I’m sure many of us have played Virtual Tennis on the Dreamcast or PS2. Those games are considered the best tennis games out there. Now Microsoft comes to the table for its first shot at the tennis genre. Sporting such things as real players (Pete Sampras, Anna Kournikova, Martina Hingis, Lleyton Hewitt, etc.), Xbox Live online play and XSN Sports connection (not available yet, should be by mid-November), this game has a lot going for it. Will it be as great or better than Virtual Tennis or will it burn out like others have? Let’s find out.
To be honest, tennis games are not considered graphically powerful games. Top Spin has some quality graphics, especially the motion capture of the tennis players. Playing as Pete Sampras and Lleyton Hewitt, I got the feeling that they had them pegged to a T with their mannerisms, shot types and even their attitudes. I can only guess that Power and Magic went to these lengths will all of the licensed tennis players here (sadly no Andre Agassi and many others). The game runs smoothly and the shots in motion are just beautiful. Shadows on the court are well done, although I never saw any clouds come across the court. Even the crowd is 3D animated. They get up out of their seats and clap after a good volley has taken place for instance.
The camera is an interesting section since you have 2 to choose from. The regular Virtual Tennis-like view and a closer courtside camera that sits right behind your tennis player. I find it very difficult to play in the latter view, but I bet if I spend lots of time with it I will get used to it.
Unfortunately, there are some missing animations that keep it from feeling like the real game. You see the runners at the end of the net, but they never run in to pick up a ball that hits the net or anything. There are also the ball throwers at the ends of the court. They’ll take a tennis ball right in the family jewels and not flinch because they are not animated either other than going from a standing position to a squating one as the play starts. It would have been cool to see them dodge a ball coming straight at them, but I guess that was not meant to be.Music? What Music? Seriously, tennis is not a game where there is a ton of music. There is music in the world map and opening screens, but other than that you’re listening to everything you’d hear in a normal tennis match. Those sounds are what makes this game great and, in my opinion, better than Virtual Tennis. In Dolby Digital 5.1 the sounds just encompass the room. The smack of the tennis ball is much richer and the different sounds as it hits the different types of courts is also spot on. There are different types of sounds for the serves you do as well. If you try a risk shot you will hear a louder sound as your ball sometimes goes in excess of 130 MPH versus doing a regular server at 100 MPH or less. The crowd is also very dynamic, although their cheers are repeated over and over. Sometimes in the bigger matches, the crowd will talk, but the official never tells them to “be quiet” and a play can often start with people still chattering.
Control was the greatest thing about Virtual Tennis and Top Spin makes it the #1 priority here as well. The controls are easy…except for the risk/drop shots. A is your standard shot, B is a topspin shot, Y is lob, X is a slice shot, L trigger is a drop shot and R trigger is the risk shot. With the left analog stick you move your player and aim the shots left, right, deep or near using the left analog stick. The face buttons and R trigger also correspond to the same type of serve. With the face buttons you hit the button once, watch as the bar goes up and try to hit it at the top position (easier than it sounds). You can control the trajectory of your serve, but the higher the bar the faster the serve. The R trigger is the odd one out because you have to hold down and let go of the button when you want to do a Risk serve or a Risk shot during a volley. You also have a little sliver in which to let go of the R trigger in order to get a safe shot off. They are powerful serves and shots, but sometimes they just aren’t worth it because if you’re out of that zone the ball will be going out.
The controls outside of the R trigger are simple in their elegance and this game is easy to pick up and learn, although it may take a while to master.
The control helps the top notch gameplay. Think of Virtual Tennis and multiply the Career mode by a bit…that is Top Spin. You create your own tennis player (30 characteristics can be manipulated…you can have both butt-ugly and good-looking men and women players) and set him or her out on their own. Some things in the World Map will have to be unlocked, but you do have a lot of things to do when you first start playing. The airport in each section of the country are the central hubs of the game. From there you can travel to the different countries and do different things until you start unlocking some of the locked things. Your goal in this section is to become the best player in the world. You can go into training for specific attributes: Forehand, Backhand, Serve and Volley (you have a maximum of 14 stars to divide between the 4), but they cost money whether you pass or fail unfortunately. Along with the star attributes you can also pick up 4 special skills as you build your player. Their are 4 skills in each of the group, so you want to choose wisely as you cannot pick up those other 3 after you have chosen. This is a time to either make a strength stronger or heighten one of your weaknesses.
Along with this there are sponsors in each country you can travel to. You have to finish their test in order to get them as a sponsor and they have other tests once you finish the first one to unlock. Each sponser brings its own brands of clothing and gear for you to wear and play with…pretty cool. You can jump to another company whenever you want, but then you lose out on the former’s goods. Everything of course revolves around money. You can’t get better at your 4 basic skills if you don’t have the money to have the trainer teach you. Smart bet is to get a sponsor and start entering in some minor-pro events at the beginning. If you enter into anything higher than that get ready for a world of hurt to happen. You have to build your skills before you can take on the greatest in the world. As you win tournaments your ranking goes up. Your prime goal to be #1 of course, but that will take a while.
Top Spin also brings Xbox Live play into the mix as well. The major minus is that you can only have 2 vs 2 on just two Xboxes playing at once and not 1 person on 4 different Xboxes. You can choose to play single or double (but you must have a second player for the latter). My first couple of games were plagued by stuttering lag and were unplayable, but when I tried it later in the day everything ran smoothly and I got my ass handed to me. I’m hoping the latter experience I had was what I will experience more of in the future. The laggy games were just unplayable. XSN Sports connectivity is in this game as well, although it is not up as of yet and I have no clue what it will all entail.
There is also the ITZ meter and it does help you quite a bit, but it can also hurt you. Your ITZ meter grows by how well you play. When it is full and flashing you have better control over your shots and the risk shot meter goes slower. The problem is that you also have the ability to have Good or Bad attitude with the White and Black buttons. If you use one of these your ITZ meter goes down and the attitude does nothing really. You can’t argue a call or anything, it just shows you taunting, being pissed off, happy with the play, etc. Maybe if there is a sequel they will put in the option of arguing a call, because there were a few I had questions about personally. The ITZ meter is a worthy addition, although it can give someone an overt advantage.
One minus about the game in itself is the long load times. It seems everything you do will include a load time…and they aren’t short. The game is fun enough to stand on its own, but the load times are quite annoying. If they do a sequel to this game I hope they work on the loading sections.Much like Virtual Tennis this game is highly addicting. You start playing and you may not stop for hours as you go through the Career mode. The only minus I have in this section is that the sets and matches only go to 3 and not 6 and 3/5 (men/women) like in real life. You have that option in other sections, but not the Career mode for some reason. Only thing I can think of is that it would take a long time to play and they don’t want you to feel lethargic or anything. I did encounter some lots of slowdown in my initial Live online games, but the two I played later did so without a hitch.