Microsoft serves against the mighty Virtua Tennis.
Although it might like to pretend otherwise, with a silly scoring system and an abundance of chalk, tennis is little more than a couple of opposing players walloping rubber at one another until someone wilts. Perhaps for this reason, the best tennis games have always been simple affairs dominated by really addictive gameplay. Back in the day we lost hours and hours slogging balls off cliff-tops in Smash Tennis, past Peach's outstretched umbrella in Mario Tennis and of course into the path of Carlos Moya and chums in Sega's almighty Virtua Tennis series.
But it's been a while since we've had our rackets restrung, and Virtua Tennis 2 looks rubbish and pixelly on our big-screen televisions these days. In short: we're about ready to court something new. And although Top Spin is a few months too late for Wimbledon, if it can match the arcade thrills of Virtua to a suitable suite of online options, Power & Magic might be onto a winner.
What's all that racket?
Sensibly PAM hasn't chosen to mess with the general feel of playing tennis on a console, and anybody coming to this from a background in Virtua Tennis or virtually any other tennis game will have no trouble picking it up. Serving is just one tap, then another when the power bar gets to where you want it, and on the ground the A button performs a basic forehand or backhand stroke, backed up by lobs (Y), slices (X) and top spin shots (B), which, while sometimes more effective, are also more likely to go wayward.
However instead of timing a button press to meet the ball, players can send a heavier response to the base line by clasping their chosen button to charge the shot as soon as the ball crosses the net. Although this removes some of the timing element from playing a shot (and makes for an easier game as a result), it's still no mean feat to have Lleyton Hewitt throwing his racket down in disgust on the other side of the net, even on the Normal skill setting.
Along with a repertoire of basic shots, players can also attempt "risk" shots. The A button stroke might be the safest option (almost always landing inside the lines), but you're more or less guaranteed to have your opponent lying face down in the clay or grass if you manage to connect with a risk shot. Pulling one off is certainly a skill to master, demanding that you hold the left (drop shot) or right (massive ground stroke) trigger until a little meter next to your player lines up, at which point you let go. Obviously you haven't long to make your mind up, and releasing too early or too late will generally send the ball into the net or way out of court.
You ain't got no game!
Another, slightly subtler element that PAM has thrown into the mix is the "ITZ" bar. ITZ stands for In The Zone, and the fuller the ITZ bar the more likely your shots are to hit their mark. Pick up a bit of momentum with a couple of break points or a few hard fought rallies and you'll find it easier to outfox your opponent. On the other hand, if you slip to a few service defeats or find yourself played all over the court by a speedy opponent, your ITZ bar will run down and it'll become harder to pull yourself back into the game.
Although we like this element, we've yet to make up our minds about the related "taunt" functions. Mapped to the white and black buttons, taunts (and tantrums) are shown off via little animations between points, allowing Sampras to shake his finger over the net or Hewitt to chuck his racket around. Surely this is best left to the "Playground" courts with fictional, 'tude-heavy players like Houston duking it out in NBA Street-alike environments, we thought, but apparently it comes into play in the Career mode too, allowing you to build up a reputation for yourself as a prima donna, arguing line calls and making offensive gestures - as the crowd eggs it all on.
Fortunately you needn't sully the names of popular tennis players by morphing them into petulant teenagers, because the game also offers a pretty comprehensive "Create A Player" mode. We've never found these particularly exciting in offline titles beyond the obvious novelty value, but it could add a bit of distinctiveness to the online game, with some 30 parameters to toy with, and a Tiger Woods-style system of building the player through experience and coaching.
Sadly though we'll have to wait and see on that one, because we couldn't join up with other Live players using our Xbox debug consoles. We're looking forward to trying all the options out though, and particularly to see how PAM has made use of the vaunted XSN Sports integration. On the surface, it seems like an excellent idea, allowing players to set up leagues and tournaments, and broadcast up-to-date scores and statistics via the XSNSports.com website for all - and not just those with an Xbox - to see. We particularly like the idea of sending mobile phone/MSN Messenger-based "alerts" to team-mates and opponents. Where was that when we were all in Counter-Strike clans, eh?
But for all its posturing about going "beyond the game" (i.e. online), Top Spin offers plenty for the lone player - and supports System Link too. With 16 professional tennis players to choose from, including the aforementioned Sampras and Hewitt, Anna Kournikova, Sebastian Grosjean and a cast of other real-life stars; a selection of "street" ballers; and a Create A Player option, there are plenty of ways to play it, and we're pleased to report that there's a degree of distinctiveness to each player, too.
Hewitt moves like a rocket, regularly leaving the ground to slam the ball back to the opposing base line, while Sampras generally slides those last few feet to connect with a backhand and Kournikova (looking flatteringly pert, it must be said) shuffles her feet and moves gracefully. In terms of options, you can cue up one, three or five-set Exhibition matches in singles or doubles, customise your own Tournaments and even embark upon an impressive Career mode. We can't find a mixed doubles option, which is a shame, but otherwise it's pretty complete.
But as we intimated at the top of the piece, ageing graphics and presentation are the only reasons that Virtua Tennis 2 doesn't spend more time in our PS2s and Dreamcasts. That's not to say we've stopped playing it, because it's still incredibly entertaining, but, well, you get the gist of it: we're graphics whores. Fortunately for us then, Top Spin looks and sounds magnificent. The various stadiums are hugely detailed, with individually modelled spectators (at last!), all manner of courtside items, hoardings, and architecture, and even various landmarks for scenery - like the Sydney Opera House.
The glossy presentation gives EA Sports an overdue run for its money, with all sorts of TV-style box outs and split-screen replays, although given the Teletext-ish spectator visuals, we wish they'd drop the crowd close-ups. One thing we do like however is the two camera angles. Although most people will be more used to the "Full", overhead option, the "Zoom" mode shot from behind the player is actually surprisingly usable, and shows off the graphics to a much greater extent.
On the court, the modelling and animation is of a very high calibre. We're guessing lots of motion capture was involved, because apart from a few waxwork-style facial expression, the curves, muscles and playing styles are all present and correct, with a multitude of individually catered shot animations - including the odd "through the legs" job. Our only slight concerns are that Sampras sometimes slides a bit too far (unless he's wearing Teflon-coated trainers, we doubt he ever makes up two metres with his feet flat), and the replays show up some synching issues, with the ball cannoning back whilst Kournikova is still at the top of her backswing. Hopefully all this will be fixed for the final release version though, which should make for a very pretty game.
It was in! IT WAS IN!
Top Spin is obviously worthy of the label "fully featured". On and off the court. But if it wants to beat Virtua Tennis by two clear points, it's obviously going to need to beat it in pure tennis stakes. Online play will only get you so far on this continent (50,000 units worth, in fact), so the burning issue is whether or not we prefer it to Virtua Tennis. And at this stage the answer is 'no'. Why? It's not because Top Spin is a bad game. It's easy to pick up, fast, engaging, and good fun in multiplayer. No, it's because there was nothing wrong with Virtua Tennis in the first place, and all these little additions (ITZ bar, reputations, risk shots, etc) feel a bit too forced. Risk shots, for example, are too risky to be all that useful, often sending the ball careening in totally the wrong direction just when you thought you were on the brink of victory. But to not use them is a mistake, because your opponent will often use them to good effect. And on serves, too. All of which leaves us with the basic array of shots, and, as we all know, VT managed that better than anybody before or since.
Although it remains to be seen whether prolonged play - and indeed online play - will change our minds, at the moment we're inclined to say that Top Spin is fun, but unlikely to change the landscape of the tennis game genre. And if anyone from Sega is listening, how about Virtua Tennis 3 with online play? Eh? Go on, pitch it! Microsoft will give you loads of money!
We'll bring you our full verdict on Top Spin closer to the game's release.