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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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