One of the most beloved consoles for any SEGA fan has to be the Dreamcast. On this dare I say ‘cute’ little platform, Virtua Tennis showed once and for all that the sport of smashing a small yellow ball around was a worthy contender for our attention and that in this virtual world, anything was possible. Even a British tennis player could win a major tournament, how about that!
Virtua Tennis 3 released on the Xbox 360 showcasing 1080p support. At the time, this was quite an achievement as Sony fanboys relished in this resolution exclusively. However bragging rights were soon to be lost as Sumo Digital developed Virtua Tennis 3 at 1080p on not just the PlayStation3, but also the Xbox 360 as well. Wonderful news for Xbox 360 fans especially as the game also had online multiplayer support, something that the PlayStation3 ignored.
So we move on to Virtua Tennis 2009, a less triumphant parade into our gaming collections as now the two platforms enjoy a similar feature list, but I fear that the Nintendo Wii version may have eeked a fair chunk of the development time away from our HD workhorses as I will explain.
Following on from the previous games in the series, Virtua Tennis 2009 has the typical ‘World Tour’ mode. Beginning with options of whether you want to be a male or female and then the usual adjustments to facial features, height, weight and more. It is just a shame all the players look completely soulless with their gorky eyes and unrealistic characteristics.
Rotating the new and much fancier globe of the earth reveals locations to compete in tournaments on grass, clay and hard court surfaces. You start out as a weak amateur who with the help of Tim Henman, will progress to professional status to take on the spectacular sporting specimens sitting at the top of the worldwide rankings. For the most part the journey although quite long is far too easy. You will be amazed how mind numbingly simple it is to return a computer opponents serve winning the point in an instant. Competing in tournaments is only half of the story as you will need to improve your skills and technique if you are to have a chance.
Practise matches, mini games and a training facility are also selectable and will increase your players attributes including shot strength, accuracy and your speed around the court. You can even take part in fancy dress charitable events, which actually achieves nothing other than realising a smile when you face a pirate. Singles matches and doubles are both options within a tournament allowing you to select the one you prefer or even compete in both. For doubles, you will have to be noticed by other computer controlled players and beat them before they will agree to join you. When playing with a partner, you are able to instruct them to stand either at the back of the court or near to the net using the left and right bumpers. A few camera views are available, which can be changed by hitting the ‘back’ button. Two sit very close behind you giving you an almost birds eye view of the action although you are more likely to select the higher up camera.
At one time, Mini games were the key to advancing in the career mode, however you are no longer encouraged to replay the same levels to increase your statistics. Instead you complete the increasing difficulty of the levels until you reach level 8, at which point that’s that and you are enticed to try the other mini games available. I always found the previous Virtua Tennis a pleasant progression, however this version is extremely vague at giving you information on your increases in skills. The bar fills up and then resets and starts again. Although you feel your player playing better than before over time, statistically you are left completely in the dark.
Let’s not forget the good old ‘Arcade’ mode, where you will tackle many of the tennis professionals and if you are lucky, you will face one of the unlockable players.
For anyone who has played any of the Virtua Tennis games will feel right at home. The same control system is in place for your standard top spin shot, slice, lob, drop shot and of course serving remains identical. The very niggly diving that really drove many of us up the wall has been removed though and in place, an even more slightly weird lunge appears, which is just as troublesome as the dive. Puzzling that although certainly looks less odd…
Unlike Top Spin 3, playing close to the net is recommended if you think you can nail the forthcoming weak return. Whether you like to stand at the baseline or you enjoy glaring with your ugly mush over the net, you can move around the court quite happily. Timing is the most important aspect of Virtua Tennis 2009. If you press too early, you will lunge making it very hard to get back in control of the rally. Press too late and your return will be quite weak, however if you get it spot on get ready to pump your fist up into the air with glee as your opponent fails miserably.
The overall gameplay has been slightly tweaked and is a little more robust as a result and certainly shots are a little more gratifying, but something is seriously missing as your senses often feel underwhelmed. The crowd sounds have always been quite repetitive in the past and now they lack any 5.1 surround immersion. What was always quite lack lustre has become pretty bad now as the atmosphere does absolutely nothing to ignite your passion for the sport. The umpires used to speak the language of the location the tournament was taking place in, however now we have the less than pleasing option of choosing a male or female voice and that’s as far as it goes. To make matters worse, the delay on some of the shot sounds is almost unbearable. You will be quite happily enjoying a rally and then all of a sudden out of nowhere, the sound starts to lag behind the actual shot spoiling the experience. What on earth is going on? Fingers crossed though a patch will be released to fix this issue so I won’t dwell.
The token professional names are of course not forgotten as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and even Andy Murray appear. Legends including Boris Becker are also selectable.
If you need a well earned break from the career mode, you can always hop online with either a professional player or take your customised player into a ranked match to really strut your stuff. Just like before, the ‘let’ system will save you from most lag moments that would otherwise unfairly affect your scoring potential and doubles play will allow you and a friend to compete together whether they are sat next to you or in another city. What is a great addition is the inclusion of the mini games online. With up to four players, you can compete for the best scores, so certainly a welcome feature to mix it up a bit.
Sadly, although it has its niggles, Virtua Tennis 2009 is currently the best tennis game on the Xbox 360. That should be a reassuring comment, but it only actually proves that we have quite a way to go to reach the rich rewards we all crave as this latest instalment adds a very confusing advancement that doesn’t really progress in the way I would have imagined.
If I was to compare Virtua Tennis 2009 to a real tennis player’s career, it would have to be Tim Henman. Although falling short of actually winning any major awards, we still respect the plucky Brit’s achievements even though we know deep down in our heart, we expected so much more.