Virtua Tennis 4 is an ambassador for Sony's vision of the future of gaming, a confident demonstration of the benefits of Move and 3D. And unlike most early ambassadors, it's polished. This isn't a tentative experiment with mysterious new techniques – you can tell that right from the first serve – but a wholehearted attempt at building a professional-looking sports game entirely upon new technology. It doesn't work seamlessly just yet, but it's already doing a lot better than most.
We've been here before, you might be thinking. The Wii MotionPlus was flanked by EA's Grand Slam Tennis and Virtua Tennis 2009 on store shelves in the first week of its release. I think it's safe to say that neither of those changed the world, and Virtua Tennis 4 probably won't either; it's not going to magically convert people who've just never gotten along with the idea of motion control. But for those of us who love the idea but are continually disappointed by the execution, this should instil some hope.
Sony is continually telling us that 3D is The Future – even that it makes us less rubbish at games, particularly racing and sports – but wearing a pair of cheap plastic glasses for a game demo still feels ridiculous. Once the faint sense of humiliation had subsided, though, the 3D effect proved to be very impressive, particularly in the mini-cinematics that punctuate a match. After a point has been won, the scoreboard appears at the forefront of the screen whilst Federer or Murray (the only two playable sportspeople at this very early stage) celebrates or sulks on the court.
During actual gameplay, the effect is more mixed – though it's worth acknowledging that these are very early days, and that wearing 3D glasses on top of my normal glasses really messes with my eyes. After your serve, which you see from behind your player's shoulder, you play the game from a first-person perspective, with the racquet held out in front of you. I'm not convinced that seeing the ball coming towards you out of the screen helps you judge when to hit it any better, but seeing it flash right past you and into a top corner makes near-misses feel even more tense.
More functional is the fully 3D ghost of your racquet as you hold it out in front of you, which adjusts to your every movement as you twist the Move controller around in your hands. You've got to get out of old motion control habits with Virtua Tennis 4; my fallback Wii Sports Tennis technique of letting my arm drop limp at my side and flicking my wrist proved wholly ineffectual within about five seconds. You have to hold the Move controller out like a real tennis racquet, and move into position for shots.
This might sound affected, but it doesn't feel forced. Replicating actual sports in front of a TV screen has always been a bit silly, but the controller in your hand and its 3D, fully moving image on-screen are an adequate enough substitute for a real racquet to draw you in.
Everything I've ever played on Move suggests that it works exactly as it's supposed to, and Virtua Tennis 4 is no exception. Shots land where you want them to, slice or spin in the intended direction, and the added visual feedback of the racquet on-screen gives it an edge over VT2009 on MotionPlus, which often left you wondering what you were doing that made the ball edge out of play every time you hit it to the right.
Lobs, slices and top-spin are all self-explanatory, and there are no buttons involved. Drop shots, as a consequence, are a learned skill – one I couldn't learn in my allotted time with the game, despite my best efforts. Virtua Tennis 4 will need a good set of tutorials and good player feedback to acquaint its players with the finer points of tennis.
Movement left and right is automatic at the moment, but that's being worked on. What you can do is move into the net to put pressure on your opponent by running up closer to the screen. This is dodgy at the moment – the PlayStation Eye presumably can't see you as well up close, and it tends to completely misread your hits when you're playing at the net, turning smashes into lobs – but Virtua Tennis 4 is still a work in progress, and by the time it comes out net play should feel as smooth and natural as playing from the baseline, claims our apologetic demo guide.
I'm more concerned about the amount of space required to play, assuming you have to run up to and away from the screen at regular intervals. I don't have a tennis-court sized living room. I have a normal-sized living room stuffed with plastic tat from Japan and a ludicrously oversized desk. An enthusiastic swing and I could knock a Majora's Mask figurine into a whole set of Animal Crossing miniatures and start a toy avalanche. It's hazardous.
More on Virtua Tennis 4
Review: Virtua Tennis 4
Interview: Virtua Tennis goes back home
SEGA on taking matters into its own hands.
"Headwind-like sluggish consumption."
Sega serving on Sony's new handheld.
If you've never been convinced that 3D is going to change anything in gaming, Virtua Tennis 4 is proof to the contrary – the change in perspective from top-down tennis to player's-eye-view seems designed to show off the effect. Impressive as it is, though, I can't tell whether it helps you to actually play better; that judgement will have to be reserved for long-term play. And it's worth remembering that for the 98% of people who aren't even considering buying a 3D TV, it won't matter either way.
The Move integration is another matter. It changes everything, not only how you play the game, but how you'll want to play it. VT2009 felt like a half-step compared to this. Motion control is finally being applied in ways that work, and it's accurate enough now to be more than a novelty. It's a shame that such a lot of bad will has been built up around it in the gaming community, because it's got more potential for traditional games now than it's ever had.
Virtua Tennis 4 is out next year on PlayStation 3.