You can’t talk about a tennis game without mentioning the god of all tennis games Virtua Tennis 2. This little gem of a title on the Sega Dreamcast had the cheek to inspire game after game of frantic frolics around the tennis court while also giving the player the ability to pass time in an instant. This was due to the great graphics and inspiring gameplay that really did make the time go quickly. Top Spin is the bold attempt to topple Virtua Tennis 2 off the long held position as king of tennis games. Adding Xbox Live play as well to this title has me foaming at the mouth with anticipation as we enter the new world of tennis for Xbox. Lets face it there have been some truly awful tennis titles on Xbox that would have been best left unreleased, but this was not to be as one by one we encountered more bad tennis games then Pete Sampras won tennis titles. Top Spin however has been clever enough though to learn from the collection of disastrous tennis attempts on Xbox and refine the genre.
First of all lets get into the graphical side. well…. be prepared for a visual fest of lush textures, polygon bonanza filled stadiums and an atmosphere good enough to get your adrenaline pumping. The players look scarily detailed especially with the shadow casting perfectly on the reflecting hard courts. I could spend the whole review just trying to find the correct wording for the effects, textures and all round visual spectacular, but needless to say the graphics are jaw dropping and without a doubt the best tennis game visually on Xbox. What also makes a big impact is those all important small touches that bring more interest to environments. Courts vary from the ‘playground’ type where there is no crowd adoring your every shot. Instead find no umpire, no ball boys (or is it person these days?) just you, your opponent in this cold scenario. Even these less atmospheric courts manage to bring something to the game. Notice joggers in the background leisurely stretching their legs while you pummel your opponent. Watch the balls stay where they land as there is no one collecting them like a proper match where such luxuries are included.
The three main court types are present. These are of course grass my favourite, hard court and the ever interesting clay. Sliding on the clay looks great as you aim for your ultimate back hand in the corner of the court, and all stadiums no matter what level be it ‘playground’ or the crowd filled ‘Grand Slam’ are absolutely stunning. The ‘Career’ mode is pretty similar to the one found in Virtua Tennis 2 with a world map and coaching areas to gain extra skills for your players.
Your custom player, as the name suggests, is very customisable only second to the options in Tiger Woods 2004. Playing around with the settings can get you all sorts of looks, styles and completely mad looking characters for you to use. With any good sports game it is best to learn new skills gradually and complete tasks to enable your custom player to backhand, forehand, volley and serve and this is done perfectly in this game. Having 14 stars to assign to skills you choose you can either aim at your weaknesses to compensate or go directly for your strengths to make it more impossible for your opponent to return. With 4 areas you can assign stars to each having a possible maximum of 5 stars you need to really consider where you want to use these skills as an error can make for a very hard ride through the career mode.
Using Sponsors to gain cash and different outfits is a nice side of the game, but doesn’t really do enough to make it worth while. Career mode is very useful though and provides plenty of emotional moments. A pretty snazzy idea is the ‘ITZ’ bar. This gradually fills up when you win points and once full serving and taking risk shots are made much easier. ‘Risk’ shots are what the right trigger activates. This is either a very fast serve or a monster of a return which if executed correctly can be essential to one’s game. The serve aspect of this ‘Risk’ shot is definitely going to get more use then the general return shot as mid rally it is difficult to get the timing just right. Also note the emotion options after a point is played where you can express some different emotions such as my favourite throwing the racket down or giving a thumbs up to your opponent which is helpful online if you are not using the communicator. There are also quite a few shots to choose in your rally like the slice, drop shot, lob, slam, show with top spin and a safe standard return. The drop shot is also like the risk shot where a bar will appear moving until you let go of the trigger which though tricky to master will either drop perfectly just at the net or land painfully against the net.
For your amusement you can choose from either eight Male or eight Female tennis stars on exhibition games either offline or online through Xbox Live. Stars such as Pete Sampras, Anna Kournikova, Leyton Hewitt and a good selection of others. Unfortunately for us from the United Kingdom there are no players like Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski to use and I would have liked to see players like Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi to name a few but this is a minor flaw.
Online play is certainly something that got me wanting this game from day 1. The promise of having real human opposition rather then a sometimes predictable artificial creation was just too much to bear and when the time finally arrived to try this online I was not disappointed. Although getting a non laggy game is a challenge all of its own and once in a game you can’t quit even if laggy beyond belief as you lose vital ranking points the overall experience is mind blowing. One major downside is the lack of doubles play. The connection seems to be peer-peer set up requiring only two Xboxes to be linked at any one time. This means the only way to play doubles is to have a guest on both of the Xboxes. The voice quality is the same codec used as the new dashboard which means a slightly less clear sound but still fine to communicate with others.
Finally a tennis game on Xbox that can serve the goods. Tennis puns aside this one really has refined all tennis games and now Top Spin will sit quite comfortably on the top spot looking down on all the other previous tennis games with a filthy glance or two.