In many ways, 2K’s Top Spin tennis series has begun to resemble EA’s newfangled FIFA franchise. In the same way that FIFA re-worked its core mechanics during a period in which the entire planet appeared to be enraptured by Konami’s legendary Pro Evo series, Top Spin has perpetually attempted to raise its game in order to keep up to speed with SEGA’s perennially beloved Virtua Tennis series. Now, after a brief parade of series iterations that have all built impeccably upon the foundations of the previous one, the Top Spin franchise has finally reached a point of intimidating match fitness, and the overall experience has never been more compelling. It’s going to be very interesting indeed to see if Virtua Tennis 4 (which is due for release next month) is going to be able to compete.
The first thing you’ll notice about Top Spin 4 is how much slicker it is than Top Spin 3. One complaint that was levelled at the series up until that point was that the animations were almost too detailed for their own good; occasionally reacting a tad sluggishly when things got hectic on the court. Here that never happens, and the animation is not only brilliantly fluid, but also responds in visibly different ways depending on what kind of surface you’re playing on. In addition, the new Top Spin Academy tutorial modes are a really terrific opener, as they not only help you to understand exactly how to pull off all of the available shots and techniques, they also teach you how to spot the moments in a match at which it’s best to use them – an invaluable tool for newcomers to the Top Spin series, and to the sport in general.
The Career mode has been expanded, and is now superficially comparable to the Legacy mode that features in EA’s Fight Night series. Each season is helpfully split up into individual months, and in order to progress you’ll need to limit the amount of tournaments that you enter, place a strong emphasis on preparing for each one, and meet various objectives during matches that enhance your world ranking. It sounds complicated but it really isn’t, thanks to some helpful pop-up hints and the generally elegant menu design. If you’re playing on the Playstation 3, and Top Spin 4 with the PS3’s standard pad is a little too poker-faced for you, Playstation Move support has been implemented into it, and this definitely opens the field up somewhat. It’s neither Wii Sports simple nor Dualshock specific, but it exists in a very pleasing middle ground that makes it extremely easy to simply pick up and play, but deviously addictive once you’ve observed some of its cunning intricacies.
As always though, what makes the gameplay in Top Spin 4 so involving is that it’s essentially very simple. The four fundamental tennis shots are still in play – slice, lob, top spin and flat – but nailing each one properly demands that you get a very tight grasp on the game’s fastidious sense of timing. Hit a ball one tenth of a second after you intended and you’ll still hit the ball with the correct shot, but either it will be somewhat inaccurate or your avatar will end up a little further afield than you would have liked. As you progress through Career mode, the mastering of this dynamic (in conjunction with keeping a constant eye on the game’s new Fatigue Meter) is absolutely crucial, as tense games can often come down to making sure that you ace a few very important shots; resulting in exciting, white-knuckle battles that will have you on the edge of your seat. Which is absolutely as it should be.
Regardless of whether you pick Pro Evo or FIFA for your football kicks every year, you’re always a winner either way. Despite the fact that those two are actually very different games, they’re also both absolutely brilliant in completely disparate ways. The same is true with Top Spin and Virtua Tennis, and Top Spin 4 is the best game in the series to date by quite some distance. What’s perhaps best about it is that you can approach it in any way that you see fit. Do you want an arcadey tennis game that’s about as far away from a simulator as it is possible to be? You can have that. But if you want a full-blown, realism-heavy sim that demands patience and rewards graft? You can most definitely have that too.
Watch the Top Spin 4 trailer here: