Tennis is as synonymous with the British summer as abject, horrific failure is to the weasley face of 'Tiger' Tim Henman. And just as the public will never, ever accept that Henman will not win Wimbledon before he finally dies, tennis will always inspire thousands of slightly rotund people with red cheeks to do their only exercise of the year and waddle off to the local courts before getting bored and drinking Pimms and eating strawberries while getting sunburnt. This lemming-like phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by game makers. Anything that makes British people stand up has to be worth game-ifying, says the logic of the corporate man. We’re surprised that we’re still not in receipt of the first summer drinking game. Now that would shift some units. Of alcohol.
And so it is that every year we get new tennis titles. Number one seed this year is Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 from Namco. And on first impressions it looks “ace”. We kill ourselves [I'll kill you - Ed]. A swift warm up in arcade mode shows a game with believable character graphics (The Weasel pretty much does look like The Weasel, although it’s not really showing any benchmark over the mighty [mighty, mighty] Virtua Tennis) and a system for batting the ball around that has obvious depth. Off to training mode to learn how to use it.
Ice and a slice
This is all very nice. A jug of iced Pimms on the sideline, we embark on a mission to learn top spins, slices, flat shots, drop shots, smashes, lobs and what the game calls “nice” shots similar to the system in Xbox’s Top Spin, where a timed shot is batted back at the opponent with more power and a deeper stroke. Immediately you’re aware that this is a sim. You can do anything, put the ball anywhere. There are running shots where you combine R1 with a stroke to stretch further, and lob and drop shots are achieved through combination presses. Fortunately, it’s all easy enough to master and by the end of the training you’re kicking the computer's ass. The plump English man is still on court, sweating slightly, but is loving the fact he’s managed to “stand up” today. So far, so good.
Into Pro Tour mode. Here things get a little sticky. You create your player, selecting all manner of options, including face shape and colour, build, hair style and colour, the colour of sweatbands, etc, before picking whether or not your player is left or right handed, how much emphasis they place on which shots; it goes on for a while. The large Englishmen is looking a little bewildered as a thundering top spin flashes past, but he’s still up for it. Just.
And we’re off. The career mode is set into weeks, where training and tournaments are laid out in a grid. You can advance down the grid simply by scrolling down, but obviously you won’t have played anything so you’ll get no experience points (yes, they’re called EXP points). The advantage is that if you move along through time in this way your stamina rebuilds, meaning you’re faster and more powerful on court. You start some training. Hit the little piles of balls, the game says, hit the little piles of balls with serves and we’ll give you some EXP points. So you do and it does. Podgy Englishman just won a game. His persistence at ploughing through all this gumph is paying off. His little heart’s pounding, euphoria spreading through his bacon-crammed mind. He’s actually enjoying himself.
Anyone for RPG Tennis?
Then things go horribly wrong. You’re taken to a screen where you’re to spend your EXP and boost character attributes. If it wasn’t for the image of your player, you could be in an RPG. If you raise your serve’s level, your top spin suffers. If you build stamina, your power falls. It boils down to a balancing act whereby you’re trying to raise all attributes slightly. Sounds tedious? It is. Englishman feels robbed at this point, smacking balls straight up into the air and huffing. This screen appear every time you get EXP, and, just like in an RPG, you start to skip it even though you’ve got points to spend because it’s such a time consuming process. Not great.
We enter a tournament. You don’t actually get to play the sets, which is kind of laughable. You’re treated to emotion highlights (your player punching the air or looking miserable) until you reach set “turning points” where the game allows you to play in a scenario, say, “Make 20 per cent of your shots Nice shots in the game”, or, “Win two points with the first service”, or, “Win the game in less than 40 shots”, and so on. Between these bouts the match is in fast forward. Get enough of them right and you’re likely to win.
Win enough and your ranking goes up, you get to enter better tournaments and your attributes get higher. Get the picture? English guy is so bored he’s roped in another person from the next court for a game of doubles. Of course, with any tennis game, multiplayer is where it’s at.
Except in Smash Court 2, it isn’t. The major problem with the game is that you have to learn how to use it. The beauty of the likes of Virtua Tennis and, to a lesser degree, Top Spin, is that you don’t. So, if you know how to play the game because you’ve been through all the training and your girlfriend/wife/plump English friend hasn’t, you will win. Unless you know what you’re doing, you’ve got no chance. As a very wise man once said, “Tennis games should be like Pong. Virtua Tennis 2 is like Pong with Anna Kournikova in it. That’s why it’s brilliant.”
We could go into the whole multiplayer “experience”, but it’s scuttled by this point alone. Sure, you get the real Grand Slam courts, 16 authentically looking pros, yada yada, but that’s not much good when whoever you’re playing against looks baffled and fails to win a single point before getting bored and putting the pad down.
So there you are. Englishman almost had a great day at the courts, but lost badly and eventually did the only sensible thing by smashing his racket to smithereens and retiring for 10 pints of Stella and a quick lobstering in the beer garden. Same as every year.