Often a kick up the arse is exactly what the doctor ordered. Top Spin 2 was rushed; French developer PAM has no qualms about admitting it, suggesting at least something had to be offered on the new batch of consoles sooner rather than later. Still, this sort of behaviour has come to be expected from games machines finding their feet, as developers fiddle with new creation tools and begin to get to grips with the fresh grunt on offer. So, you may say we understand why Top Spin 2 was a flimsy and incremental offering in the series then, but ask fifty pounds for it and our sympathetic nature soon disperses.
But sitting here at the Queen's Tennis Club in London, nibbling succulent salmon skewers, we are beginning to feel much better about it all, and far less likely to chew a commuter. We barely have time to open our fish-packed mouth before the presentation begins, tackling our queries before we have time to air them. Phrases such as "community feedback" and "built from scratch" whistle into our ears, as we hear why Top Spin 3 will stand out not only in the tennis genre, but in the sports catalogue as a whole.
Make me beautiful
Top Spin likes you to create your own unique tennis experience, an ideal resting at the heart of its character customisation. But, feeling it was previously a little overwhelming, it now offers you three ways to personalise yourself. For those willing to hop straight on court you can pick from a selection of pre-made characters. Go deeper and you can use around a dozen options such as nose type or face shape to create your would-be star; each option offers a slider to flick between a number of variations. Or you can discard the stabilisers and overlay your face with a mesh to push and pull until you are content, a bit like a Hollywood plastic surgeon getting rid of chin blubber. Then all you need are final touches like a handlebar moustache, billowing frumpy hat thing, gaudy tattoo, and you are ready for action. The more interesting the better.
Right, time for some silverware. This is another area influenced by those of you upset at the absence of grass roots tennis last time around. So, now we have a concoction inspired by both previous instalments; a junior circuit to begin with, followed by grand slams and a mysterious legendary tournament to best famous names from times gone by. Careful though, draw someone such as Roger Federer early on and he will thump you without remorse, as there is no easing up on beginners here - a champ is a champ.
Not all big names have signed along the dotted line yet, evident from silhouettes in the character line-up, but when they do around 25 real-life stars should be present, with roughly 15 created by developer PAM. Similarly the 40 venues are a mix of factual and fictional; one is set in the flashy Dubai hotel and is hopelessly posh, while another is converted from a football stadium.
Bizarrely at first, another area of focus is on playing tennis matches. This means doing away with the training mini-games to improve your abilities and replacing them with experience points for competing. More impressive is that this can be done either on or offline, bagging bigger rewards for besting higher-ranked players. Theoretically, then, you need never step foot in the single-player campaign to develop a character as complete. It sounds extremely logical, and becomes better still with Top Spin World Tours. These are online tournaments for all of you that run roughly every two weeks (still being decided), because apparently knock-out competitions are what tennis is all about. Simply pop your name down and you will be automatically paired against another when you are ready to play. Thrash your way to the top and all will see your name in lights atop the leaderboards. Lose and we may laugh.
Hold it like an axe
Smashing the ball is now based around a push and hold system, where timing and positioning is paramount to success. The face buttons still control your arsenal of lobs, volleys and so forth, but as the ball approaches you depress your shot of choice, plant your feet and then release your response. The quicker you are in position the more time you have to shape for your return, resulting in a much better riposte. However, settle too early and you will be left flat-footed. Once confident, you can begin to incorporate the left and right triggers, holding the first to aim nearer the boundary lines, and latter to provide more power. However, the chances you will produce an unforced error are greatly increased by this flashiness, especially if you decide to combine both triggers at once, you filthy show-off. PAM has also reworked how you serve, putting the power entirely in the right stick; you click to release the ball, draw back, and then ram it forwards, as if you were imitating the real life action. We were also pleased to see characters reacting intelligently to where the ball was on the court, speeding up to reach distant returns and not careering off into the stands after reaching for a shot out on the boundaries.
Helping all of this feel solid and approachable is an incredibly uncluttered and pure presentation, one devoid of gauges to measure shots by or bars to show you how fatigued you are. Your eyes are on the action and your information comes by way of visual feedback. By watching, you will know how powerful your shot will be, and how tired your star is by their appearance; your face will be come red and flustered, while skin and clothes will be drenched in sweat - a nifty mechanic, albeit one with a minor effect on the outcome of a match. The only distraction from the action should come from overeager fans bellowing their support realistically in the middle of a point. "Come on, Tim!"
Clothes and hair are procedurally animated, too, each convincingly bounding around depending on the actions of your character. Our favourite was the way the T-shirts flapped up and down after a serve, a lovely touch that made us think of players like Andy Roddick and the real world of tennis time and time again. Graphically it is much improved, as you may expect, with players crisp, clean and particularly believable with layers of sweat dripping from clothes and down tired legs. Venues are also handsomely put together; one park scenario was picked to demonstrate sunlight sparkling through trees and casting shadows onto the clay court, shadows that move as the day draws on. Even camera angles have been carefully considered, offering you around half a dozen options depending on how close you like your action.
There are still areas to be polished up in time for next spring, however, such as match loading times and bizarre moonwalking done by players not believably treading solid ground. Eventually PAM aims for 60 frames per second and will compromise if necessary, with each version (PS3, 360, Wii, DS) built independently to produce similar goals, er, aces. Incidentally, we saw the 360 offering in action, and while the developer admits it has struggled a little with the PS3, it is confident all will be well when the bell strikes. It was also a little early to hear what music will adorn the menus, although none will distract you in-game, relying instead on revamped audio effects.
We feel as though we have spent the entire presentation sweeping Top Spin 2 under the carpet, disassociating ourselves with an ugly step sister. But without it perhaps none of this would have happened; that boot to the behind clearly made PAM sit up and listen. Top Spin 3 has cut away the fat and focused on the important features, those that matter to you. It is approachable and fun, and thankfully Tim Henman is nowhere in sight.