Developer: 2K Czech
Publisher: 2K Sports
There's only really ever been two main options for the discerning tennis fan in recent years, particularly after EA's own foray in the genre was limply spluttering at best (the less said about Grand Slam Tennis the better), and we've come a long, long way since Pong. For those who leant more towards accessibility and the arcades, it's always been about SEGA's Virtua Tennis, whereas 2K's offerings have tended to be rather more complex, deeper and rather closer to simulation.
On the surface, that would appear to hold true here. If you've grown up with smashing oversized balls at bowling pins, or desperately scrabbling to pick up chucked fruit, relying on button combinations to yield variety, then you might not find what you're looking for here. But to the neutral, largely thanks to 2K Czech's conscious effort to make an accessible control system that retains nuances and subtleties, Top Spin 4 might just win through.
We've waited three years for a sequel to Top Spin 3, and the developers have hardly been sitting on their hands. There's a comprehensive tutorial that takes you through the various ups and downs of the revised control system, but the basics are very intuitive indeed. Your basic shots are assigned to the face buttons - flat, topspin, slice and lob given over to A, B, X and Y respectively - with the right and left triggers providing the occasional modifier. RT and X, for example, will yield the precious drop-shot.
Sounds simple, right? And it is, the difficulty and depth coming in terms of depth and the types of shot you choose. Opting to hold the desired button will power up a shot based on strength, but low in accuracy. Timing is crucial, you need to release in time for the backswing, gauging the ball's bounce to achieve hit perfection. Conversely, to produce well hit shots with dive-inducing accuracy, simply tapping the desired button at the perfect moment will make your opponent howl in frustration as you pull of a cross-court slice that they have no hope of reaching.
The Academy also illustrates the tactical advantage of deploying key shots in your arsenal at certain points. It doesn't just give you the basics and let you get on with things (although that's certainly an option), but if oyu want it, it outlines the advanced patterns and techniques mirrored in the sport in real-life. It's a learning tool of which developers in all genres would do well to take note.
On the court, things are pretty good as well. The fluid system allows for some excellent battles and numerous styles of play. Bassline play is all about placement and timing, whereas net play can turn into something of a button-mashing fiasco at first. Give it time, though, and it becomes a game of quick reflexes and satisfying reward.
The courts themselves look pretty good at first, the atmosphere spot on, with crowd members extremely well animated, rising out of their seats at crucial moments, clamouring on key points. The players give a good account of themselves too, animation is fluid and although they're all pretty ugly. EA has certainly set a benchmark in terms of graphical stylings in sports titles, and this falls a little short of the mark. There's stereoscopic 3D available on all versions, but to be honest the frame-rate is so good that halving it seem borderline criminal. Creating your own player is something of an exercise in visual horror with the expert facial editor allowing you to pull and tweak a good twenty or so different point on your character's head to mould them into a visual monstrosity.
I couldn't find an afro option, though! I was heartbroken.
After creating a 2 metre tall valkyrie named Letitia Amazonia, however, I plunged into the game's meaty Career Mode. There are some licensed players on show here, from world class champions such as Nadal, Djokovic, Ivanovic and Serena Williams to...erm...Andy Murray, and they are joined later on by legends of the sport such as Agassi, Sampras, Borg and Becker. However, the list is far from comprehensive, and there's a distinct lack of female legends. Where's Hingis, Graf, Seles, Navratilova and BJK? Exhibitions are standard and there's a fairly good winner-stays-on mode in the form of King of the Court, but ultimately Career Mode is where it's at.
Similar to the World Tour in SEGA's offerings, Career Mode see you taking a bright young thing from amateur to legend over the course of several years, slowly working your way up the rankings, taking on training spots and tournaments each month. There are also some light RPG elements on display too, and you can level up your stats by earn experience points through matches and sparring sessions. Additionally, you'll be able to choose a coach, who'll give you specific objectives that might earn you extra XP. Coaches fall into three levels - bronze, silver and gold - and, as you progresses and win, earning XP, accolades and fans, you'll have access to better coaches. Each coach has four skills - this could equate to XP bonuses, stat boosts or raised efficiency in particular shots - unlocked by fulfilling on-court court objectives. It adds a nice extra dimension to what could otherwise be a fairly stale experience, although by and large there's little really to deviate from lots and lots of tennis. Those who like the mini games Virtua Tennis has to offer, might find the purity of sport here a little overwhelming.
Take the action online and you begin to realise that Career Mode is not the entire package. 2K Czech have done a cracking job in creating an entertaining and engaging World Tour mode that allows for tournaments, rankings and more. It'll keep you coming back too, as the AI, even at the highest level, has nothing really on the unpredictability of human opponents, if you can find them. There are unranked match options here too, of course, so plenty for the short-burst player too, although newbies might find the majority of their opponents overwhelmingly tough. I can compete on the higher difficulty levels and I found myself swept aside on several occasions. Sadly the intricacies of World Tour meant I could never really find a reliable game in the ranked tournaments, so one to revisit there later on.
Overall, Top Spin 4 manages to firmly take the middle ground in the tennis war, while still managing to offer the depth that fans of the series would have been sad to see dropped. The control system has been simplified in a manner of speaking, but not dumbed down, the emphasis now on timing and precision. And, with a massive Career Mode and plenty of reasons to leap online, there's a sizeable chunk of gaming here to keep players occupied.
- Deceptively deep, intuitive control system
- Career Mode is massive
- World Tour is a cracking idea...
- ...but finding players can be a real mission
- Some hideous visages
- Still possibly daunting for absolute newcomers
The Short Version: Top Spin 4 serves up one hell of a challenge to SEGA. With a refined, precise control system that takes minutes to learn and hours to master, a massive Career Mode that is an utter treat and plenty of online options, 2K have laid down a formidable gauntlet in the best tennis game seen in years.