The first thing everyone will notice about Virtua Tennis is its visuals, and they're truly something for the Dreamcast to be proud of. The player models are made up of literally hundreds of polygons and they actually resemble the men they are modelled on, with Tim Henman's characteristic broad forehead and receding hairline perfectly discernible. Whenever you win a round you can bask in a stylish replay of your finishing shot, and from a few paces you could well fool an outsider into thinking they were watching a real match. There are several authentic courts included, representing Wimbledon, the US Tour, the Australian Open and others, with clay, grass and indoor courts amongst the surfaces available. Unlike other titles that provide different surfaces to add to the aesthetic, VT's genuinely make a difference in terms of play styles. For instance, serving at Max Power onto the US Super Tour indoor court, the ball will bounce and retain a lot of its initial punch, but hitting the ball hard into the grass court of Wimbledon will ease off the pace a little. It's the little touches like this that make VT so memorable. Others include the line judges who actually signal calls and the ball boys and girls darting out into the line of fire to retrieve netted balls. It's tennis at its most accurate for 90% of the time. In fairness to its competitors, VT is only a simulation to a certain extent. It's more of an arcade tennis game in places. The speed of returns can be unrealistically quick at times with both players at the net, and if a ball is even slightly out of a player's reach, tapping the shot button propagates a dive in the direction of the ball and a dazzling return. With this in mind VT will never blow away the simulation fans, but what it does is not to exaggerate the game of tennis, but to improve the flow and dynamics of the experience. When you have to really make an effort to over-stretch and out-do your opponent, it's so much more entertaining than just serving hard and beating them on the return.
Play for serve
How you go about controlling your player is obviously the most important aspect of the game, and Sega have hit the spot right here. You have two basic shots, the lob and what I refer to as the "heavy whack". Now, with most games, as the ball comes toward you, you press the appropriate button and direct the ball. In VT, as in real-life tennis, your positional sense is paramount in order for you to hit a good shot. For instance, if you stand more or less where the ball will bounce and play a shot, it's not going to be terribly strong, but if you position yourself just to the side of where the ball will meet the top of its upward arc from the court and play the shot, you'll hit a sweet spot and be able to slam the ball into an unreachable area of the court away from your opponent. Which is why winning consistently is such a challenge - if you don't get your footing right, the fact that you've returned the ball is irrelevant. If you can get into the correct position regularly then you're on your way, but you also have to contend with short drop shots, lobs and the pace of the surface. As I've said before, the game simulates the sport perfectly, with only a couple of embellishments, unlike so many games before it. Serving is very simple too - you just hit the button once, wait for the power bar to size up toward the top and try and catch it at its apex with the swing. If you manage this you can hit a "Max Power" serve - one that will often catch your opponent off-guard and enable you to easily take advantage of his feeble return. Once again defying convention, VT manages to accurately portray the game aureally as well. Serves have a satisfyingly powerful thwock, and the players grunt realistically as they lumber up for a heavy forehand. There's a nice set of ambient backing tracks to keep the mood racy too.
In terms of the game's structure, you've got Arcade, Championship and Exhibition modes. The former is a simple choice of singles or doubles and allows you to play through increasingly difficult matches until you win the championship. Whereas, Championship mode allows you to go all over the world learning the game and completing various focused challenges, such as service practice games and smashing lessons. As you learn and overcome the various obstacles you take on new ones and face new opponents. You can also head to international tennis shops and hire doubles partners and new equipment. It's a decent stab at making tennis more progressive and it does the trick. Multiplayer is really where the game comes alight, as should be expected. With support for up to four players at once, the game allows you to completely simulate the live tennis experience, and it must be said that there's no parallel on the Dreamcast in terms of four-player action. If you've ever played doubles tennis with friends you'll know how entertaining and exasperating it can be - well, welcome back to the fray! Playing through an Arcade game with a friend in doubles is particularly enjoyable, and after a few rounds you'll start picking up on how your friends play the same strokes you receive differently and you'll both begin to complement one another's styles. It's incredibly intuitive and the game's unequalled control system makes it all the more pleasurable.
Virtua Tennis is undoubtedly the summer sports title for the year 2000. Forget about all those football and golf games, there's nothing with as much punch as Virtua. The rocking audio, unmatched AI, multiplayer supremacy and wealth of options and play modes make it the most complete simulation of tennis ever seen, and the perfect killer app to encourage summer console sales before the PlayStation 2 tries to take hold in this country later on this year. Congratulations to Sega for playing such a trump card at such an important stage in the Dreamcast's life cycle.
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