In years gone by, the argument about whether 2K’s Top Spin series was better than SEGA’s Virtua Tennis was always ridiculously easy to settle, because there was always one clear victor in each bi-annual bout. This was also once the case with PES and FIFA, but recently the concurrently escalating quality of those two franchises has rendered the dispute entirely pointless; whichever one you plump for, you win. And so it (finally) is with Virtua Tennis and Top Spin. Top Spin may still be the more refined, mature and rewarding experience over time, and is the franchise that has endured the most recent spell of superiority, but after a couple of uneventful retreads, Virtua Tennis is back to delivering on the fronts on which it has always excelled; pace, precision and simplicity. Oh, and fun. Plenty of fun.
The game’s most significant addition is a new World Tour mode – in place of the standard calendar-based career mode that will hopefully earn itself a videogame funeral very soon – and it’s both unusual and somewhat archaic; but it works. It’s structured around a frankly bizarre (and initially baffling) ticketing system, in which you have to utilise travel tickets (each worth a different number of moves) to make your way around the globe; which exists on a surface that closely resembles that of a family board game. Because you can control the pace at which you progress – by buying shuffle tickets, or tickets that move you by only one space at a time – you are both able to dodge the spots on the board that are clearly best avoided (usually ones involving injury or the loss of your wallet) and plan ahead to ensure that you make the most of your campaign.
This primarily involves making sure that you’re rested before big matches and after valuable training sessions (which rank up your skills) and balancing the amount of training and public relations with the amount of actual match-time that you accumulate. Your stamina significantly depletes after each match so if you miscalculate, you’ll end up paying for it during the latter stages of some of the lengtheir and more important tournaments; usually by acquiring a dodgy ankle that hinders play considerably. One terrific new addition to the core gameplay is Momentum, which you acrue by pulling off shots that are in-line with your chosen play style. Once you’ve done enough to fill the Momentum meter you’re immediately given the ability to execute a powerhouse Super Shot, which your opponent will find it almost impossible to avoid; unless you’re careless with when you choose to deploy it. It’s a Killstreak/Ultra Combo style game-changer, and although you’ll probably only have time to earn one of them per match, it is capable of turning the tables.
Long-term fans will be relieved to learn that all of this is still as goofy as all hell. Aside from the presence of that unmistakably jaunty SEGA J-Pop – think Super Monkey Ball, if you’re a newcomer – you’ll come across mini-games that are as enjoyable as they are daft. One involves you having to clear a respawning collection of eggs from the court (so that you can then subsequently return them to one of two observing mother hens) another tasks you with smashing copious amounts of shiny crockery (a fiendishly addictive winner, that one) and another asks you to use timing and basic mathematics to ensure that the timed explosive that you’re using as a ball doesn’t detonate on your side of the court. And as well as the fairly extensive roster of real world pros, World Tour mode also sees you facing off against a few complete oddballs; one of whom looks as if he’s been kidnapped from Yakuza 4 and dumped into this game completely against his will.
Despite how well tuned the whole experience is there is one small thing that’s liable to drive you slightly insane – especially if you end up putting as many hours into Virtua Tennis 4 as we have – and that is the choice of the voice actor who has been hired to bark orders and encouragement at you during the mini-games. Because the mini-games make up for such a substantial part of the package, and because this chap never shuts up during them, his non-dulcet tones begin to grate very quickly indeed. He sounds like the satanic lovechild of Richard Briers and Vivian from The Young Ones, and were we to meet him in person, wringing his neck would be a pretty hard temptation to stifle. As the game is generally rather barmy it’s a shame that someone gifted with a more offbeat delivery wasn’t hired in his place.
But that minor niggle aside, Virtua Tennis 4 is a bit of a triumph. It’s still by far the most broadly accessible tennis game available on any format – if you aren’t counting Wii Sports tennis, at least – and although the new World Tour mode does require a bit of getting used to, it’s absurdly compelling once you’re in. Both Playstation Move and Kinect are implemented reasonably shrewdly, but as they serve mainly to simplify things that were already pretty stripped down, they are probably best regarded as entertaining party-game offshoots rather than a significant part of the main event. The real draw here is that outstanding World Tour mode, with a rock solid online experience on both of the next-gen formats coming a very close second. It’s addictive, eye-poppingly colourful and a tiny bit unhinged. But then that’s Virtua Tennis to a tee; it’s great to have it back.