Tennis is a wonderful sport. It’s a mixture of precision and commitment and it has a sense of class about it that distances it from other sports, both team and solo. The sport has flourished over the past two decades and the world’s grand slams have increased in popularity and prestige-ness.
However, the sport has never been truly represented on the video-game front. The best tennis video-game iterations have been arcade titles in the form of Virtua Tennis and Smash Court Tennis, while the Top Spin series has for the past few years attempted to provide gamers with a sim-like tennis experience with realistic gameplay. Ultimately, the arcade versions held their own against the sim franchise from 2K Sports. However, with Top Spin 3 on XBOX 360 and Playstation 3, we now have possibly the most realistic, albeit inaccessible, tennis video-game ever developed.
First things first, Top Spin 3 is challenging. If you’re used to the basic hard-hitting style of Virtua Tennis, you’ll find your self being increasingly frustrated by the realistic and precision-reliant style of Top Spin 3. This title takes a far more realistic approach with its gameplay. For example, with Top Spin 3, instead of controlling your player into the same direction of the ball and simply hitting a button, you must place your player in a position where their hitting action is accurate to the timing of your own action. If you hold a button down for a hard smash but you’re not positioned right, your player will make an error, hitting the ball into the net or out of court. This is as opposed to Virtua Tennis, where the player almost always hits the ball as long as they’re within a few feet. It’s far more difficult to perform a good hit than you think, and the controller slightly vibrants whenever you’ve made a perfect shot. This will probably turn you into a perfectionist, constantly aiming for 100% perfected shots. Or you’ll just throw your controller into the wall.
The risky shot (Left trigger) feature has been included once again and improved, but needs to be used appropriately if it is to be effective. If you try and do a Risk Shot return with every ball, chances are you’ll end up blazing away and making unforced error after unforced error . If your opponent slams the ball down the line and you have to run to return it, a Risk Shot is almost impossible to pull off, as your player isn’t correctly positioned. However, if your opponent returns a floating ball that gives you a few seconds to prepare and wait, a Risk Shot has a high probability of success. It’s all about timing and perfecting your players positioning as well as using tactics and timing.
You can also pull off more powerful shots that are, like the risky shot, totally reliant upon your player placement and timing. Pulling off risky and powerful shots (right + left triggers) is extremely dangerous, but adds a bit of challenge, as they’re totally necessary if you plan on progressing into the later stages of the career mode. These types of shots give Top Spin 3 a sort of realism, as they aren’t as easy to pull off as the power shots in Virtua Tennis are. They require the same amount of precision in the game as they do in real-life.
Those of you who like to play up at the net will find pleasure in the addition of a charge button, where your player can sprint up to the net after a serve or shot. Instead of just directing your player up to the net with the basic animation and speed, they’ll speed up and sprint so as to meet the next shot with a press of the right shoulder button. This feature is crucial – like the risky and power shot – when the game gets a little more challenging, particularly in career mode. Simply running up to the net at normal pace won’t do it, and your player will end up hitting the ball at the wrong angle and smash it into the net. Sprinting to the net gives you time to position your player perfectly for the upcoming shot and is a welcomed addition to the gameplay.
The most interesting and applauded new feature in Top Spin 3 has to be the excitement and fatigue meter, which determines how your player reacts on the court. After a long point or deep into a close and long match, both your player and their opponent’s heart rates will increase, increasing the chance of an error. If your player’s heart rate is high, which can be determined from the monitor underneath their name, their performance on court is influenced dramatically. You’ve also got environmental factors, such as the weather, which also have an effect. The sun, for example, can cause your player to sweat and even get sunburnt, and when this is coupled with a very high heart rate, their chances of hitting a successful return is minimal, no matter how well you place them. This is where your character development is vital, and you have to be able to share around customisation points to particular areas. Having an awesome serve won’t matter if your player has a low stamina rating.
The gameplay as a whole in Top Spin 3 is as close to the real thing in a video-game as we’ve ever seen. It’s a completely different experience to Virtua Tennis 3, and some of the new gameplay additions and alterations, like the risky and power shots as well as player placement, may make it difficult to appreciate for those after a more arcadey title. As a tennis simulator, Top Spin 3 does a pretty good job.
However, beyond actually controlling your player, Top Spin 3 is missing a few things. The crowds, for example, add absolutely nothing to the experience. Anyone who has been to a match during the Australian Open or Wimbledon will know how intense and passionate the crowds can get, but that passion isn’t felt at all in this title. There’s no option to hire your own coach, which was a great feature in Virtua Tennis 3, and there is no option to train in front of crowds during an event, which leaves the title feeling bare.
Then you have Career Mode, which is lengthy and fairly challenging, albeit fairly basic. The player creation tool is cool and there are plenty of options to create your perfect player, as well a nice number of tennis stores to spend the points you earn from wins. XP is also earned, which can be used to alter your player’s attributes. What’s probably the most disappointing aspect of the career mode is the lack of a training mode or on-court activity mode, where your skills are increased dependant on your training scores. It’s pretty easy to just smash through the first few tournaments and increase your player’s skill, especially considering the first few opponents play like turtles.
Once your player becomes an all out pro, you can head online to the fantastic World Tour mode, where players can join any tournament and fight it out. Each tournament lasts a real-time 14 days. Once that time limit is reached, the win/loss records are wiped clean and you can use all XP achieved to add to your attributes. Career Mode is worth playing through simple to try out this online mode, as it’s a lot of fun playing against player created pro’s.
Graphically, Top Spin 3 looks great. The character design looks relatively top notch, with some players looking just like their real life counterparts, while others look a bit off. On-court animations are impressive, especially when playing a clay courts and you see the players slide all over the place, and the crowd animations are decent…when they do actually cheer. If you get a glance at the crowds from a side-view, they look pretty horrible, but from the view they’re supposed to be seen at, they look OK.
The sound is a big let down, although the soundtrack has some nice tracks from Jamiroquai and Franz Ferdinan. The audio is repetitive and unimpressive, with the crowd noises and player reactions all very disappointing.
Top Spin 3 is the best tennis sim title on the market, but it has a few features missing that hold it back. The career mode lacks any true character with no coaches or training included, and the gameplay may be inaccessible for those suited to a more arcady title.