I am not, as a rule, a fan of sports games. The reason for this is simple; unlike racing games, which are for the most part accessible even to people who don't drive, or FPS games, which remain hugely enjoyable even for people who aren't gun-crazy lunatics who bathe in green alien blood, sports games are aimed squarely at fans of the sport in question. There are few non-football fans who can glean much enjoyment from PES (although I'm sure all three of them will now post in the comments thread, just to prove me wrong); American sports titles like Madden remain largely impenetrable for European audiences who don't follow the peculiar pastimes of the Colonials. As an Irishman, the majority of sports games send me to sleep - wake me up when there's a decent hurling game (the ball game, not the drunken vomiting - although I'll be the first to confess that the latter is also a popular pastime of my homeland) or a rugby game that doesn't suck.
There are, of course, notable exceptions to the rule - Nintendo's ceaselessly addictive Wii Sports is a good example, composed as it is of three sports I couldn't give a monkey's uncle about, and one which really is only a way of spoiling a perfectly good walk in the countryside, but yet still entertains millions with its simplified and elegant gameplay. Then there's SEGA's Virtua Tennis games - indisputably the finest, most balanced and most enjoyable simulations of tennis ever created, but above and beyond that, also bloody good games in their own right which require absolutely no love whatsoever of tennis to enjoy them.
Ever since the first Virtua Tennis appeared on the ill-fated Dreamcast, the series has broken the rules of the sports genre - by appealing not only to dedicated followers of Tim Henman's annual crash and burn, but also to a vast audience of people whose first reaction to Wimbledon is to frantically stab the remote control in the hope of finding repeats of Airwolf on UK Gold instead. Given this success, it's in some respects astonishing that Sega has managed to avoid the conventional sports game approach of the annual update, instead launching only two iterations to date - but that, perhaps, reflects the company's understanding of its market. Football fans may buy into annual updates of their favourite games - but if Virtua Tennis' fanbase is made up of people who are not, by conventional definition, tennis fans, then an annual update could actually kill the series. Clever chaps, those SEGA boys.
New generation, new balls please
And so to the next generation of consoles, and the quite genuinely eagerly anticipated Virtua Tennis 3. We've previewed VT3 before, of course, and we've been impressed with what we've seen so far - but now SEGA has blessed us with preview code of the game, which has been happily whirring away on our PS3 for the last few days, so we've had an opportunity to properly thrash the latest version of the game (and a selection of the world's greatest tennis stars).
To recap briefly over Virtua Tennis 3's headline new features, the game unsurprisingly sports vastly improved graphics, a line-up of 20 of the world's top tennis pros, improved physics and tweaked gameplay, and a new career mode where you create a character and control him for 20 years of his career - playing mini-games to boost your stats, taking part in competitions to improve your world rankings, developing friendships and rivalries with other players, and collecting cool gear for your character to wear. The Xbox 360 version is also set to sport online play over Xbox Live, something which will be sadly absent from the PS3 version - owners of Sony's shiny new toy will have to make do with rather flaky (and thankfully optional) Sixaxis motion sensing controls as their compensation prize.
What playing Virtua Tennis 3 for a few days has done is relatively straightforward - it has confirmed our suspicion that this long-awaited update is going to be something very special indeed, marking yet another sports game which anyone who is a fan of finely honed gameplay of any sort will want to add to their collection. The graphics have been tweaked even further since last time we saw VT3, and are among the nicest next-gen visuals we've seen yet in some respects; shadows and lighting are superbly well-rendered, with only a few little flaws now visible (the shadows underneath players' hairlines and around their eyes still seem somewhat ropey, but everything else looks brilliant in this regard), and the textures are almost uniformly high quality, with stunning cloth and hair effects. This improved technology means that the famous players in the game look more like their real-life counterparts than almost any sports game to date has managed - although the Uncanny Valley effect does make them look disquietingly like animated waxworks at times.
On the main menu screen for the game, you're offered the traditional options of entering tournament competitions (where you can either play as your favourite tennis pro, or import your own character from the career mode), setting up quick matches or playing a multiplayer game - any of which provides a great showcase for Virtua Tennis 3's superbly intuitive and enjoyable gameplay. The game maintains much of what worked about previous Virtua Tennis titles, but builds upon that foundation by giving the player the option of even more control over how they hit the ball. In essence, each volley is a combination of various factors - you can just jab at a face button to execute one of three different types of swing, which is the simplest aspect of the game, but the swing is modified by a variety of other elements. For a start, where you position yourself relative to the ball - a backhand swing is different to a forehand swing, and your player may have different stats for each of them. Then there's how quickly you can get in position to swing; if you're in position for longer, you can build up a more powerful swing which sends the ball hooning over the net and hopefully right past your hapless opponent. Finally, there's the position in which you hold the left analogue stick while swinging, which determines which direction you send the ball.
Complex? In a sense, yes - you're inputting almost as much information as you would to execute a stroke in Tiger Woods once every second or two in Virtua Tennis 3. However, it never gets on top of you, and you'll soon find that the flow of the game is incredibly natural; read your opponent's position and stroke, run to where you're going to intercept the ball, and prepare a stroke that will catch them unawares in response. It's a sign of an excellent control system when your brain stops thinking about moving analogue sticks and pressing buttons, and thinks purely in terms of on-screen actions instead, and Virtua Tennis will have you thinking this way within a couple of hours. There's still depth to conquer, though - the game also models the different behaviour of balls on different court surfaces, which adds further complexity, and some of the higher level matches are fiendishly taxing, so few people will consider themselves masters of VT3 in a short space of time.
Strawberries and cream?
Looking past those menu options that drop you straight into the action, though, we come to perhaps the most interesting and involving aspect of VT3 - the new career mode in the game, where you create a tennis player (using a sadly rather restricted set of facial and body modelling tools), select somewhere on the world map to use as your home base, and start training and playing. Training takes the form of a variety of superb mini-games which are scattered around the globe, each of which addresses a specific area of your Virtua Tennis skill - so for example, your groundstroke play can be improved by games which range from returning powerful volleys to destroy tennis-ball shooting aliens (which look suspiciously like Daleks) to a bizarre game involving giant curling stones which you need to knock into point-scoring regions by hitting them with volleys. Your footwork is improved by collecting fruit while avoiding giant rolling tennis balls; other games involve everything from defending a shelf covered in prizes from an onslought of tennis balls, to trying to hit numbers printed on the opposite court in ascending order.
The mini-games themselves are hugely entertaining, and take more than a small dose of inspiration from SEGA's own Monkey Ball series - with a refreshing willingness to maintain a perfectly straight face while presenting a scenario where a professional tennis player must dodge 10-foot high rolling tennis balls while collecting apples the size of his own head. Each time you play one of them, whether you win or lose, the game boosts some of your stats; as you progress, it'll also introduce new mini-games and allow you to play harder versions of the existing ones, so there's always some benefit to training.
Alongside the training, various tournaments and competitions appear on the world map as you progress through the years (each training or competitive event moves you a week forward in the calendar), with each tournament actually appearing around the same time of year that it does in the real sporting calendar. Most tournaments are accessible only once you get your global ranking above a certain level - so you'll need to play in lower-ranked tournaments to boost that, while keeping an eye on the high-ranked competitions that pop up, so you know when you'll want to take part in them next year. As you play in training and competitions, your stamina bar will drop - you'll need to go back home to rest every now and then in order to keep the bar full, and avoid injuries (which will knock you out of action for three weeks).
The whole system works remarkably well, and levelling up your player both through training and through the global rankings is utterly compelling. Best of all, it's a superbly smooth introduction to the more advanced levels of play in VT3 - and so far we've never really hit a massive difficulty spike in the game. Instead, it's felt like a genuinely fun voyage of discovery through the game's mechanics - and besides, you get to hammer smug-faced Roger Federer in straight sets, only to have him come around your house to give you a nice new pair of trainers as a mark of his newfound respect for your supreme skill. We're almost afraid to watch any real tennis on telly now; there's simply no way it could be this satisfying.
While it's a real shame that the PS3 version of Virtua Tennis 3 is going to lack the online component which the Xbox 360 version - currently in development here in the UK at Sumo Digital - will sport, the good news for fans of both consoles is that it's shaping up to be a truly excellent and worthy sequel to arguably the best sports game franchise out there. Sticking our heads above the parapet of the console wars for a second, that's something that everyone can enjoy - and that applies whether you're a fan of real tennis or not. The version of Virtua Tennis 3 we're playing still has its rough edges, as is the wont of beta software - for a start, half of the game is still in Japanese - but it's fantastic fun, and definitely one to add to your watch-list for the first half of this year, no matter which next-gen trench you're presently occupying.