Virtua Tennis 2009 Review

Lee Abrahams

A glass of champagne. Strawberries and cream. A doner kebab and chips. Well, maybe not the last one, but the rest are all the top choices of tennis fans when Wimbledon comes around. Suffice to say, when the tennis season is in full swing there will be a veritable deluge of games to cash in on the spectacle. Here is the first of what might well be many, and it is the unofficial leader of the pack to boot. Virtua Tennis has gripped players with its easy to pick up and play mechanics ever since it was launched in the arcades a decade ago. I remember some mighty duels with a friend of mine back on the Dreamcast (we stopped playing when I beat him 6-0 6-0 one day) which is what sports games are all about really. Here then is a chance for the Virtua series to clamber back to the top. Will it succeed or does it have the nerve of Tim Henman in the last eight?

This is no time to be cutting the latest dance moves.

While the series was originally developed by SEGA this time around the reins have been passed onto Sumo Digital who, besides having a really cool name, also worked on Virtua Tennis 3 and Sega Superstars Tennis – so they know a thing or two about smacking balls around (still your filthy minds). Not to mention the fact they obviously have a nice working relationship with SEGA which can only bode well as having the same developer working on a series can lead to refinement and a feeling of progression, but on the flip side it can also lead to things becoming a tad stale which is sadly the main concern here.

Anyone that has played any of the previous titles will be instantly at home here as the controls and movements do not seem to have changed at all. You still have the choice of slice, topspin and lob shots as well as the ubiquitous everyman A-button shot that most players fall back on. It will take any newcomer literally seconds to master the nuances of the system, with only underarm serves and drop shots really requiring any kind of additional thought. Whilst it is nice to be able to slip back into a game with a familiar ease, it is also kind of remarkable that the game has shown so little progression, gameplay wise, since the original arcade version. Sure, the game still plays a great game of tennis but it would have been nice to see a little more variation. It is hardly a looker either with too many of the players looking a bit 'off' and all of the player created characters seem to be related - they end up looking that similar. The choice of some dubious purple or bright green courts seems an odd one too and can make it hard to pick up the ball.

The real problem lies in all of the tennis professionals that made it into the game or, more accurately, with their virtual representations, as they all seem to play in exactly the same way and have pretty much identikit attributes. While the description may say Nadal is a Fast Runner and Andy Murray is an All Rounder, you will struggle to see any difference if you played with either of them. It makes choosing a player kind of redundant as they all seem exceptional and, while this means games will come down to who has the most skill rather than the best player, it kind of defeats the purpose. At least we have a lovely World Tour mode with which to mould a plucky amateur to greatness, right? If only it were that easy.

He hit the ball so hard the colour is coming off.

The World Tour mode is really the biggest let down, as it promises so much but delivers so little. Rather than giving you an underpowered rookie to start off with, you get a player that is just as good as the pro’s in the game. It hardly seems to make sense to be honest. Along the way you can undertake training sessions, aided by the UK’s very own ‘Tiger’ Tim Henman, in order to raise your attributes enough to get certain skills: "strong forehand", "serve and volley", or "various shots" for example. But they seem to be more of an added bonus than a necessity and your player feels far too good from the get go. The other issue is the tour itself. You have a calendar of events which shows the tournaments you can enter (in singles, doubles or both) along with any off weeks where you can train with other players you meet, go to the Tennis Academy or take part in any of the fun mini-games – all of which help your statistics towards the aforementioned skills. The problem here is that it soon gets very repetitive and you never feel like you are making much progress. Your ranking goes up extremely slowly and, once you get high enough to finish the amateur tour, you have to do the same thing ALL OVER AGAIN on the Pro tour. It becomes an amazing grind and even the gradual increase in difficulty is scant consolation for the mind numbing tedium that sets in.

Playing the A.I. gets extremely repetitive after a while too, as you will soon learn exactly what it takes to beat them. Even the various other activities cannot provide much distraction as the Tennis Academy lessons are often woefully under explained, leading to a wasted tour week if you do not pass. Then there are the mini games which, while fun to begin with, soon start to get amazingly hard even if you are using the top players. They are a decent way to brush up on your skills, which was obviously the point, but as a bit of added fun seem to fall strangely flat and too many of them are basically the same game with a different twist.

Local multiplayer or online play is probably the saving grace of the game and makes it feel like the fresh, new arcade experience that it once used to be. There is nothing better than taking on your friends and trying to out do them on the court, especially when you catch them with a cheeky lob while they are stranded at the net. The online set up has the usual array of options really, including ranked or player matches and even the option to take part in online tournaments. You will need your created player in order to participate, assuming you hop online straight from the career mode, as then you will be able to take on tournaments and get a ranking against the rest of the world. Jump online from the main menu though and you can use the regular players too, though only in one off player matches. Nothing too sterling or innovative but, compared to the dull grind of solo play, this is where most of your fun will be found.

Watch out. Incoming fist pump – boo yah!

Frankly the achievement list here is no less than a disgrace as it borrows far too liberally from VT3 and then sprinkles in a few secret achievements tied to the mini-games. That is hardly progression, it is just straight up slackness. Most of the points can be acquired throughout single player as you will rack up certain types of shot, wins on certain courts and the two number one rankings required (amateur and pro) given enough time. You will also need some pretty damn good skills to get gold on all of the academy missions and snag all the in game medals. The only novel aspect is the lack of online points, as you only need to play, not win, ten times in both player and ranked. So a brief tip of the hat for that minor blessing. The full thousand here is going to be pretty damn tough but 800-900 points can be snagged with a bit of time and dedication.

Despite my love of this series as a whole I just could not help but feel a certain sense of disappointment while I was playing. The single player tour is far too much of a grind with no real sense of progression and even heading online does not do much to shake things up – though at least you will have more fun beating human players than the predictable A.I. With a lack of real options and longevity it really comes down to playing with friends or online to save the day, as that is when this game is at its giddy best. The blandness and lack of innovation in the rest of the package is a real shame though as, despite the top name players and numerous venues, I can see Virtua losing its tennis crown if another game has the guts to step up and take it.

There is not much you can do with tennis and all of the sights and sounds are present and correct. The crowd could have done with livening up though as they only sporadically get excited during a few long rallies.

Virtua Tennis has never been head of the pack in terms of looks and this title is no different. The animations and players all move more fluidly but you cannot help but see a bit of ‘robot’ in all of them. The player creation option also provides far too many unintentionally hilarious results.

Still as easy to play and fun as it ever was. You can have some epic matches against friends and the online is pretty lag free which can often kill tennis games.

The single player mode is far too long and soon becomes boring, couple that with no tutorial option and newer players may seem lost at sea. Old veterans will get straight back into the groove, but that is part of the problem. Where is the originality?

An almost identical recreation of the last Virtua Tennis list and one that smacks of laziness. The few fun achievements are all tied to the mini-games and even they wear thin far too soon.

This is still a solid tennis game but it is also one that offers almost no improvement over its predecessor. The controls are still easy and this is the perfect ‘pick up and play’ sports title. Still, the single player is a long winded drag, with your player being far too good from the get go - not to mention the fact you have no control over the difficulty. The online is also fairly basic and will not grip you for long. You can still have plenty of fun here, especially with friends, but do not expect anything ground breaking.

Game navigation