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2K Sports takes to the courts for the long-awaited return of its Top Spin series...
It’s almost impossible to ignore the relationship that games have enjoyed with the ol’ back-and-forth of tennis; the racquet sport has forever been enshrined within the annals of video gaming. Although the simplicity of 'Tennis for Two' and 'Pong' have long been superseded by the latest offerings on modern consoles, the lineage of series such as 2K Sports' Top Spin remain as tied to those unfettered original concepts as Sackboy is to Mario. Under the guidance of a new developer for the series, 2K Czech, this latest effort allows you to play as successful contemporary superstars like Serena Williams and Roger Federer, vintage greats like Boris Becker and Pete Sampras, or even to take control of your very own custom-created superstar.
Or Andy Murray.
As the joy of tennis was easily demonstrated in games using technology far more primitive than what is available today, it is understandably tough to know how to improve the formula. Top Spin 3 was quite complex; the steep learning curve proving a huge obstacle for many players. Somehow, hitting a ball over a net had become an intricately tough and complicated ordeal.
It’s refreshing then, that 2K Czech has simplified the mechanic so that striking the ball is now down to a series of basic inputs. You can hold down a face button for a power shot or tap it for a controlled shot, with shoulder buttons utilised for modifiers, such as drop shots. This doesn’t mean, however, that the game is easy or lacking finesse, as these seemingly straightforward controls are dependent upon the timing of the button-presses. There are relatively small time windows for the player to pull off the perfect smash or baseline shot, and visual cues are a constant reminder that the shot was played either too early or too late.
Obviously this could quickly become frustrating for the uninitiated, so thankfully the Top Spin Academy is present for players to learn the ropes. This surprisingly competent series of tutorials not only covers the basics of play, but also manages to introduce the fundamental tactics of professional tennis. A determined player will graduate with a rudimentary understanding of the variety and timing of how to place each shot, and will be ready to embark upon Top Spin 4’s career mode.
Speaking of which, this career mode is fairly comprehensive, with a welcome shortened length to games that allows players to progress without having to play endless five-set marathons. The calendar-based career grants players a preparation session and a tournament each month, with the reward of success being experience to spend on improving your avatar’s abilities. It’s a testament to the balancing of the career that when the likes of Nadal and Federer are featured as opponents, a genuine feeling of nervous anticipation will be felt by most people who manage to reach that point. Also worthy of applause are the restrictions placed upon character development, with a level cap at 20 enforcing players to focus upon one or two aspects of their game, rather than attempt to become an all-round unbeatable tennis machine.
Wimbledon is noticeably absent, as are the trifles of professional tennis – the sort of things you might find in an abundantly licensed EA Sports game, for example. There is no idle spending of cash on cosmetic or attribute-enhancing gear, and no off-court interactions to engage in. This will be a relief for players purely interested in the tennis, but for others more used to the ‘whole pro experience’ offered by other games, it could ultimately appear somewhat shallow.
In other areas, the game does borrow from EA's box of tricks. The tracklist is more contemporary and developed than ever before, and a free-play loading screen is an obvious nod to the likes of FIFA. This is a case of imitation as flattery however, and the game is a richer, slicker experience as a result. You'll find character customisation tools that are both powerful and fun, featuring the ability to create realistic avatars and to generate the most awkward, alien-like freaks ever seen holding a racquet. Online play is well implemented too, and much more adept at finding a suitable partner than Top Spin 3, though it's still a reminder that there are many players out there who are infinitely better than you. A ranking system that uses mini-targets for players to aim at as more achievable goals than merely the very top of the leaderboards is also a welcome addition.
Top Spin 4's overall presentation mirrors televised tennis, with slow motion and replays used to emulate the professional game to good effect. Player movement is still a tiny bit sloppy, but the waters of animation in tennis games are notoriously muddy in this area. Our time spent using the stereoscopic 3D for this review was very limited, but was great fun while it lasted. It remains unknown what extended periods of play would be like using the mode, though the slower frame-rate was definitely noticeable through the 3D setting.
With Virtua Tennis 4 breathing down its shoulder, 2K Czech has done very well to make a game to be proud of, and the three years taken to develop it since the last one is a great argument against the annual release schedule of other sports games. It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly could be done to improve the Top Spin 4 formula, and perhaps the only limitation to the experience is the dichotomy of the game; exactly what made the concept so appealing to early game designers in the first place: endlessly hitting a ball back and forth over a net just isn’t that sophisticated.
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