Version tested: Xbox 360
First they giveth, then they taketh away. Last time around, PAM slightly overcooked Top Spin 2's controls with layers of added complexity which appeared to add depth at the consequence of making it far less intuitive and playable than its deadly rival, Virtua Tennis. As good a game as it undoubtedly was, there was always the nagging sense in the back of your mind that you'd rather be playing SEGA's ageless offering.
At the same time, though, online play was always Top Spin's ace in the hand - and still is, thanks to SEGA's utterly botched online implementation in last year's otherwise excellent Virtua Tennis 3. To rival or even usurp the mighty VT, all PAM had to do was refine a few key areas in the playability department and the throne would finally be theirs. Strangely though, PAM has almost gone back to the drawing board rather than merely tweak a few things, and manages to make an equal number of good and bad decisions along the way. Initially, the refinements to the control system feel like a terrible decision.
For the first time in possibly the history of tennis titles, Top Spin 3 is almost impossible to simply pick up and play. Even against the rookies in career mode, you'll struggle pathetically and wonder what on earth you're doing wrong. Serves will fly limply off target, returns won't go anywhere near where you want them to, and you'll lumber along like a complete chump struggling to win a single point. It's the anti Wii Sports Tennis - a counter-intuitive tennis game that only the committed hardcore player will be able to play.
However, once you take the time to progress through the extensive series of tests in the Top Spin School, it slowly starts to fall into place. For a start, you'll realise there's no longer a power meter to fall back on, meaning you have to rely on good old-fashioned judgement and timing. Holding one of the four shot buttons (mapped to the four face buttons of the pad) dictates the power, while moving the stick in the direction you want it to go just before your racquet hits the ball completes the two-step process. For a while, it's maddeningly tough to retrain your thumbs to this subtly different approach, and the series of tests you face are, without doubt, the most exacting ever conceived in a tennis title - but in the long term it serves you very well. (Sorry.)
As with previous Top Spin titles, there remains the curious ability to perform 'risk shots' by holding down the left trigger (for accuracy), right trigger (for added power) or both at the same time as you select your desired serve or shot. But as tempting as it is to go gung-ho, the timing has to be absolutely spot-on to pull it off, and when matches are hanging by a thread, it'll be a brave player who tries it on. In truth, all bar the most advanced players will ever master it - I've played them all, and it's a trick that, to this day, eludes me.
Fortunately, relying on risk shots isn't something you have to worry about to progress in the game, and there are a ton of other factors that are just as important to becoming good. Knowing the right time to use flat shots, top spin, slice, lobs and drop shots are just as crucial, as is mastering the power timing and the amount of extra directional emphasis when you're placing your return. It might not be anywhere near as straightforward to control as the beloved VT, but with time and practice, Top Spin 3's added depth and challenge makes it equally compelling in other respects. Its main downside is the fact that you can't simply hand the pad to the newcomer and expect them to get to grips with its complicated nuances. In that respect, the everyman VT wins every time.
But if you can be bothered to stick with what's demanded of you, Top Spin 3 becomes an excellent game. Diving back into the game's pivotal Career mode with the essential knowledge acquired in the Top Spin School, you'll start to move swiftly through the ranks. Rather than simply put you at the bottom of a top 200 ladder and expect you to work your way up, Top Spin 3 features an entirely different approach. Initially you'll simply have to beat three amateurs and six challengers over three games before you can enter the main meat of the game, but once you qualify for the Junior stage, you enter a season where the aim is to finish number one at the end of a year of monthly tournaments. With a choice of easy or hard contests, you can either plump for more financially and XP-rewarding tournaments or go for ones that are easier to win. When your player is a piddling newbie, it's probably wisest to take the safe option, build up your stats a little, then dig into the hard tournaments and push for the top slot towards the second half of the season.
As you might expect, self-improvement follows the fairly standard process of allocating your XP in eight different areas (Forehand, Backhand, Service, Return, Volley, Power, Speed, Stamina). With each set by default at level 30, it's then entirely your choice how you evolve your player. However, with the overall level of your player capped at 560 out of a maximum of 800, you can't max out every stat like you can in other tennis titles. This essentially forces you to prioritise specialist areas of your game; for example, a powerful service, possibly at the expense of stamina, or a nippy net player with sublime volley skills. It's an interesting design choice, and definitely helps shape the way you play the game both offline and online. The only real downside to the Player Evolution is PAM's insistence of playing Jamiroquai's godforsaken "Canned Heat" track every single time you enter the upgrade screen. Still, with The Go! Team and The Stone Roses bouncing and shuffling their way through the other in-game menus, it's not all bad.
Ploughing on beyond the rather straightforward Junior mode brings the reward of Pro status. At this point, the game really starts to come into its own, not just in terms of upping the ante challenge-wise, but having the added allure of letting you play the real-life tennis elite, which in this case means the likes of Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and Tommy Haas on the male side, and the stupidly well put-together Maria Sharapova for the women's game. From my own thumb-bruising experience, it's brutally challenging to play the hard tournaments in Pro until you've ranked up a fair bit. At this point, you've got a few other useful means of making serious progress: either take the lesser rewards of the easy tournaments, slope off to play the game's standalone tournaments outside of career mode, or try your luck in the online World Tour mode. Whichever you choose, they all help get you the extra XP you need to outperform the better players, and you can eventually return to claim the Pro title and unlock the super-elite Legends mode if you're super-committed.
Inevitably, the further you progress into the game, the lengthier matches become, and the more of an investment of time and energy is required to get through the seasons. In a game where five rounds of a single tournament can easily eat up the best part of an hour, it's not difficult to see what a time-sink Top Spin 3 can be once it gets going. As such, the realisation of the intense demands of career mode makes the online play that much more attractive, and it's possibly here where the game is at its best. Presented with the choice of a quick single three-set, first-to-three game or a more expansive array of tournaments, you're well catered for. World Tour seasons are effectively set over a number of real-time weeks, with the winners based around overall performance during that time. Impressively, the game is very lag-tolerant (unlike VT3, which was a write off most of the time), and although I did experience a few slight glitches here and there, at no stage did it feel like the game was being compromised in any serious way. As far as online tennis goes, Top Spin 3 is top dog, although annoyingly doesn't appear to allow you to set up a custom doubles match.
Another somewhat inexplicable decision PAM has made for this otherwise high-quality sequel is to abandon the more fun training missions you could engage in previously. It's perhaps understandable that the game's creators wanted to streamline the gameplay to be purely about tennis tournaments, but stripping them out inevitably reduces the experience to a one-note succession of matches with no respite or variety along the way. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but its loss is felt nevertheless. The bizarrely taxing Top Spin school, while necessary, doesn't make up for it at all.
Elsewhere, the game is a uniformly impressive technical tour-de-force, and benefits from an array of subtle improvements that add greatly to the sense of immersion. As well as some glorious animation, little touches like the changing lighting conditions, and the developing sweat patches on players' shirts is a fantastic addition. On that note, it's the first tennis title we can recall where player stamina truly has a palpable effect on how your player performs. A little heart monitor gives you an obvious clue as to when players are really worn out, but it's even better to see a player struggling around the court during a lengthy rally. A lot of these smaller touches aren't necessarily noticeable during the first few hours of play, but once you really start getting into manic tie-break scenarios and endless see-sawing break point recoveries, the epic depth of Top Spin 3 becomes truly apparent. As someone who has earned the game's infamous 2K award, I speak from bitter, hand-ruining experience.
But what you really want to know is whether it's worth buying. Unlike last time out, you'll easily be able to pick this game up today for under GBP 30, making it a must-buy for anyone looking for the most advanced tennis title around. Yes, the often exhausting depth might prove to be off-putting for those who prefer the more intuitive Virtua Tennis, but that's precisely part of Top Spin 3's more simulation-minded appeal. With fantastic online play and an obsessive career mode to dive into, it's the thinking man's tennis title.
8 / 10