Being able to essentially implant new abilities might help level the playing field in an online context, but offline it doesn't make a huge amount of sense. Many players may prefer, as I do, for your unique player character to become better in the areas you have trained him to be, and not to simply turn into some sort of tennis chameleon because you happen to have passed a few arbitrary academy lessons. Likewise, being able to use my all-conquering champion online in VT3 was great. It might not have been particularly fair to those who hadn't gone to the same lengths to level up their character, but I thought that was kind of the point.
This lack of level-up payback appears to have had other implications too. With an inability to level up, it's obvious that your World Tour rookie is fairly overpowered from the start compared to previous Virtua Tennis titles. After 80-odd matches over countless hours, I'd barely dropped a point, and while my rank inexorably rose accordingly, it was clear that all the training exercises I had undertaken in parallel hadn't made a scrap of difference. VT's World Tour mode has always been a bit of a grind, but this felt even more like plumbing the depths of obsession. Chipping away, winning every point, inching towards some sort of magic moment where the game starts to provide a challenge. It takes far too long to provide a reward, with even basic unlockables and new gear failing to appear long after you've grown tired of win after boring win.
Maybe 10 or 12 hours in, it begins to get more interesting. Charity fancy-dress tournaments and higher-ranked opponents begin to test you in the better competitions. But it would have been much nicer to skip all the low-level stuff much earlier, or perhaps to pitch the challenge higher. To make matters worse, the new mini-games are somewhat lacklustre, with the likes of Pirate Wars and Shopping Dash providing limited thrills alongside series staples such as Alien Attack, Avalanche, Drum Topple and Pin Crusher (which take a considerable effort to unlock in World Tour). It's the same old drill, really, with a surreal task attached to a time limit, and a swiftly rising difficulty curve. Fortunately all 12 are available unlocked outside of World Tour, with scores uploadable to online leaderboards if you fancy a challenge. Better still, they can also be played in multiplayer if you fancy a quirky challenge.
Speaking of which, the Online HQ is fully integrated into the World Tour map, allowing you to play opponents across the globe in one-off ranked matches (with points gained contributing to a worldwide leaderboard), while a new SPT Online Tour gives you the opportunity to enter a competition that lasts one real-world week, and is available for Amateur, Pro or Champion players - presumably to make it more attractive to all comers. The idea is that you can play as few or as many events as you like to earn Tour Points, with the winners awarded medals.
Technically speaking, not a lot has changed about Virtua Tennis 2009, and while certain nips and tucks make sense (like the absence of ridiculous diving antics, and a more effective lob shot), some of the tweaks aren't for the better. At first glance the player models still look as beautifully animated as they were before, but close up they look like they're suffering from some sort of flesh-eating disease. We used to joke about 'Zombie Tim' in previous VTs, but something's gone a bit awry here, and it's not a pleasing effect. The contrast, for example, between the anonymous low-ranked World Tour players and the game's star names is marked, with the former looking like they were churned out through the same basic character-creation generator that kicks off the World Tour. Happily, the licensed pros are up to scratch, but would it really be too much to ask to have a broader roster of players? Even some ex-champions would add some colour, not to mention gameplay depth. The truth is, next to most modern sporting titles, Virtua Tennis is starting to feel a little on the low-budget side, and could quite easily be usurped by an ambitious rival without a great deal of difficulty - as evidence by licence-happy EA entering the fray next month with Grand Slam Tennis.
The general cheapness of the VT2009 project infuses much of what's on offer. For example, the lack of tournament or venue licences, and the limited attempts made to bring the crowd to life. Stiff, featureless character models are still very much the order of the day, and one bland location blends into the next. There's no real attempt to bring a match-day atmosphere to the game, with limited, repetitive celebration and reaction animations, and anonymous crowd audio samples. In addition, the whole spectacle feels a little sparse and predictable. Weather, lighting and atmospheric changes never intervene, and nothing that would affect a real pro, such as dehydration, ongoing injuries and the like ever enters the equation. On the one hand it's nice that VT continues to keep things simple, but the fact the designers haven't attempted to inject something new into the dynamic leaves this feeling very much like a rehash of an old game with a tweaked roster.
But with all that said, a lot of these complaints are more like minor niggles than fundamental flaws given that the old magic remains. The game is and always will be best played in multiplayer mode, so it feels churlish to slam it on the basis of a weaker single-player offering than usual. With a full suite of offline multiplayer options for up to four players, and fleshed-out online options which make it accessible to everyone from newcomers to old stagers, there's still good reason to welcome this release. As usual, the online experience is only as good as the connection between machines, but from our initial impressions, online play can be as slick as offline play once you get the right match-up. How the weekly tournaments will add to the fun is hard to say at this point, but it's a welcome addition and one that long-term fans will be keen to investigate.
Still, taking both elements of the game into account, it's hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by what Virtua Tennis 2009 has to offer. While the online multiplayer facet has undoubtedly been improved, the disappointment over what's been done to World Tour mode and the general lack of ambition in certain areas leaves me wanting.