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.