How do you improve a game as good as Virtua Tennis 2? Even though it's been four or five years since its release, it's still the best tennis game on any platform, anywhere. The sheer simplicity of the series masks an astonishing achievement: by pinning down the physics of a tennis ball and tying it together with simple, effective controls the game boils down to position and timing. Which means it's basically as open-ended as the real thing, and each game - heck, each point - is capable of unfolding into infinite possibilities. So exactly how do you build on 'one of the most enduringly playable games of all time' (as it's been referred to in some very highly respected quarters)?
That's the question that has fallen to Kazuko Noguchi of Sega AM3, the studio behind Crazy Taxi and (lesser known) titles such as Let's Go Jungle, Champion Football, and Dinosaur King. Having started out with the studio as an artist in 1992, she was lead artist on the original Virtua Tennis in 1998 and has since risen through the ranks to become the art director on Virtua Tennis 3. So, Noguchi-san, how do you improve a game as good as Virtua Tennis 2?
"When we started work on Virtua Tennis 3, we considered its main rivals to be Virtua Tennis 1 and 2," she says. "So we decided to work on the game engine to make it more sincere to real tennis - we wanted Virtua Tennis 3 to better reflect real-life tennis. One example was that we wanted to emphasise cross shots. Most tennis matches are determined by cross shots and so we wanted to emphasise that element in Virtua Tennis 3. We also decided to introduce five-set matches to make it feel more real. So realism was the key area for improving Virtua Tennis 3."
Unsurprisingly then, the usual roster of real-life likenesses will be making an appearance in the game, with 20 real-world players appearing in the PS3, PC and 360 versions [updated - Ed]. Players such as Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Amelie Mauresmo and Tim 'Henman Hill' Henman will thus get to perform in the game's 25 stadiums.
But has Noguchi-san succeeded in her goal of enhanced realism? "Since this title was the first title to be developed for the new next-gen consoles, it was very hard because we hard to start from the ground floor. So it was very difficult, but there are two things I'm pleased with. One is that I'm satisfied with the game engine, because with regard to the issue of realism, it has reached such a level that I'm satisfied. I'm also satisfied with the World Tour Mode, because we wanted to make it more dramatic this time and that has been achieved through the element of communication - such as when you receive presents from the other players. Those are the two parts that I like especially."
Indeed the World Tour forms the main substance of the game, and it's this that forms the basis of the hands-on session that follows. But there are three other modes: Court Games (which are essentially mini-games), Exhibition mode (including that new five-set match option - they must have read Kristan's review of Virtua Tennis: World Tour), and Tournament mode (complete with five different difficulty levels).
As for the World Tour mode, it starts off with players creating or editing a character who then has 20 years to make it to the number one ranking in the world before they retire. In order to do that, they'll need to manage their career; taking rests to prevent injury, undertaking various mini-games and training games in the Tennis Academy to enhance their statistics, and, as in the Dead or Alive Xtreme series, fostering and managing friendships and rivalries with other players on the tour (although any similarity is entirely coincidental: "Actually I haven't even played it, so any relation is coincidental," says Noguchi-san. "It's obviously a very popular idea."). Should your tennis player make it to number one then they'll enter the hall of fame, which means that instead of retiring they can continue to tour, and continue to unlock the game's 500 items, which range from sweatbands and apparel to better rackets.
When the game is finally fired up, the most obvious thing about it is that it looks beautiful. From the cute revolving-globe interface (reminiscent of the Dreamcast's cruelly ignored Planet Ring), to the sumptuously high-definition playing screens, the game is superbly soothing on the eyes (although it turns out that Amelie Mauresmo looks as scary in gloriously high definition as she does in real life). From the revolving globe, you access the calendar by hitting R1 and your mailbox by hitting L1, which is where you'll find messages from other players inviting you to participate in a practice match or some kind of competition.
Showing it off, Noguchi-san starts out by joining a doubles match, teaming up with Mauresmo and playing in an attractive pringle-diamond-pattern dress and funky glasses. During the game it's possible to set the tactics for your doubles partner (ordering them to patrol the base line, for example), and after the game, your partner will often decide have a word with you ("I really felt that out there!" exclaims Mauresmo after she's finished playing with Noguchi-san). Indeed, occasionally, if they're really fond of you, they'll show up to have a word at other times, even if they haven't been playing with you.
And after showing off some doubles practice, it's time to demonstrate the mini-games, such as Alien Attack, Court Curling (which is just curling, but on a tennis court - as good a demonstration of the game's physics engine as any though), and Feeding Time (an amusing way of practicing your volley by trying to fend off alligators). The best mini-game, though, is Avalanche, which is essentially a footwork drill in which you try to avoid giant balls while collecting fruit - and it's especially entertaining in multiplayer (not least because you can block your opponents' movement, forcing them to get run over by a giant tennis ball).
Over at the Tennis Academy there are various drills divided across different parts of the game, such as Serve and Volley Practice (in which a typical drill might require you to hit three volleys in a row, three times) or Groundstroke Practice (in which a drill might challenge you to hit three backhands in a row, three times, in 90 seconds). Success in these mini-games means your player's stats improve; give enough attention to all of them and your player will remain an all-rounder, or you could work on serving skills to become a big server, or volley to become a serve and volley player.
Then it's time to show off the different ways of recuperating: if you're pressed for time, simply sup an energy drink; if you've got a spare week, your player can take it off to have a rest; but if they've been overtraining and has suffered an injury, they'll need to recuperate on vacation (which takes three weeks).
And then, finally, it's time to play the game, and first impressions are that it's exactly as brilliant as all the other Virtua Tennis games: on top of the superb graphics, the gameplay remains as precise and intuitive as it's always been. But of course, now there's the added novelty of Sixaxis controls. If the face buttons aren't your thing, just change control settings and all you have to do is lower your pad to hit a slice, raise it to hit a lob, shake it to hit a top spin shot, and tilt it to move your player. As simple as it all sounds, the Sixaxis controls initially feel like they were added as a novelty, and they take a while to get used to. But actually after warming up with them they seemed to work well enough - though not, crucially, any better, on balance, than using the face buttons (which surely is the point?). Noguchi-san is prepared to concede as much, but describes Virtua Tennis as a testbed for future Sixaxis functionality: "Implementing it was a challenge so probably most players will play with regular key assignments, but we want to do more research on this feature so that it will become a more standard feature in future titles."
Of course the Xbox 360 and PC versions of the game won't offer Sixaxis controls, but in pretty much every other respect they're identical to the PS3 in terms of visual loveliness and graphical superbity. Allen was on hand from Sumo Digital (who are handling the conversions) to stress that the online features (which aren't present on the PS3), will definitely be really good, boasting 60 frames per second online, and a variety of modes, including ranked matches, friendly matches, TV (where you can watch other games online) and a leaderboard - where it's possible to upload and download highlight clips.
And that's how you improve a game as good as Virtua Tennis 2.