Pick up and play mechanics may have served every previous tennis title in history, but 2008's Top Spin 3 was devoid of wussy visual indicators like power bars. Instead it was down to players to figure out the correct timing.
This probably resulted in most people throwing down their rackets and having a big old go at the virtual umpire - something which "caught us a bit off guard", admits 2K Czech president Stéphane Dupas.
"The basic principle of Top Spin 4 compared to the previous one is very similar," he says. "But this time we're trying to spend time explaining it to you. We just realised that [in Top Spin 3] we probably had some good ideas, but we spent no time explaining them. We assumed that people would get it, that they would be curious, that they would investigate, that they would research. They didn't do that."
Impatient idiots that we are, most of us probably expected to pick up the pad and get on with it. Having spent the previous two decades playing tennis games that way it wasn't an unreasonable approach, but Top Spin 3 wanted us to slog through the Tennis Academy and learn it all from scratch. If you weren't a willing student, you probably spent much of your time growling at the television.
"I think the biggest frustration was that we spent the time doing something that people did not experience," Dupas suggests.
"You have this thing that you want to do, and people go, 'I don't get it,' so we absolutely had to fix this problem - but without compromising the depth. I think this is the one thing that's important for us. A lot of people at the beginning said, 'Oh man, your game is too complicated, simplify, simplify, simplify.' No!"
The team realised that many of the problems with the game were rooted in the animation system. As pretty as it was it didn't enhance the core playability, so they scrapped it and started from the ground up.
"We realised that if you want depth and accessibility you need to really look carefully at the animation: the way a character moves around, the way he gets to a ball, the way he positions himself to the ball, the way he swings, the way he goes back from the swing, how it's happening on the volley, and making sure that the level of control from your player is responsive. And at the same time, make sure it's looking like the real thing."
Evidently, timing was the main element players had a problem mastering last time around. "People liked the concept but they were struggling to get it, because the timing is different depending on the speed and angle of the ball. Sometimes it was a bit hard to read," agrees Dupas.
"So we tried to add some feedback in-game, that you can activate or deactivate, so that people can discover what we want from you. In real time, the game will tell you how exactly you're doing on the timing."
Sitting down for my first play of the game, it's immediately obvious how much difference it makes to be informed when your timing is off. Wind-up for a shot too soon or too late and the game tells you so. Time it well and you'll be told if it's 'good' or even 'perfect'. Within the first few games you'll start to quickly adapt to the rhythm expected from you.
Another Top Spin 3 issue 2K Czech had to address was the complete lack of visual feedback on the amount of power you were putting on a shot. While it was possible to adapt to the way the game wanted you to play by reading the visual cues from the player's animation (and the length of your button presses), it relied on the player's instincts too much for some tastes.
Now, if you charge up your shot, a small circular power reticule appears above your character. It fills up depending on when you commenced the shot and how long you held the button down. Prepare for your return early and you might have time to belt the ball back with venom right into the corner. Dally too long, though, and it won't have quite the same impact, nor present the opponent with a troubling angle.
But as well as these useful timing and power indicators, Dupas and co. recognised that the controls themselves were also to blame for confusing players. The core controls were fine, with the usual slice, flat, top spin, and lob shots assigned to the face buttons, but PAM got players in a knot by introducing 'Risk Shot' combos via the shoulder buttons.
In theory, they added power or accuracy if you could pull them off with expert timing, but usually they merely resulted in a lost point. "It was a nice idea, but it was a bit too difficult," Dupas concedes. So out they went.
"We came from another angle on this, saying how can we use button presses and yet have a wider variety of shots," he explains. The emphasis now, it seems, is on timing the power of your shot to vary accuracy.
"You can charge your shot for power but less control and less angle, but this time you can also quick tap to have a controlled shot. It's not so fast, but it allows you [more time] to move the opponent left and right."
Putting the theory into practice later at the event, it feels much more in line with how you expect a tennis game to feel - which is to say that, yes, it has that Virtua Tennis level of fluidity. Even after just a few matches you'll instantly feel like the ball is going where you want it to - and without the need to sweat through endless tutorials to get there.
That's not to say that the Top Spin Academy has been made redundant, and Top Spin 4 goes to considerable effort to try and actually coach people in how to play the game, and how to think like a tennis pro. "You know, some [players] have no idea how to play tennis... Most people lose because they stand in the middle waiting for the ball to come back to them!"
With that in mind, the academy starts right from the basics of movement and timing, before schooling players in things like player attributes, and how to make the most of their playing style and strengths - and how to avoid opponents exposing your weaknesses.
One such lesson focuses on the defensive game, and how to drain your opponent's energy: "You make the opponent run, you empty his bar, game after game. Once he is really tired, he loses power, he loses control, he cannot run anymore. So you can take advantage," Dupas says.
"We are trying to incentivise people to get curious about the fatigue, because it could be a way to win the game."
Sitting alongside your schooling about the various hidden benefits of player attributes is how to build your character. It's important to decide what kind of player you want to build for the game's all-important career mode.
As before you'll earn XP for winning matches and tournaments, but the way the game handles your evolution has been modified to funnel players down more logical paths of progression.
Rather than simply leaving it up to the player to assign their XP how they see fit, Top Spin 4 bundles XP into 'packages'. "It was too complicated before, now it's clearer, so every time you go up a level you have a choice over a package - for example, Serve and Volley, Offensive Baseline Play, or Defensive Baseline Play, and you shepherd a character that's good at doing something - and not just improving abstract parameters. You're getting better at a certain way of playing."
As before, you can only level up to a certain degree to ensure that you can never build the perfect player. "It's impossible to have a player who is 100 per cent everywhere - you have to decide on your strengths and weaknesses," explains Dupas.
Another tweak to the Top Spin 4 career mode is the new emphasis on coaches. As in real life, the significance of a change of coach can make all the difference, and Top Spin 4 introduces the ability to hire and fire bronze, silver or gold-rated tutors - something we'll be interested in checking out when the review version turns up in the coming weeks.
We're told that rather than enter into arbitrary coaching sessions, your coach will ask you to perform certain objectives as you play, such as 10 aces, 55 advanced serves, 75 power shots, 90 balls with good timing and 13 annoyed retorts at the umpire (we may have made the last one up). Once you meet your targets, you'll unlock bonus attributes such as the enticingly titles 'Serve Stick Berserker' that presumably gives you raging power and precision.
One thing that hasn't changed a great deal, though, is the licensing side of the game. It features 25 top current and legendary professionals culled from the male and female game, including Becker and Borg for those of you old enough to remember playing Match Point on the ZX Spectrum.
Sadly licensed venues appear to be outside of the budget. But given the quality and variety of the ones on offer, few will shed tears about that side of things. Motion control is also confirmed for Move, but anyone hoping for Kinect support will be disappointed ("How are you going to move around?" Dupas asks).
What's important is that Top Spin 4 is looking great in every respect. Finally it appears to be on the point of reaching balance between depth and intuition that we've craved since the first game appeared. Gone are the nonsensical novelties and with a bit of luck, in comes a well-crafted evolution of everything we liked about the series.