather than computer scripting. Top Spin 4 though is a top tennis game and an impressive sports title, and one that deserves some... love? Sorry, couldn’t resist.
The general tennis SFX is all well and good, but the soundtrack is fairly non-existent after that. It’s like minimalism has been taken to the extreme.
The players and courts look fantastic, and it’s nice to see recreations of actual pros that aren’t some kind of cross between Frankenstein and a scarecrow. The cardboard cut out crowds are pretty shocking though.
Much improved controls and a more engaging career system mean that this game is much more accessible this time around, although the downside of that is that things might be a tad too easy for veterans.
An impressive tennis experience that covers all of the bases in terms of online and offline play. Things may get a touch repetitive after a while, but that is simply the affliction of all sports games.
A good mix of tasks spread across all of the main modes, although the online arena might be too demanding for newcomers. However, that being said, it’s nice to have a list that offers something for everyone.
Top Spin 4 is a great sports game and one that depicts tennis as if you were playing the real thing. Every aspect of the franchise has been tweaked almost to perfection, and only the relative speed of progression and ease of the career hold it back from perfection. Tennis fans should certainly pick this up, and it will certainly hold its own against most other sports games out there too.