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March 27, 2011
Top Spin 4 - PS3 Review
Release Distributer Publisher Developer Offline Players Online Players
18/3/20112K Games2K Sports2K Czech1-42
Media HDD Space Resolution Move Controls Tilt Controls OFLC Rating

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One of the Williams sisters in Top Spin 4.
It feels like tennis games have been around forever, well, since the beginning of videogame history at least. From the moment Pong hit arcades way back in 1972, tennis buffs have been able to test their mettle against others without having to physically step onto the court. The latest entry into the world of tennis videogames is Top Spin 4 which has an entertaining career mode, robust online play and Move support. As to whether or not it's worth splashing out for, you'll have to read on to find out.

Without a doubt the most important part of a tennis game (most games for that matter) is the gameplay. On the surface tennis is a simple game; hit the ball back to your opponent until they can't hit it back to you anymore. Obviously that's a very simplistic view of tennis, and it wouldn't necessarily make an entertaining videogame if that's all you did. Luckily the folks at 2K Games have incorporated plenty of strategy into the game as well as a precise control scheme that rewards your efforts and immerses you in the moment.

First let's talk about the control scheme. There are two basic shot-types; power and control shots and timing is key to both of them. To perform a power shot you hold down a button (x for a flat shot, circle for top-spin and square for slice) and release it just as your onscreen character is about to play their shot. It feels a bit strange at first because you release the button before your character swings for the ball but with practice (and the judicious use of onscreen timing indicators) it will become second nature. One benefit to this system is that you can direct your shot after releasing the button, so if you've had to run all the way to the right to make a shot it's still very easy to aim the shot left and vice-versa. Control shots are more intuitive because you just have to tap the any of the three buttons as the ball arrives to get perfect timing.

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Top Spin 4 has some decent player models.
Other shots are simple to perform too, such as the drop shot (tap square while aiming away from the net) and lob (tap triangle while aiming away from the net). You can hare into the net by holding down R1, and volleys are simply a matter of pushing any button as the ball heads to your character. There are two methods of serving; the simple version where you hold down any button until the ball reaches its peak and then let go, and the advanced version where you pull down on the right analog stick and then push it up when the ball reaches its peak. With simple serves the button you use determines the shot type, just like regular shots; x for a flat serve, square for slice, circle for top spin. With advanced serves pushing the right analog directly up results in a flat serve, while pushing it on diagonals will perform top spin or slice serves. Advanced serves are much quicker but are harder to place precisely, while simple serves go slower but can be directed more easily.

Top Spin 4 features Move support and as you might expect the controls are different when you use this controller. The main difference is that instead of holding buttons to perform shots, you simply swing the Move controller. Swinging the controller quickly in a wide arc will result in a power shot, while shorter slower motions will result in a control shot. You can turn any shot into a slice by holding down the trigger, but for top spin shots you need to swing the Move controller like you would a racquet in real life, that is, back and down before swinging up and forwards. You can still charge to the net but you use L1 instead of R1, which is easy enough. For serves you flick the Move controller up before flicking it down when the ball-toss reaches its peak. While all of these controls are easy enough to grasp, I found that overall the Move controller wasn't as precise as a regular controller. This isn't a knock on the Move itself because it works just fine, but rather it is more difficult to flick your wrists perfectly to get the top spin you wanted, while the difference between power and control shots can be hard to judge. It's also tiring to use the Move for extended periods, which isn't a bad thing, but it can further affect your own precision and timing.

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Playing at the US Open.
Moving on to the strategy aspect of the game, Top Spin 4 handles this differently than any other tennis game I've played. Every player in the game falls into one of three categories; serve-volley, offensive baseliner and defensive baseliner. Although there isn't a paper-scissors-rock relationship between the three categories, each one has its own strength and weaknesses. A serve-volley player has a strong serve and high volley and reflex skills. They win their points by dominating at the net but are generally weaker around the court than the baseliners. Offensive baseliners rely heavily on their high power as well as impressive forehand and backhand skills. They are not very fast and have low stamina though, so their weakness is to be kept moving around the court. Defensive baseliners are the opposite of their offensive counter-parts, with superior speed and endurance but low power. They win points by running their opponents all over the court, wearing them down and forcing the error. On the flip side they can be blasted off the court by players with enough power.

There are three game modes in offline play; exhibition, king of the court and career. In king of the court four players, made up of any combination of AI and at least one user, take part in a round robin style tournament where the winner stays on the court. The object is to be the first to win a pre-selected number of matches to be crowned the king of the court. While these two modes are ok, there is no doubt you'll spend most of your time in the career mode. You can choose to be either male or female, and after deciding on your look, height and build you're ready to step onto the court. In any given month you can participate in one preparation event and one tournament.

The preparation event will either be a sparring match that earns you experience, or a special event you've unlocked through your progress. These special events can be matches or one off events like a new training regime, both of which earn extra experience, or something like a fashion show, or TV interview where you're rewarded with new fans. Aside from the matches you don't participate in any of the events, you just get a screen telling you what happened and what your reward is. There are multiple tournaments to play in each month, though you can only choose one and then only if you're eligible. There are minor, major and master tournaments as well as Grand Slams and the difficulty increases as you go along.

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Andre Agassi hitting another winner.
Your objective in career mode is to become the world's number one player, and along the way you earn experience used to level up your player. When leveling up you get to choose which one of the three player types (serve-volley, offensive and defensive baseliner) you want to level up. Whichever option you choose, the game automatically allocates skill bonuses to the skills that player type uses most. For example a serve-volley player would receive a boost their volley and reflexes, a defensive baseliner would likely gain a speed boost, and an offensive baseliner would likely get a boost to their serve and power. You can see the bonuses before selecting which player type you want, though specializing in one particular type is probably the best way to go. As you level up you'll also gain access to coaches who can bestow additional skill boosts on your player. You'll have to earn these bonuses by performing certain tasks for your coach, such as hitting ‘x' number of flat shots, winning a set number of matches or hitting ‘x' number of balls close to the lines. Once unlocked the bonuses stay with your player until you change coaches.

If you want to go online there are three game modes to try out; exhibition, world tour and 2K Open. The world tour is an online career mode where you can partake in tournaments against real life opponents, with the goal of becoming the world number one. New seasons begin weekly and there was plenty of activity online when I was there, with 500+ users regularly.

The difficulty curve in offline play is, for the most part, well balanced. On Normal and lower difficulty settings you will win most points with one or two well-timed shots. There is a noticeable step up in challenge when you select Hard or higher difficulty settings, and the further you progress in tournaments the tougher the challenge is too. In minor tournaments you'll need to string together multiple well-timed shots to win. The major tournaments require you to mix up different shot types, as trying the same strategy all the time (i.e. power shots from the baseline in my case) will eventually stop working. In master tournaments you'll need to employ all the tools in your arsenal, swapping between control and power shots regularly, while mixing up your strategy from point to point if you want to win. The Grand Slam events are obviously the toughest of all, and it is here I found the game pulled no punches, perhaps to the point of ‘cheating'. On the one hand I don't mind the Grand Slams being genuinely tough, but on the other hand it's pretty annoying to play multiple perfect shots in a row, have the opponent at full-stretch, only to be beaten by a blitzing power shot…

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Top Spin 4 is out now with Move support.
Outside of the questionable difficulty spike in Grand Slams, I didn't find too many issues with the game. There were occasions when the reaction time of my power-hitting baseliner was highly questionable, with him moving as if he was knee deep in molasses, but a few games with the ultra fast Michael Chang suggest that it had more to do with my player's lack of speed than the game itself. Some people may be turned off by the fact that there is nothing to do in the game outside of playing matches – there are no training drills, no interviews or press conferences – but others may find the game better without them.

A few quick and minor issues I had were that on occasion my opponent served from in front of a white background making it all but impossible to spot the ball until it was most of the way to my player. The online experience is variable and will depend a lot on your opponents internet speed. In one match I played there was highly noticeable slow-down between almost every shot, whereas in others the game flowed wonderfully. You can't tell how well the game will play until you're underway, and a game with a lot of lag isn't much fun. The final issue I had was that there wasn't more grind to the career mode. By that I mean you're not really made to work for your success, and from your very first tournament, at the lowest possible level, you're playing in front of a packed house. I felt it would have been better and more realistic if you started off playing in front of next to no-one, and slowly worked your way up to the bigger arenas.

Overall the visuals are mixed, though there is more quality here than not. The courts are all vibrantly coloured; the clay seems almost red, the grass is unbelievably green, while the hard courts are a deep blue. They look the part too, with television cameras located around the court, along with ball-boys (and girls) and a somewhat detailed crowd (though they act as one, all making the same movements). There are 25 real-life players in the game, including current players like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic as well as former superstars like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Some of the players look and move just like their real life counterparts, like Nadal and Federer, though Nadal's patented underpants fiddle is not included. However others like Pat Rafter and Jim Courier are hardly recognizable.

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Another Top Spin 4 shot from the US Open.
Players move fluidly the vast majority of the time, but there are occasions where you feel like you're fighting the tide to get your player to move a certain way. I'm not sure if this is due to a lack of shot animations, but whatever the case it can be a bit off-putting. It's also worth noting that Top Spin 4 can be played in stereoscopic 3D, but unfortunately the Futuregamez budget doesn't include a 3D-capable TV for all employees, so it wasn't tested for this review.

There isn't a lot to write home about in the sound department, though the effects are all of good quality. You can tell the different shots apart by the sound they make coming off the racquet, with drop shots and slices making a much softer sound than power shots which seem to explode off the racquet. The crowd sounds are a bit generic, but credit to the developers for making the crowd react most loudly to saved break and match points. The umpires have a tendency to sound a bit robotic, but that probably reflects real life umpires so I can't criticize that too much.

Overall Top Spin 4 is a genuinely fun game thanks to precise controls and the need for some strategy in your matches. There is some frustrating difficulty spikes designed to make you earn your Grand Slam titles, and online play can be variable but overall this is quite the polished title. Tennis and sports fans alike will get plenty of enjoyment from the game, though they may reach the summit a bit quicker than they'd like. Certainly Top Spin 4 is the best tennis game on the PS3 to date, but it will face a challenge for that title from Virtua Tennis 4 in May.

Review By: Mike Allison

GRAPHICSBright and colourful courts along with fluid player movement and controls. Some real life players look terrible though.
SOUNDJust what you'd expect from a tennis game, with good on-court effects, a boisterous if generic crowd and rather mundane announcing. The menu music is better than average.
GAMEPLAYRock solid controls and the requirement for strategy are great. The dubious and dastardly AI at higher difficulty levels is a controller hazard though.
VALUEWhat's here is fun, but you can become world number one quickly. Online adds plenty of value if you're so inclined.
OVERALLTop Spin 4 is a very good game, but one that doesn't quite reach greatness. Well worth checking out if you're a tennis or sports fan though.

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