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2K Czech lobs up a ball to serve as TVG cowers with knobbly knees at the baseline...
Is it just us, or has the appeal of tennis games to the hardcore gamer waned over the years? Pong may have been a pivotal title for the industry back in 1972, but it's hard to find much evidence of innovation in the years since; especially when arguably the most successful tennis game of our time - Wii Sports - strips back the core mechanics so adroitly, distilling the essence of the sport to a simple flick of the wrist. What justification can there be for increasing complexity of control, when the most successful example of the genre for forty years is perhaps the simplest ever made? Even Pong had movement controls after all.
But while other developers have long since relegated tennis games to an after-thought in mini-game collections, or a casual arcade experience, the Top Spin team have sought to craft a subtle, complex game that captures the myriad nuances of the sport. After more than five years of iteration, their efforts culminated in Top Spin 3 in 2008; a game that was simultaneously the richest, most rewarding tennis simulation of its time, and also the least accessible example of possibly the most accessible genre around.
It was something of a Marmite game. While those that persevered were rewarded with a gradual unravelling of its rich subtle layers, many were instantly deterred by its brazenly complex character. Tennis games were supposed to be prefixed by 'Super' or 'Virtua', use three or four buttons at most, and be effortless to pick up and play; Top Spin 3 actually included a lengthy virtual academy that players had to sweat through in order to master it - this was a tennis game you could take a diploma in.
However, following the acquisition of PAM Development and the assimilation of the core Top Spin team into 2K Czech, the watchword has been 'accessibility'. The goal for Top Spin 4 is to craft a more approachable experience, without sacrificing the depth that defines the series. Thankfully this appears to be one of the rare examples in the industry where 'accessibility' doesn't actually mean 'dumbing down'. The developers haven't abandoned their vision of a hardcore tennis game, and have instead sought to repackage the experience by refining its control systems and implementing an extensive range of in-game help options to aid newcomers.
The result is a game that potentially has all the nuance of its predecessors, with a less intimidating learning curve for new players. Gone are the shoulder-button activated 'risk moves' of Top Spin 3; shot power and accuracy now evolve entirely as a function of position, timing and player attributes, with the character of a shot determined by the length of your button press: a long charge resulting in a powerful whack; a simple tap triggering a more accurate 'control' shot. Complicated multi-button moves are conspicuously absent, with shot quality predominately determined through the procedural interactions of the in-game physics engine. You'll still be able to choose whether to play a slice or lob depending on which face button you press, but the quality of the shot - its power and accuracy - is a consequence of your position and timing, rather than some arbitrary shoulder-button press. Much like its rival Virtua Tennis 4, the game will also feature PlayStation Move support, although the development team are at great pains to emphasise their focus on engineering a fair competitive balance between the different methods of control on offer.
Whether these changes ultimately result in a more efficient game, or simply less control at higher levels of play remains to be seen. There's no doubt that control shots will prove divisive amongst veterans of the franchise; Top Spin 3 emphasised charged shots and precise timing, and serious players may fear that a simple 'tap' mechanic will dilute the experience. Nevertheless, those anticipating a regressive Virtua Tennis clone need not be too concerned; positioning and timing are still paramount to the quality of a shot - so if you have to run across court to catch an errant ball out of position for example, a simple tap is very unlikely to save you. In practise it was possible to 'tap' the button in Top Spin 3 anyway, and at least the removal of risk shots will signal an end to the constant spamming of the over-powered moves that prevails online.
Alongside the streamlined controls, the biggest new concession to accessibility is the inclusion of a range of in-game 'helpers' which provide real-time feedback about your shots. One of the biggest criticisms of Top Spin 3 was the opaque nature of the systems underpinning the game - it simply took a long time to understand what was required in order to play the perfect shot. Top Spin 4 addresses this with a fatigue meter which shows your character's current state, and a power gauge which indicates when you've charged a shot up to maximum; there's also a 'bounce helper' which predicts the position of a ball's first bounce, and crucially, a 'timing helper', which informs you whether you're 'too soon', 'late', good' or 'perfect' when playing your shots, somewhat like a real-time version of the reactive feedback from the previous game's Academy. Each of the tools can be toggled on or off at any point during play via the pause menu, and together they substantially expedite the process of familiarisation with the game. Top Spin 4's academy has also been reformed, teaching more practical lessons about tennis tactics and shot control, and the in-game audio has been overhauled to incorporate a wider range of crowd reactions and foment a more engaging atmosphere.
The player-specific 'Signature Style' animations are convincing, and when taken in conjunction with the refined attributes system really lend unique character to each of the game's 25 licensed tennis pros. Nadal looks, moves, and plays like Nadal, with the crippling cross-court forehand you would expect; Sampras rushes the net with confidence, crushing volleys with his characteristic power. It's undeniably uncanny when your avatar celebrates a victory just as they would in real life, but perhaps even more impressive is the actual variation in feel between players. 2K Czech have tried to create a game in which different styles of tennis can triumph over each other; there are a range of options for creating a custom character, at the heart of which lies a comprehensive list of stats determining prowess in forehand, backhand, serve, volley, speed etc. Impressively, these numbers seem to genuinely translate into the performance you would expect during play; a fast character with a strong volley is markedly different to a slow player with a strong backhand for example.
In this post-CoD world, it seems every game is required to have some sort of levelling system in place, and Top Spin 4 doesn't disappoint. But rather than micromanaging each individual attribute of your character as you progress, every level you gain in online and offline play nets you a point to put into one of three broad characteristics - Serve and Volley, Offensive Baseline, or Defensive Baseline ability - each of which distributes an appropriate package of points amongst your stats. There are twenty levels in total, and twenty points for each level, with different distributions for each level of each category; so while level one of Serve and Volley might place 5 points each in Serve, Volley, Speed, and Reflexes, level two might put 10 points into Speed and Volley alone.
You can further customise your character by recruiting coaches; these act like equipable upgrades, and come with a stats boost and a range of objectives. Completing objectives (such as performing 70 lobs, or winning a game with slices alone), unlocks additional coach-specific buffs and perks; you might get increased forehand power, or an ability such as 'Focus Service' - which improves your serve when behind on points. Consequently, switching between coaches makes it possible to tweak your character in response to the specific challenges posed by each individual opponent you encounter.
Top Spin 4 is shaping up to be everything that TVG looks for in a tennis partner - good looking, rich, and engagingly complex. Whether it will continue to hold our interest over the long term depends a great deal on how the new control system revisions ultimately affect the evolution of the online game. Hopefully 2K Czech's subtle, streamlined approach will result in a more intuitive experience, without compromising the depth of control that has been the hallmark of the series up to this point.
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