In this era of annual sports updates churned out with metronomic regularity, it's rare for the latest version of anything to be greeted with the grand expectations that accompany big-name sequels in other genres. Whether it was a carefully plotted strategy or a consequence of shifting development to 2K Czech though, the near three-year wait for a fourth Top Spin has put us in the rare position of being quite excited about its arrival.
But let's not get the strawberries and cream in just yet. Tennis games were more or less perfected over a decade ago, and most of what has been served up since Virtua Tennis (and its even better sequel) has been trying desperately to live up to Hitmaker's astonishing achievements. Top Spin 3 got closest to nailing it, but added depth that was so poorly explained that it took an age to understand what it wanted from you.
2K knew it had to do a far better job of easing players into the game, while still retaining some of that depth that more committed players demand, and from the moment you enter the fourth game's helpful Top Spin Academy you get the sense of a more measured, patient approach that tries to teach you the full array of shots as well as the strategy behind them.
You also learn about shot timing. Last time out you'd often fluff perfectly decent-looking shots and have no real grasp of what you'd done wrong, but now the presence of numerous optional visual indicators makes it straightforward to nail the fundamentals right from the beginning.
These indicators, for example, make it possible to gauge precisely where your opponent's shot is going to land ahead of time, as well as how well-timed your shot or serve is and how much power you've applied. Once you've got all the basics down, you can gradually turn them all off and start to play a more realistic, instinctive match instead, complete with sneaky drop shots and flashier 'inside-out' shots.
While all of this probably makes Top Spin 4 sound easier, mastery of the shot system's timing is still something of a dark art. On a base level you've either got to go for a precise control shot with a quick tap, or hold the button down and wind up for a riskier power shot. The actual timing of control shots and power shots is still crucial, and the visual indicator is a constant reminder of whether you're too early, too late, good or perfect. Some might find it irritating to be nannied at every step, but it really does help school you in the precise rhythm required to be truly accurate, as well as highlighting the tiny margins of error.
Aside from making the game generally more accessible from top to bottom, arguably the most striking and significant improvement to Top Spin 4 is a new animation system. Although previous versions were hardly lacking in that department, there's now a natural fluidity that gives the spectacle a greater degree of conviction.
This attention to detail has not been implemented for the sake of mere cosmetic enhancement. Being in command of a player with such a natural and responsive motion makes for a more intuitive experience. It not only allows you to play more instinctively, but also makes it easier to identify strengths and weaknesses in other players.
There's no such thing as a 'perfect' player in Top Spin 4, so really getting under the skin of the game is as much about identifying those chinks in your opponent's armour as it is about making the most of your own strengths.
If you're facing a strong serve-and-volley player, for example, they'll spend most of their time trying to snuff out the point by rushing into the net. But if you're wily enough to keep the point alive with controlled strokes that have them rushing around the court, you might be able to grind them down and then fire an unreachable power shot at the point when they're all out of puff – something you'll easily be able to identify simply through observing their increasingly laboured movements and anguished grunts.
With this in mind, you may instinctively try to create your own tennis legend who can cope with all eventualities. You'll most likely fail dismally, however, because the career mode's stringent level-20 cap makes it impossible to be exceptional in more than a few areas. If, like me, you foolishly try to create the ultimate all-rounder tennis powerhouse anyway, you'll probably just end up being fairly unremarkable and get taken apart by Nadal, Federer or Roddick as soon as you step onto the Grand Slam circuit.
Still, part of the fun is failure through experience, and the fact it's possible to fast-track your career progress to a series of truncated matches makes it easier to experiment with various types of tennis pro. Eventually you might settle on a specific player best suited to your playing style and have the confidence to take him or her onto the shark-ridden waters of online competition.
Top Spin is a notably more enjoyable online experience than it used to be. As well as giving you the usual option of engaging in friendly (unranked) player matches, the two distinct types of ranked competition should keep everyone happy. On the one hand you'll want to see how your own creation fares against the competition, but you'll also want to gauge your skills using the top real-life players, past and present.
Cunningly, the ranking system isn't just a means of proving your worth, but how good the real player is overall, and a cumulative leaderboard reflects the overall online performances of specific pros. It's a bit throwaway, admittedly, but at least it gives you something else to shoot for than just your own personal glory.
One minor disappointment is the standard of the game's player creator. Having lavished so much attention on many aspects of the game, the limitations here single it out as a bit of an apologetic afterthought, whether it actually was or not. It's also strange that the career mode focuses player evolution solely on abilities, so you don't earn money, and therefore any equipment and accessories are merely unlocked upon meeting certain objectives. Even when the game dishes out potentially superior items, the effect is merely cosmetic, and renders most of what's available to you rather redundant.
It also comes as a slight disappointment that Top Spin doesn't flesh out its career mode with extra curricular activities such as training games, injury management or public appearances. Any of these things would have added colour to what is an otherwise fairly relentless onslaught of pure tennis. Some will prefer it this way, but those of us who crave a touch more variety are out of luck.
Another notable addition, though, is stereoscopic 3D support. Like most 3D titles released to date, it's certainly a pleasant novelty to enjoy that sensation of extra depth, but it's debatable whether you'll want to sit there for extended periods. Apart from anything else, reducing the frame rate by half is too much of a compromise on the game's delightful fluidity to endure for long. Still, it feels churlish to complain when you don't have to use it.
Still, most of what Top Spin 4 has to offer is built on solid foundations. By putting accessibility and instant enjoyment at the forefront, 2K Czech has cast all the old frustrations aside at a stroke, and the fact the developer has eased passage into the game without sacrificing any of its depth is also remarkable. It feels as though a balance has been struck, which should suit players of all skill levels. Whether it will be enough to fend off the impending Virtua Tennis 4 is another matter, but for now it's safe to say the ball is back in SEGA's court.
8 / 10