Virtua Tennis 2. The mere mention of this title makes this reviewer quiver with joy. A vastly underappreciated due to arriving late in the life of the ill-fated Dreamcast (and having a low profile PS2 release), Virtua Tennis 2 added an in-depth single player mode to its already perfect multiplayer game from its predecessor. Essentially, depth and accessibility are what made Virtua Tennis 2 the best tennis game ever. Power and Magic Developments and Microsoft Game Studios have recognized how great a game Virtua Tennis 2 was, and have set out to improve upon it with their new tennis title Top Spin. Can the addition of XSN online multiplayer push Top Spin on to be the best tennis game ever, or will it play second fiddle to Sega and Hitmaker's opus?
What's that Racquet?
Following the Virtua Tennis was of doing things was probably the wisest decision Power and Magic made throughout the design and development of Top Spin. They've gone one further, however. The beauty of Virtua Tennis 2 was its accessibility - anyone could pick up a pad, and learn to play in 5 minutes. Top Spin retains this feature for the most part, but has added some additional depth for the players who wish to execute different types of shots. A player can play Top Spin using just one button, but the option is there to use all sorts of slice, top spin and risk shots if the need arises. The risk shots are a completely new concept - your character has a meter that measures their intensity - the "in the zone" meter. This meter dictates your ability to execute risky shots - special shots that can make or break a point for your player. The system is a bit naff, as the meter simply moves too fast for most players to make use of it, even when your player is completely "in the zone". Another nice addition is the Attitude button, which will make your player perform an action at the end of each point. The white button will perform an aggressive action, while the black button will perform a passive one. If you fancy yourself to be the next John McEnroe, a few presses of the white button after losing a point will result in some racquet tossing action. The questionable functionality of the risk shot feature is the only qualm we have with the way Top Spin plays - anyone who has played a tennis game in the last 5 years will be right at home with this one.
The main portion of Top Spin's gameplay is offered up in a nice little career mode. Before you start your journey towards becoming the next Pistol Pete, you're required to create a character in what is probably the most in-depth and intuitive character creation system to date. You can customize just about every aspect of your player's appearance - right down to the size of their nostrils. Once your player is created, you start your career as a junior, and must impress a sponsor of your choice. Obtaining sponsorship will allow you to compete in tournaments, which will help you increase your ranking. It's advisable to increase your skills through training between tournaments - you have 14 star points to allocate between four different attributes; serve, forehand, backhand and volley - you can shape your player around your style of game. There are two main problems with the career mode though - it's really quite short when compared to other tennis games on the market, and the difficulty curve is really uneven. I didn't drop a single game until I was ranked 20th in the world, and I was completely obliterated in that match by the computer player - making the game's difficulty progress throughout the ladder would have been much more ideal than just having it go through the roof at the top level.
The exhibition mode rounds up the gameplay options for Top Spin. You and up to four friends can play a singles or doubles match on any court surface using one of 16 pros, or characters made specifically for the game, or even your own created player. The roster of pros is fairly thin, but contains favourites such as Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt, Michael Change, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova and more. We're quite miffed at the fact you can't play mixed doubles, though. As was mentioned earlier in the piece, Top Spin is very accessible, and it's this accessibility that will result in the game seeing a lot of multiplayer time. Top Spin has full support for XSN over Xbox Live, so you can participate in leagues and play against your friends online. Playing over Live has proven to be quite laggy, however. Also, only two Xboxes can connect at a time, so its two players to a machine for doubles, which may disappoint some.
Top Spin features some of the best visuals of this generation. While it'd be silly to say that they're life like, each player is a good digital representation of his or herself. The level of detail on each character is the amazing thing, as you can see everything from the hair on their arms to the laugh lines on their face. Animation is very smooth, although there are a few questionable shots and motions featured in the game. The areas which house the court look very impressive, as does the court itself, thanks to the use of bump mapping and pixel shading. The crowd is also a notable factor that makes Top Spin look better than its competitors - they're constructed from polygons, rather than steam-rolled sprites. Top Spin also supports 60 Hz display modes for full screen, full speed play.
The audio department is probably the most lacking part of the package. Top Spin features absolutely no commentary during the matches, and only a brief spiel at the start and conclusion of each tournament. There's no music during the game, just the sound of rackets smashing balls, and umpires (who actually have different voices) screaming calls. The menu music is quite pleasing, featuring acts such as The Vines, but the option to use custom soundtracks both in the menus and during matches would have been appreciated.
Game. Set. Match.
Top Spin is a very solid tennis game that does just about everything right. You'd probably be able to forget about the name Virtua Tennis if it weren't for a few issues in regards to the risk shots, the lack of sound, the unbalanced difficulty, and the short career mode. Top Spin is no Virtua Tennis 2 beater, but it's a damn fine game in its own right, and one that belongs in everybody's Xbox collection. A great debut.