When you think about it, tennis first appeared as a videogame way back in 1972. Sure, it was a stripped down, basic, practically rule-free version of the game - but the blueprint was there nonetheless. Two white lines and a dot might be a far cry from Virtua Tennis, but the seminal Pong is still playable to this day, a true testament to its brilliance.
The funny thing is that tennis games haven't really come all that far since. In a way, Super Tennis on the SNES was just an elaborate version of the world's first game, with the underlying premise the same as it always was: knock the ball back and forth until someone misses it.
It wasn't until Virtua Tennis came along that the sport got a title it truly deserved. Sega managed to make a game that not only did justice to its subject, but also did justice to its medium. In other words, it pleased both tennis fans and gamers alike. But believe it or not, Power And Magic (PAM) have actually managed to go one better. In short, Top Spin is the Pro Evolution of tennis titles, and a scary indication of how realistic games are becoming.
Serves us right!
The one common factor among modern tennis games is their learning curve. It always takes at least a few hours play to really understand how they work. Even though the likes of Smash Court and Virtua Tennis look quite similar, the differences under the aesthetics are pretty extensive.
Top Spin is no different in this respect. At first play, it comes across as nothing more than the prettiest tennis game on the market. And it is. We marvelled at how realistic the animation looks for each player, and how the clay courts gets messy as matches drag on. We love how the game replicates Pete Sampras' dramatic, pause-for-effect smashes. The way Leyton Hewitt leaps off the ground to whack a backhand shot, both feet in the air, is nothing short of superb. The way Anna Kournikova's... oh, um, never mind.
Initially, however, we couldn't see much else that made the game stand out. The way Top Spin approaches the sport is almost identical to most previous tennis games. You can hit a 'flat' shot by pressing A; a slice shot is X; lobbing is mapped to Y and topspin shots are hit with B. On top of that, you can hit drop shots with the left trigger and 'risk' shots with the right trigger - but we'll get to those in a bit.
As always, timing is of major importance when hitting shots, and in this case Top Spin expects you to press and hold a button when the ball is passing over the net. So if you're positioned correctly and hold down A as the ball comes over the net, you'll hit a very solid return. If you hit A at the last second, then you'll hit a weak return and any decent opponent will finish you off.
Smashing! Rally ho! Volley good show old boy! Etc, etc.
Of course, this is pretty similar to Virtua Tennis and other titles - though the underrated Smash Court put the emphasis on last-second timing, rather than what we like to call 'wind-up' timing. Anyway, after the first few matches Top Spin didn't do much to inspire us, with the easy and normal settings too easy, but the hard settings too difficult. It seemed we were once again foiled in our search for a decent rally.
Oh, how wrong we were. Because once the ins and outs of Top Spin became apparent, and once we became able to take on the hard mode, the best tennis simulation on the market blossomed before us.
You see, in a way Top Spin got lucky. It's the first tennis game to really use the power of current consoles - and the benefits are massive. Overall, the game's heady mix of fantastic graphics, brilliant control and a polished engine amounts to one serious sim. Never before has a tennis game captured the sheer ferocity of a good rally like this does, while at the same time staying true to the real deal.
One thing we never liked about previous tennis games that had the potential for good rallies (Smash Court being one of them) was the way the 'feel' of tennis was often sacrificed to allow for a decent exchange of play. For instance, you might be having a great match with an AI player, but the power and strategy of real tennis never really translates itself to the game. Virtua Tennis did this admirably, but it still had a kind of 'hollow' tinge to it sometimes, a kind of cartoonish aspect.
In Top Spin, this could never be a complaint. When this game puts you a tight match, you know all about it. Your player will be bounding from one side of the court to the other, returning shots with the kind of aggression that makes the whole experience almost war-like. When you see Gustavo Kuerten sliding across clay to get to the ball, yet 'winding up' for the shot in mid-slide, that's when the excitement of real tennis is conveyed in full. To have a powerful rally that lasts ten or twelve shots ended by a beautiful surprise drop-shot is just what we want to be able to do in a tennis game. And Top Spin lets us do just that.
It's also worth noting that the various shot types really make a difference in this game. The slow slice shot is great for following up with a volley, plus it's essential for buying time when your opponent has hit a good shot and you need to reposition yourself. Topspin shots are excellent attack shots, and are good for reaching tight angles, but are more likely to go out, while flat shots are good for power.
Then there are the aforementioned drop-shots and risk shots. These are made more difficult to execute because they of their potentially match-winning significance. By pressing down the left trigger, a little bar comes up on the screen, with no pause in the game. A 'marker' travels up and down this bar at random speed, and to pull off a good drop-shot you have to press the trigger again as near to the centre of the bar as possible. Hit the dead centre and you'll perform the perfect drop-shot - miss it badly and you'll just set your opponent up for the point.
Right-trigger 'risk' shots are managed in exactly the same way, except they are far more integral to gameplay. As a match goes on, the players are awarded boosts to an 'ITZ' (In The Zone) bar for every point they win. At any point in the game, serves included, the player can use this boost to execute a risk shot that is basically far more powerful than normal shots. If you pull it off correctly, an opponent has little chance of returning it. In truth, these are very difficult to do in the midst of a tight match, especially if you're returning a good shot. It's possible to complete the game's career mode without ever using either drop-shots or risk shots - but we doubt you'd last long on Xbox Live! without them.
So now you've a fair idea why Top Spin's core engine represents the best tennis game ever. Well, here's why the rating below isn't one mark higher.
First off, the game's roster of players is pretty poor. Just like Pro Evo, we only get a handful of recognisable stars and then a bunch of names I personally didn't know about. Pete Sampras and Leyton Hewitt are the big fish on the men's side of things, with the likes of Michael Chang and Kuerten making up the numbers, while the female species are represented by Hingis, Amanda Coetzer and, of course, our Anna. The Williams sister ain't nowhere to be found unfortunately.
Having Sampras as the leading man is a little suspect, especially considering he's all but retired now. Tennis' new wave of young pretenders, like Andy Roddick, aren't here, and to make matters worse the numbers are made up by terrible, EA BIG-type weirdos, who really wouldn't be taking part in a tennis tournament. In all fairness, there's a guy in there who wears designer sunglasses and looks like he's literally 50. Still, if you like this kind of thing...
Unfortunately, having only 16 real players puts a big dent in the game's career mode, which - while entertaining - could have been a lot better. Basically, this lets you create your own player (with full control over all physical aspects of the character, including a 'specialist' tag, such as in 'power' or 'technician') and then challenges you to work your way up from seed 100 in the world to number one. As epic as this sounds, however, it never lives up to the promise.
At first, your character starts off with no 'stars' in his or her skill slots, which are serve, forehand, backhand and volley. Once you start earning money on the amateur circuit, you can apply one of 14 stars to these skills by way of a training area specific to each one. So if you go to a forehand trainer he'll up your skill after you complete a simple test. The tests generally mean having to hit balls onto certain parts of the court and never need playing more than twice to beat.
From there, it's simply (or not) a case of winning as many tournaments as possible until you reach the top. The lack of players is further compounded by a lack of real competitions, so you'll be less than delighted after winning the 'American Tour' trophy or some such nonsense. To add insult to injury, the majority of competitions only have three games per set, which doesn't seem to be optional.
It seems more than strange that the best tennis sim around doesn't do a better job of getting our pulses racing on this level. Why not spend that little bit extra on getting in more players? Come on Microsoft, don't skimp on us now! Why not increase the sense of drama around matches by getting the media involved, a la Championship Manager. Why not have full-length bloody matches!? We want to beat Henman, Roddick and Agassi on the way to winning Wimbledon, not Blake, Robredo and Chang on the way to the generic English cup.
It's also worth saying that the game's 'tutorial' was obviously made for psychics and/or mutants with high-level mental abilities, as it spends about 10 seconds on each of the game's swing techniques and pretty much leaves the rest up to you. Also the game's only two camera angles are fine, but it would have been nice to see a few more.
Still, despite all these minor complaints, there's no escaping the fact that Top Spin is brilliant. We don't complain too much when Pro Evo gives us Oranges019, and we won't complain too much here either. Unfortunately, we weren't able to test the game on Xbox Live! because my telecom provider still hasn't installed the bloody broadband. Nonetheless, having played the game extensively in two-player, it's fair to say that this is where the game's longevity will likely spring from. The rallies are unlikely to last as long as they do against some AI players, but find yourself a closely-matched opponent and the game will really come into its own.
The net result
Top Spin is tennis. Here's the simple test:
1. Get good at the game. 2. Get a relative or a friend who likes the sport and is clueless about graphics etc. 3. Put on a match and invite them in to watch it. 4. Laugh as they stay rooted to their seat in order to see the outcome. 5. Laugh further when they realise it isn't real. 6. Apologise if they are bigger than you.
Seriously, this is a great tennis sim. It's certainly less fun than Virtua Tennis (especially the career mode) and it's damn frustrating at times, but it's still the best representation of strawberries and cream we've ever seen. If you still haven't played Virtua Tennis and aren't much of a tennis fan, then the PS2 Virtua Tennis is probably the title for you - especially as it's cheaper - but if you've been waiting for a title to really capture the essence of the sport, then this is it. We've even given it the respect of not making a pun to finish with. In short: ace!