Top Spin 4

Love-in.

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!"

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Pimms o' clock already?

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.

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