Now I hope you are ready for some tennis nostalgia as we set off in our little gaming time machine back to the good old SEGA Dreamcast, where the delights of two players, one net, two rackets and a few simple lines to create the outline of a court can inspire even the most bewildered sport fanatic.
Yes, the game I am talking about is of course Virtua Tennis, which is the pinnacle sports title of the last few console generations. With its arcade styling’s and simple pick up and play attitude, this SEGA gem had been left in the shadows since the demise of the Dreamcast and only now has it appeared from behind the crowd to again take on the competitors.
There is one main difference though that earlier titles didn’t have to endure and that is a strong rival for the tennis crown. Top Spin caught many of us by surprise (especially me) by capturing a lot of the positives of Virtua Tennis, yet still managing to put its own stamp on the gameplay. Luckily for the latest Virtua Tennis title, Top Spin’s successor on the Xbox 360 was less than inspiring and has left the top spot free again for a game like this one to sneak in.
As someone who has played all the Virtua Tennis titles and adored the original Top Spin, I have an interesting, yet mixed desire for a return to the nostalgia of the previous titles in the series whilst yearning for something fresh. Not an easy challenge for the developers by any stretch of the imagination, however I am pleased to report on the most part they have not only succeeded, but also managed to bring a little heritage and joy back from the good old days.
So the familiar use of the career system, which includes mini games to increase your skill statistics, tournaments and a wide selection of courts, all aid in keeping you entertained without the need to pop online. This is just as well seeing as the poor PlayStation 3 version lacks this all important multiplayer feature, however the Xbox 360 version includes our now demanded in most games, Xbox Live component.
Begin by creating your custom player, which includes some basic settings to alter the look of your character. Not a deluge of options, but enough to get something interesting out of the process nevertheless. Once you have named your character off you go to the world map, which just like Virtua Tennis titles before it, leaves you with a vast slew of tournaments, mini games and even the chance to pop off on holiday to have a well deserved rest.
The career mode here is all about balance and making sure that your tennis exploits are not left in tatters due to some bad choices. Mini games are there to help improve your players skill statistics, be it your footwork speed, volleying, ground strokes, serving and more. Of course initially your player resembles an elephant pacing around the court as all the skill levels are non-existent and it is left to you and your training to advance through the levels.
Mini games are rewarding and entertaining and steadily increase in difficulty as you yourself start to get the hang of it. There are so many mini games, it would take too long to mention them all, so how about this one? One mini game has you darting about the screen trying to capture fruit which is rolling down a little hill, but you have to avoid gigantic tennis balls that are also careering down with it all. It is surprisingly a lot more fun than it sounds and I am sure you too will find the one that works best for you.
There is also a tennis academy, where you will have to complete challenges to gain a few more increases in your skill levels, however it seems an odd addition as you are much better to use the mini games in this endeavour. This probably would have been better as a completely different mode, but a very welcomed one anyway.
Starting at rank 200, you have to make your way all the way to the coveted number one spot by completing tournaments. Again these progressively get harder as you progress until you finally meet the last player, which believe me you will be doing incredibly well if you can beat this one!
One last consideration in this mode is your stamina. This little gauge will decrease as you train and play tournaments, but if you let it get too low, you run the risk of getting injured and missing out on some vital calendar time.
Virtua Tennis 3 is all about simple controls and for the most part you will be pressing the ‘A’ button (standard shot) in all your rallies. You also have lob, slice etc, but the requirement to use these is far less important except in a more tactical match where you are facing great difficulty. It’s more about how your player is positioned and is incredibly unforgiving if you are poised even slightly wrong. If you are not careful, you will find yourself diving all over the place, hitting very weak shots back to your opponent or even worse missing the ball altogether.
This is the most frustrating part of the game as you can be in an intense rally, about to go in for the kill and you end up playing this piddly little shot back to your opponent only to get nailed yourself and lose the point. Although Virtua Tennis 3 is very faithful to its previous incarnations, it is maybe a little too faithful because of this annoying flaw. It doesn’t flow as nicely as the original Top Spin, however don’t get me wrong, the arcade styling of this game is a must for any tennis fan, it just lacks a little refinement.
Graphically the 1080p factor will make a difference if you have that £2000 HDTV set, however in 720p the photo-realistic style works very well. It may not be as detailed as say Top Spin 2, but it does capture that sense of realism and the professional players for the most part do resemble their real life counterparts.
Of course as mentioned earlier, Xbox Live play is available to have those all important ranked singles and doubles games, but the feature that may surprise you is VT:TV. This allows you to watch your friend’s most recent game, live matches or even get a group of friends together and all enjoy watching and then playing. Tournaments are great online with a few friends and having this spectator feature is superb.
Generally Virtua Tennis runs very well and even if a little lag is detected that can completely ruin your return, the game calls a “let, first service” and you replay that point all over again, which is certainly ingenious!
The last annoyance comes from the music contained within the game, which plays while you are in a match as well. This weird rock style that has been present in earlier titles will just end up being muted after a few intense gaming sessions and it is here you thank Microsoft yet again for the custom soundtracks ability. The rest of the sounds are nice, but the crowd could do with a lot more variation.
Virtua Tennis 3 is a very welcome return from the people at SEGA and Sumo Digital’s port has captured that arcade charm perfectly. Although a trifle frustrating with some of the mis-timed shots, Virtua Tennis 3 deserves a place in your sports collection especially if you have a few friends who can join in the jocularity it provides. We can at long last forgive SEGA for releasing Sonic on the Xbox 360, as in true SEGA fashion, they have released a very pure classic for us to enjoy all over again.