The demise of the Dreamcast some five years ago seemed to throw a spanner in the works of some of Sega's most treasured new franchises of that era. Case in point Virtua Tennis, which enjoyed chart-topping success back in the summer of 2000 and a quick-fire (but fantastic) sequel a little over a year later in the dying days of the company's first party releases for its much admired console.. Fans clung onto the belief that the Japanese company would one day re-ignite the brand, but all we got were a couple of handheld fillers to tide us over.
And as much as we loved Virtua Tennis World Tour on PSP to death it was essentially just VT2 again. A mere filler. Not enough. Handheld convenience, new players and wireless multiplayer or not, a port's still a port. Deep down, we still hankered after an all-new VT to sate our racket swinging desires, and the news of Virtua Tennis 3's arcade debut earlier this year finally gave us cause for optimism that a new home version would follow. Surely it was only a matter of time.
And so it proved, as both PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game were unveiled at E3 this week, with a "20 per cent complete" playable demo on the show floor giving us a tantalising but ultimately short-lived hands-on with the game.
And you thought Sumos couldn't play Tennis.
No strangers to SEGA arcade machine conversions, UK studio Sumo (the guys behind the PSP VT and the OutRun 2/Coast to Coast) is handling porting duties, and first impressions are that the team is continuing its policy of adding new features to the arcade original while staying extremely faithful to the source material. Unfortunately the demo pods at E3 only give players the opportunity to engage in random two-game-long single player male pro match-ups, with demonstration of the doubles limited to a rolling video on the Sega stand.
Even so, one of the things that make Virtua Tennis such an appealing game after all these years is its instant playability, and the third in the series looks set to follow that tradition. The controls and general all-round feel is pretty much spot-on, with the same simple fluidity that allow you to pull off shots from whatever position you find yourself. As ever, you don't actually have to be that near the ball for the intelligent control and flexible animation system to at least attempt to reach for shots, but positioning and timing is nevertheless crucial.
At this early stage, much has to be done to tweak the AI balance, with current opposition not exactly providing a stern test, but we shouldn't read too much into how it plays with the game still almost a year off release.
Even now, though, the crisp hi-def visuals and exceptionally fluid animation builds on the first two to create a far more realistic looking tennis game than current rival Top Spin 2. Player models, in particular, benefit from greater detail, with veins clearly visible in player's arms and necks, and facial expressions are much more dynamic and realistic. For example, after a fluffed shot, players show their disgust and mutter despondently, or with undisguised glee when they've bagged a crucial point. In general, the quality of the animation is simply top notch, and with the extra development time the overall quality promises to be unparalleled. We wouldn't go as far as to say it looks photo realistic quite yet, but it's certainly getting there - a little more work on the shadowing system and a few tweaks here and there and it'll be pretty much there. A small point of dismay, though: the crowds still look like dismal cardboard cut-outs. We can only hope one day it becomes a gaming law to change this.
As with so many sports games these days, player customisation is promised this time around, allowing your Career Mode pro's appearance to be tweaked in all manner of very specific ways. And although they weren't discussed or shown off as yet, mini games are set to play an important role in building up your pro's skills "picking up from where VT2 left off" we're told, with all the minigames of the old games featured alongside new ones, while 19 real-life pros have been signed up, including almost all the male stars found in World Tour. But perhaps the most exciting prospect is online play, which will finally give players the chance to claim the bragging rights against their buddies once and for all, with worldwide leaderboards and match-ups promised for both versions.
It goes without saying that there's a long way to go before development will be completed, but even the briefest glimpse tells us enough to know that this is shaping up to be another must-have title. Check back over the coming months for more.
Virtua Tennis 3 is coming to Xbox 360 and PS3 in Spring 2007 from Sega. Check back for more soon.