Sheer stat attack
Over the course of your career, you'll essentially be engaged in a mixture of obsessive minigame playing (to get your stats up), and the various matches (to get your rank up). But as familiar as all this probably looks to the old hands reading this, the World Tour benefits from the addition of a Tennis Academy, where you get some excellent (and often essential) tuition on how to pull off certain shots, or the best ways to, for example, drag your opponent closer to the net so that you can lob them. Grouped into Beginner, Normal and Advanced, you learn all sorts of things you might not otherwise try out - and if you do get them right your stats improve into the bargain.
But other new additions are pretty superfluous, and even downright annoying - such as various pros popping up at different times to have entirely pointless 'interactions' with you. They might appear to be offering some advice (to get some rest, for instance), but mostly they are as inane as the interactions in the next gen Sonic game, and merely show up AM3's inability to pull of any semblance of facial animation on its otherwise impressive character models.
Perhaps more annoying is how the game has introduced injuries into the equation. On the surface, the idea of looking after yourself and not constantly training or competing is sound. Obviously such things play a very big part in the life of any tennis pro, and you would expect any player to suffer from little sprains, and so on. But the thing that proved most annoying about the whole system wasn't having to take rest and drink energy drinks to replenish stamina, it was that even when you were being vigilant, the game would still find a way to punish you. And when you get a really bad injury, it can rob you of several levels of ability, forcing you to slavishly replay minigames you've probably already played scores of times. Needless to say, if the repetition of the minigames has ever bugged you in the past, it will do so just as much here.
But the payback for all the effort you put into playing World Tour is the ability to use your custom character in other modes, such as the rather basic Tournament mode (where you have to face five opponents one after the other), or the various multiplayer modes, such as the versus-only Court games (which take the mini game concepts into an offline-only competitve environment for up to four players). Obviously, such a feature only really comes into its own if you're facing other human opponents, and while you can engage in the usual singles or doubles matches, online is clearly going to be a big draw for many of us. As you'd expect, the Xbox Live implementation is slick, easy to set up and allows you to play ranked or player matches.
Ranked online matches are pretty limited, though. All you can compete in are three game, single set matches, which are available in singles, men's doubles or mixed doubles. But with the ability to enter your custom character or use one of the 20 licensed pros, it's a pleasant lag-free diversion, complete with a worldwide trueskill leaderboard. We'll definitely be playing it a lot, but it's not quite as interesting as it could have been, you feel.
Unranked Player matches, though, are a different story. They offer everything that the ranked matches don't and offer enormous scope for short matches or vast, sprawling epics; you can play matches over one, three or five sets, with up to the regulation six games per set (plus tie breakers), or, you can even compete in a tournament for up to nine players (including computer opponents). In addition to the regular one-on-one matches, you can also plump for doubles encounters, with men or women only, or with a mixture of the two. Not only that, you can select any venue you feel like, toggle the computer AI level over four levels of difficulty, and even reserve private slots for friends. In summary, it's exactly what we wanted.
Also, a rather nice addition to the online fun is something Sega's calling 'VTV'. As the name implies, it effectively allows you to browse a list of other people's matches and watch them in real-time, and even replay ones that you've just had online yourself. As self-indulgent as this might be, it's actually a lot of fun to see the action again from multiple camera angles that aren't normally available to you - such as overhead or close up, as well as the usual behind-the-player view. It's a great little bonus.
Overall, VT3 is a solid package that doesn't mess too much with what made the series great in the first place, buffs up the already brilliant visuals and creates another fantastic game. Admittedly the music is absolutely excruciating generic guitar sludge, but fortunately you can switch it off in the main menu. In a way, the rubbish music was always part of the charm, believe it or not.
Regardless of whether you've played a Virtua Tennis game or not, this is one of those games that no self-respecting gamer should miss out on, because not only is it the best tennis game on the market, it's also one of the best sports games ever made, full stop. Granted, Virtua Tennis 3 might not represent a big leap forward from the last one, but in many ways that's a good thing. There wasn't an awful lot that AM3 and Sumo needed to do other than to give it slightly more depth, tweak the visuals and add online play, and it has succeeded on all fronts - at least as far as the 360 version is concerned.