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SEGA's AM-3 studio returns to its Virtua Tennis series for the first time since 2007...
The soothing chirps and chimes of a SEGA arcade game really are some of the most beautiful sounds in gaming. Whack on Virtua Tennis 4 for more than a few seconds and you'll instantly be transported back to a time when Daytona USA and Virtua Cop reigned supreme in any retail space that dared to call itself a shopping centre during the mid-90s. From the bright colour schemes in the menu screens to the overly enthusiastic voice-over guy reminiscent of an exuberant radio DJ, the Virtua Tennis series has never lost the things that make an arcadey video game unmistakably SEGA and Virtua Tennis 4 is no exception. We'd expect nothing less from the return to the series of SEGA's AM-3 studio, which developed classic arcade cabinet titles like Manx TT, Crazy Taxi, and of course the original Virtua Tennis back in the day.
However, this is the studio's first Virtua Tennis game since Virtua Tennis 3 was released as a European launch title for the PS3 back in 2007. Sumo Digital took the helm on the Virtua Tennis 2009 instalment, which met a lukewarm reception from critics upon its release, so if nothing else it's reassuring to have the series back in the hands of its original creator. In terms of on the court gameplay though, very little has changed since Virtua Tennis 2009. In fact, apart from a few additions that were introduced on Sumo Digital's watch, Virtua Tennis actually feels remarkably similar to AM-3's last attempt four years ago. The control layout, method of charging shots, and movement around the court all produce a slightly disappointing sense of déjà vu in all honesty.
It's not that there's anything unpalatable about the setup; just that it doesn't really prove itself worthy of a new release when its two predecessors on current-gen consoles are now available at budget prices and offer-up largely the same core gameplay experience. The 'Super Shot' system returns from Virtua Tennis 2009, allowing players to build up a meter that, when filled, can either release an extra powerful shot or get you out of trouble when it looks like a return is out of reach. Once again, the feature has a jarring effect on the gameplay and breaks with the pace and immediacy of the experience more than it enhances it. When all's said and done, AM-3 would've been better off reverting to the inward and outward slices of Virtua Tennis 3 rather than continuing Sumo Digital's work with 'Super Shots'.
The series' trademark mini-games are once again on-hand to lighten the experience, offering everything from tennis skittles to tennis poker. There's the odd returning favourite, some variants of previous mini-games, and a decent helping of all-new ones thrown in for good measure. Fans of the series may end up lamenting the fact that a few classics have been left off the roster, but it's certainly preferable to have a smaller range of fresh games rather than a large number of rehashed ones. All in all, the mini-games don't quite reach the levels of addictive playability that Virtua Tennis 3's did but they're a decent enough showing nonetheless; AM-3 certainly hasn't done itself a disservice here.
Where Virtua Tennis 4 shows the most original thinking is in its new World Tour setup, which now resembles a board-game more than it does a conventional sports game career mode. During the course of a season, players progress through a range of tours from Asia on to Europe and beyond. Major tournaments form the climax to each tour with various minor tournaments and training mini-games positioned along the way. The gimmick is that you progress across these tours like the spaces of a Game of Life board. There are empty spaces, spaces with charity and media events on them that can bolster your notoriety, spaces with 'accidents' on them that penalise you, and 'bank' spaces where you can purchase various notes. These notes are effectively the currency with which you move (1, 2, 3, or 4 spaces etc.) so, depending on the notes available to you at any given point, it may not be possible to play an upcoming minor tournament or attend a charity gala etc. In effect, the aim is to make sure you're well stocked on move credits to keep your options open and avoid 'accident' spaces while simultaneously balancing other factors such as your player's physical condition. Playing tournaments and training games will wear your character out, but are also essential for improving stats.
So, the World Tour is essentially a game of chance that can be stacked in your favour with a bit of forethought and, although it may irritate gamers expecting something more realistic, the style is very much in keeping with Virtua Tennis' whimsical take on the sport over the years. If you're looking for a career mode that doesn't take itself too seriously and won't demand much of an investment in the experience, then Virtua Tennis 4 may be worth a second look. It's a fairly well balanced meta-game and one that offers something a little different... Given that the rest of Virtua Tennis 4 is sorely lacking that kind of original thinking, we're inclined not to criticise the revamped World Tour too much for its many idiosyncrasies.
Bolstering its motion-control options from Virtua Tennis 2009 on Wii, VT4 now comes with Move support for the PS3 version and Kinect support on Xbox 360 too (for the purposes of this review, we've only been able to test the Move support). In the process, the Move-compatible modes swap the traditional full-court camera view of the proceedings for a first/third-person view from the player's perspective. And it's much more than a piece of marketing spiel on the back of a box - the new view does manage to make motion controls that bit more engaging. It helps, of course, that AM-3 has tailored the game pretty well to a Move controller: forehand and backhand gestures were picked up pretty solidly even in this reviewer's pint-sized living room. It's perhaps more than a bit disappointing, then, that the Move-supported content in the game extends no further than exhibition matches for 1-2 players and only 2 mini-games. With such a good framework for the motion controls, surely it would've made sense to roll them out across all of VT4's modes. Perhaps that'll happen with Virtua Tennis 5 on PS4 then...
Speaking of the full list of modes, beyond the World Tour, mini-games, online multiplayer, and standalone Motion Control mode for VT4, there's also an Arcade mode on-hand to stretch out the content. Gamers can play though a series of unlicensed major tournament matches against the world's best, with medal awards being dished out after each match depending on how successful you are in various categories such as serving, smashes, and Super Shots etc. Player rosters bear resemblance to those from VT 2009: six new players join the list although, equally, the list is two players shorter than it was in 2009, so evidently a few stars have fallen down the ranking boards/retired in the interim. Nonetheless, it's fairly safe to assume that the passing Tennis fan will be happy with VT4's rosters - the likes of Federer, Sharapova, Nadal, Roddick, Ivanovic, Venus Williams, Murray, and Wozniacki all make the cut. PS3 players will also be happy to learn that they'll receive three bonus Legend players in Pat Rafter, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg.
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