As a major fan of Sega’s Virtua Tennis and Tennis 2K2 on the Dreamcast (the latter also appearing on the PS2 as Sega Sports Tennis), I could not wait to get my hands on Power And Magic Development’s newest virtual tennis game, Top Spin Tennis. A relatively unheralded console developer, PAM has done a fantastic job taking Sega’s amazing formula and attempting to refine it – in fact there are aspects of Top Spin that are improvements – but despite the online capabilities of Top Spin, the gameplay itself doesn’t quite match the fine-tuned perfection of Sega’s efforts.
Top Spin was designed from the start to be more of a simulation than the arcade-based Virtua Tennis, and as such has more complex gameplay. Each face button on the Xbox’s controller is used for a different kind of shot: A is a “safe” shot, X is a slice, B is an angled top spin shot, and Y is a lob. These shots can also be used to mix up your serves. In addition, each trigger performs a “risk” shot, which can be quite a potent weapon when mastered. The R trigger is used for power smashes, and the L trigger is used for drop shots. As a result, the game doesn’t quite have the same instant pick-up-and-play accessibility of Virtua Tennis, but once some time is spent behind the controller, the shots become second nature. Top Spin also features an In The Zone meter, which is basically a power meter meant to simulate adrenaline. Play well, and the meter rises, and once full, risk shots come easier and the player performs at his/her peak. To help with this, you can have your player react in between points, celebrating a great effort or complaining at a missed opportunity.
Top Spin features several modes, including a tutorial, Exhibition for up to four players, and a mode that lets you create a Custom Tournament. Most of your single-player hours will be spent in Career Mode, in which you build your own player using a pretty robust creation system and send him or her out on tour in a quest to become number one in the world. Your player travels from continent to continent, competing in various tournaments, earning sponsorships, and visiting coaches to learn skills. This aspect of Top Spin is closer to an RPG than Virtua Tennis, as you must choose distinct strengths for your character instead of becoming a superhuman performer. It is important in Top Spin to choose skills that will cover up your weaknesses (as you cannot max out all abilities), but it is also possible to become a specialized power baseliner or a quick serve & volleyer. You earn money for match wins, which you can use to purchase more gear and to pay coaches to train you, and victories also assure a rise in rank, but should you lose a match or two, your rank will drop. The Career Mode is a very nice idea, but it doesn’t have the imaginative challenges of Virtua Tennis (where you’d serve to knock over bowling pins, etc. etc.) and you can enter any tournament at any time, rather than having to wait a simulated year before retrying. When you add that Top Spin’s AI can be easily exploited, the battle to become and stay number one can drag.
Visually, the game is terrific, especially the detail of the courts. Fully polygonal crowds cheer, real-life ads are everywhere in the larger arenas, and cities rise in the background. There are even playground courts ranging from in the middle of the desert to indoor arenas with snow falling outside or joggers out for some morning exercise. Player animation is very well-done, and the licensed players look strikingly lifelike, even down to signature animations (Lleyton Hewitt’s serve looks just like it does on TV). However, there are no night courts, the ball boys don’t chase the ball, and ambient shadows don’t change during play as in Sega’s games.
Top Spin’s sound package isn’t quite as remarkable. Matches can get very quiet with no music or crowd noise – only the grunts of the players and the smack of the rackets. It’s supposed to simulate real matches, but the option to include music would have been welcome. In addition, crowd noise will suddenly appear as a roar out of nowhere, which can be jarring.
The gameplay itself is good, but doesn’t quite measure up to Virtua Tennis or Tennis 2K2. New players will have trouble making risk shots, and as a result, points can be unnaturally long, especially in doubles. Sega’s games did a great job allowing many types of shots with just the control stick and a single button, but it’s not so easy to pull off a drop shot in Top Spin. Players will often lunge when you don’t want them to, and then won’t lunge when you DO want them to. Top Spin also is a lot more sensitive when it comes to player position in relation to the ball – in order to hit with power, you’ve got to be in exactly the right position, even after being fully trained. You’d think that a pro player could adjust, but Top Spin is a little too precise. Also, once players get the timing of the risk shots down, matches end up going far too quickly and lose a lot of the sim nature.
Still, even with these slight problems, Top Spin is quite an achievement. It looks great, plays well online or off, and has a deep Career Mode. With a couple of changes, Power And Magic could very well upset Sega’s Tennis 2K2 as king of the virtual court.