Tennis tends to get a bad video game rap. It’s a shame it often carries the tag of “nothing more than a glorified version of Pong” because it’s really so much more than that. Sure, there is the constant back-and-forth of play, but there are subtleties beneath the surface – the ability to add different kinds of spin affects the bounce of the ball; the texture of the court (whether it be grass, clay, or hard) can lessen or speed up the pace of racquet exchanges; and then there’s the human element – each player has their own quirks, whether it be speed, stamina, or preferred shots. Translating all those elements into actual video game components that feel right is not an easy task.
For years, gamers have flocked in the direction of SEGA’s Virtua Tennis series, simply because it disregards actual tennis conventions. Instead of rewarding proper footwork, flawless racquet motion, and a keen awareness of the court conditions, SEGA went in the arcade direction. It was almost a way of saying, “Forget the proper tennis stuff; just get near the ball and mash a button.” That development mentality makes for an immediately gratifying experience, but sacrifices depth in the process. With Top Spin 3, 2K Sports has run headfirst in a simulation direction, leaving arcade-like concepts in passing. What this does is splinter the potential audience: gamers who want depth and a more lifelike experience will appreciate what Top Spin 3 offers, but those looking for a quick tennis fix will be completely turned off.
Before venturing into any of the game’s modes, you’ll spend some time in Top Spin School. The game doesn’t force players to pass all the classes available, but it might as well – the skills you learn in this mode are absolutely necessary. Starting nice and slow, these tutorials introduce you to controller basics such as hitting the ball flat, adding topspin, and chopping with slice. Nailing those kinds of shots is much easier in theory than in practice. Each type of shot is tied to one of three buttons, and the key is proper footwork and solid timing. If you get too close to a ball or aren’t lined up properly, your player will completely miss the shot – twitch gaming tactics are not rewarded. The shot process almost comes off as counter-intuitive at first: the longer you hold the shot button down before taking a swing, the more power and accuracy you get.
Getting the hang of swinging your racquet requires a sizable time investment. The key is holding down the shot button almost before the ball heads in your direction and then timing your release at just the right moment. It takes a while to get to the point where this all clicks in a comfortable manner, but when it does it feels like a much more solid tennis experience than Virtua Tennis. The only problem is exactly when it does click. Case in point, during many of the online matches played for this review, it was obvious players split into two groups: those who had a grip on the controls (and in turn played like pros) and those who whiffed every other shot.
Now, those are just the basic controls. Baseline rallying – with a decent opponent – can go on almost indefinitely if you don’t learn how to use special shots. These include powerful put-aways, drop shots, lobs, and specialty serves. Put-away shots require holding down one more button, but the results (when timed right) are worth it: the ball rockets across the court, making your opponent scramble. With time, they are easy to pickup, but your first batch of attempts will likely result in shots that are slightly out and balls clipping the top of the net. Drop shots and lobs are a trickier affair because they rely on holding down a specific button combined with a touch of finesse on the right thumbstick. Serving can be done with a simple button press corresponding to a spin type or can be accomplished with just the right thumbstick. The former results in a serve that’s almost always in, but the latter produces more speed and spin; the only problem is the execution. You start the serve with the thumbstick, then snap it forward (the faster you do this, the more speed you get). However, timing it is a pain; more often than not the ball will just hit you in the head.
With a grasp of the controls under your belt, you can embark upon one of the game’s four modes: exhibition, tournament, career, and online play. Exhibition allows you to get a quick fix: you select your game type (singles or doubles), difficulty level, and then pick a player from the roster. 2K Sports went out of their way to get noticeable figures from the tennis world and it shows. Stars like Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Boris Becker, and Bjorn Borg are available. You can also use a custom character that you’ve created (more on this in a bit). Tournament Mode allows you to jump into well-known events from the tennis world such as the U.S. and Australian Open. This mode essentially plays like a string of exhibition matches, but with more structure.
The mode that will absorb most players’ time is the Career Mode. It all starts with the robust character creator. After selecting a base model, you can fine-tune nearly everything about your character. From age to hair styles to custom animations and tattoos, you could literally spend an hour just making your character. The options at your disposal are ridiculously complex. For example, the morphology tool allows you to pick individual points on a face and stretch or tighten them – just be careful or you might end up with someone resembling the Elephant Man. Once you start winning matches in Career Mode, the game rewards you with XP and unlock points. XP works in a RPG fashion and can be used to level up individual parts of your character (like forehand power and accuracy). Unlock points function as in-game cash. You use them at a virtual, multi-floored mall to purchase new shoes, racquets, shirts, and shorts. They’re all purely cosmetic, but offer a nice way to distinguish your character from the rest.
Since Top Spin 3 is a sports game, it comes with that particular genre’s graphical baggage. That means while the player models look quite good, other areas are rougher around the edges – the crowds repeat with the same handful of lifeless caricatures and the stadiums seem like they could have used more detail. The audio side has this same kind of half-good, half-bad feel. Tennis noises, like crowd chatter and racquet swings, all come off as authentic, but the soundtrack falters. Made up entirely of licensed tracks, none of the songs seem to really fit a tennis vibe. It’s a little weird to be creating a custom player while Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” plays in the background.
Multiplayer definitely gives the game legs – it’s just a shame the performance is so inconsistent. For this review, multiplayer matches (both singles and doubles) were tested on multiple occasions and the latency was always different. On one occasion, the connection completely gave out; on another it lagged significantly, stuttering every five seconds. Only one match was seemingly lag-free. Still, the ability to jump online and challenge other players (either using your custom player or picking from pros) is a nice offering.
Top Spin 3 knows its market – this is a game aimed at tennis buffs who appreciate a simulation approach to their favorite sport. Like all realistic takes, there’s a steep learning curve (thanks to the game’s controls) that will probably frustrate more gamers than win over new converts. Virtua Tennis fans need not apply; this is tennis done more accurately…for better or worse. The game may not serve up an ace, but it makes for a solid set.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
The players strut their stuff and look great doing it. The same can’t be said of crowds and stadiums – the attention to detail in those areas just isn’t as pronounced. 3.7 Control
This will be the deciding factor for many players. Those who can get the nuances down will love the sim-like feel; those more comfortable with the likes of Virtua Tennis will be get frustrated rather quickly. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The ambient tennis noises like grunts, crowd noise, and careful footwork all replicate the atmosphere of watching a match. However, the licensed music tracks feel unnecessary and random in their selection. 3.7 Play Value
With a solid career mode, exhibition play, and multiplayer, the game comes off as a well-rounded package. 3.6 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.