Tennis is a strange old sport. You've got two athletes whacking a little yellow ball across a net, hour after hour. Between these strikes, an enormous roar explodes inside the court. Grunting and screaming and shouting and hitting and crying, it's all part of the game. It doesn't sound very enticing, does it? Top Spin 4 aims to be the most accurate representation of the sport, with every minute detail just as important as the last. 2K Sports has a lot of freedom here, and very little competition. Electronic Arts has avoided tennis completely, and Sega's Virtua Tennis 4 is still a few months away. So, has 2K taken the sport one step further? Yes, and it raises the bar for everything that follows - not without a few unforced errors though.
Generally speaking, we're quick to condemn a product that feels unfinished, and Top Spin 4 didn't get off to the best start. Our review code decided to freeze after less than sixty minutes of gameplay, and our save file was lost. Why? Because we never had a save file to begin with. A bit of investigation led to the discovery that automatic saving isn't a default setting, so keep that in mind when you begin a career with Top Spin 4. Needless to say, we were less than impressed. But everything deserves a second chance, right? Well, maybe not everything. After going through the laborious task of skipping the hints and tips that you're supposed to read, we eventually arrived at the main career once more. It's more comprehensive and offers even greater depth than before. Players can create their own character using the tools provided, and soon enough you'll be training weekly and participating in minor tournaments.
Your sporting hero won't be the most adept at the start, but after building up their stats and attracting the attention of fans, progress can be made quickly and you'll notice the differences immediately when your stats improve. 2K has put a lot of effort into the training; players will be able to pick coaches, travel to special events during their time off, and take part in a variety of sessions in order to prepare for the big day. It had the potential to become a mess on screen, but the presentation here is to the point. Plain and simple, nothing jaw dropping but that's not why you're here. The presentation on court is the closest thing we've seen to television broadcasts, the only difference being the lack of commentary. Even though we would have preferred to hear the professionals applauding our excellence with a racket (or at least have the option to play with or without commentary), 2K made the right decision here. If you look at most other sports games, the commentary usually becomes a pain after several hours of play, and even a title like FIFA 11 can't last the distance. Top Spin 4 focuses on the crowd and the sounds of every player, which you can customise during the creation process. It's all about atmosphere, and the reactions of those watching you. The fans will cheer and gasp during long rallies, and the players will show genuine emotion throughout the course of the match.
In case you were put off by the task of spending three hours on court, don't fret (but you can do a full length match if that sounds tempting). Tournaments normally throw you into a quarter final tie-breaker, and it's only a matter of being the first to hit the ten point mark, then it's game over. This allows for fast paced and hassle free progression through the career mode. Players will constantly be shifting back and forth between using experience points to upgrade, browsing through the coaches who want to train you, looking at e-mails and doing all sorts of extra curricular activities. Top Spin 4 is a long single player experience, but it's also rewarding one and you'll never feel as though you're playing in a minor event just to qualify for the majors. Rewards come in the form of apparel and equipment, but the most rewarding factor of all is the gameplay. Accessible for newcomers and challenging enough for the veterans, Top Spin 4 understands the importance of balance and proves itself on the court more so than anywhere else.
There are plenty of tutorials available if you need to learn the ropes, and they certainly helped us. Basically, you need to be aware of timing and positioning. Returning to the centre after hitting a serve, avoiding the middle ground and knowing when to approach the net. You don't need to be an expert to make these decisions, skill and understanding comes naturally with play and soon enough you'll be battling it out in thirty shot rallies. Controlling your player is very straight forward, and each face button is applies to a specific type of shot (lobs, slices, etc.). You can alter the style of these shots by playing with control or with power, and that's determined by how long you hold the button. But if you'd prefer not to have a giant blister on your thumb, try to avoid abusing those power shots. The shoulder buttons add even more variety with your stance, but you can get away without using them if you're a casual tennis fan. It's a shame that 2K hasn't employed the EA tactic of mapping the controls onto the right analogue stick, as it would have been an interesting experiment to try out. Top Spin 4 still feels perfectly fine without it, but it would have been a nice option to have.
Not only does it feel right, Top Spin 4 also looks the part. As we mentioned earlier, the presentation is top class, and this is complemented by superb in-game visuals. The animation really stands out; players move naturally and their behaviour is incredibly realistic. It's all about the details. Example; your opponent hits the net and you end up losing a point, he or she will then gesture an apology. That's exactly what happens in a real game of tennis, and these moments really do improve the overall quality of Top Spin 4. As the match continues, players will grow tired and beads of sweat can be seen running down their foreheads. The official players look like their real-life counterparts too (terrible hair styles included). To accompany all of this, Top Spin 4 has some of the most impressive courts that we've ever seen in a tennis game. It really is quite astonishing in places. Some of the venues can be a little absurd and far fetched, especially in Dubai, but once again the attention to detail shines through. Footprints are visible on the clay courts of France, and rough patches are scattered around the green lawns of England. Top Spin 4 ticks all of the boxes, and we haven't even discussed the multiplayer yet.
'World Tour' is the biggest single addition to Top Spin 4, it allows you to compete in real events online. Your statistics carry over from the main career, and vice versa so don't worry about being too underpowered. Of course, there's always standard quick matches to join but the continuous tournaments are where the fun is really at. For those who have played 2010 FIFA World Cup, it's more or less the same idea here. Sadly, we did encounter a bit of lag in a couple of games. We still managed to win, amazingly; so Top Spin 4 is definitely playable with the Americans, but be wary of European lobbies. Bringing the intensity of tennis online is a worthwhile investment of your time, and even though the number of players isn't exactly staggering, there's still a decent bunch out there. World Tour is the future of the franchise, there's plenty of space to expand and develop, and Top Spin 4 is the beginning of what could be a terrific social experience for online tennis. There are few other modes available (online and offline), so as you can probably tell by now, Top Spin 4 is here to stay.
Tennis fanatics will be more than pleased with the polish and finesse on display, although it does have a drawback or two. The omission of a commentary track isn't a problem, but the limitations of the actual soundtrack is disappointing. Top Spin 4 doesn't have an especially good selection of music to listen to when you're training, or even when you're just browsing. As much as we adore LCD Soundsystem, we found ourselves becoming more and more distanced from the talent of James Murphy. He's a great guy, don't ever forget that, but hearing the same song time and time again is a tad frustrating. You could always blame the record companies, because it would appear that 2K hasn't got the resources to cash out on an extensive list of tunes. It's unfortunate, but that's life.
While Top Spin 4 is undoubtedly the best in the genre, it hasn't managed to replicate the experience of tennis fully. A good ninety-five percent of what you see at Rod Laver is featured here, and despite 2K's efforts to finely tune the mechanics, a game changing piece of technology has been left out. Players haven't been granted the ability to challenge the decisions made by the referee. If your opponents serve appears to be out, you can't ask for a video replay to see precisely what happened. It wouldn't have taken much to include this side of the sport, and if anything, it would have highlighted the tension around the court during these crucial moments. That being said, Top Spin 4 is merely inches away from perfecting the virtual side of tennis, so don't let our moaning change your mind.
Top Spin 4 is a real treat for fans of the series, but also for newcomers and players who might have been afraid of the learning curve previously. It really is a game that anyone can have fun with, and 2K should be given a manly congratulatory handshake for what has been achieved here. Top Spin 4 is balanced better than any tennis game before it, offers a huge amount of content to play with, and somehow manages to be equally demanding and forgiving. Forget about those motion controlled tennis games, Top Spin 4 is what you need to be playing instead.