Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: PAM Development
Release Date: June 24, 2008
Sports games are often considered one of the most mainstream game genres, and yet most truly deep sports titles are as difficult to master as even the most hardcore shooter, fighter or RPG. This is particularly true of 2K Sports' much-admired Top Spin series, which is for hardcore tennis fans what Madden is to ravening sports fans. The controls traditionally have a steep learning curve, but fans of the games would staunchly defend its realism, deep online play, and create-a-player options against the more accessible but arcadey action of a Virtua Tennis 3. If you enjoyed Top Spin 2, there's not much point in reading this preview; you're probably already buying Top Spin 3 regardless of what I say. Those of you who aren't hardcore tennis fans but may still be curious, perhaps after spending quality time with Virtua Tennis 3, read on.
If you've never played a Top Spin game before, then your first stop when you fire up the game needs to be the Top Spin School. This is a series of challenging tutorials that walk you both through the basic controls, and fairly advanced applications of those controls. The basic tutorial covers serving, returning and even volleys. It's not enough to successfully hit the ball (though that's where the tutorial starts). After introducing a mechanic, the game expects you to be able to serve, return or volley such that you hit a specific area of the court. This will seem impossible at first, since the game merely lets you know that you can hit the ball or serve by pressing and releasing the A, B or X buttons. What isn't made clear is that each of these buttons represents a different kind of swing. Later in the tutorial, it's explained that A is used for flat shots, X for slices, and B for lifts. In addition, you can drop shot or lob by using Y in combination with the left analog stick.
You can increase the power of any strike by holding down the button press longer before releasing, and you can further modify a strike by holding down and then releasing the left trigger along with your button of choice. You can further control your strike by putting pressure on the left analog stick in a given direction you'd like to "tilt" the strike, but you must press and release simultaneously with your striking button. If you hold down the left analog stick while releasing, the game will interpret the input as movement and will move your character. This is probably the only element of the basic controls that doesn't feel quite comfortable, although it's difficult to say that mapping strike alterations to the right analog stick would have worked better.
Regardless, once you master the difficult task of altering strikes with analog input, you'll find that you can control where your strikes send the ball with near-pinpoint accuracy. You can press down to slide a ball across the top of the net, which is how you create a drop shot with the Y button. Pressing up adds extra power and lift to a strike, creating a lob when used with the Y button. By matching strike alterations with the analog stick along with the three types of strikes controlled by button selection and use of the left trigger button, you can effectively have total control of the ball. This is not a level of precision targeting available in any other video tennis game I've ever played, but it also means that simply learning the basics of hitting the ball can take hours.
Learning the basic controls is only the first part of Top Spin 3's complex tutorial process. Once you complete that first course, there are five more through which a player must proceed. Baseline Lessons gives extra instruction about targeting, using different types of swings, and returning serves. Serving Lessons takes you through the complex serving rules and controls, which are slightly different from the returning controls and can be frustrating at points. In particular, the methods for serving at differing strengths are highly awkward and feel excessively complicated. If you can get through the challenging Serving Lessons, then Volley Lessons gives you practice in playing right at the net, while Special Strikes gives you info on advanced controls like using the right analog stick strike input instead of buttons, using the left and right triggers to create sharp shots and power shots, and using the left and right buttons to hustle around the court. Mixed Training puts all of these lessons together.
Once you've mastered Top Spin 3's daunting basics through the Top Spin School, then you have a lot of fun ways to apply your skills. You can play single Exhibition matches or one of 24 tournaments with up to four local players. You can also go on Xbox Live and play singles or doubles matches against other human opponents, although doubles requires two players locally at the same machine. Exhibition mode can also be played in singles or doubles style. In these modes, the statistics of the players you choose to use are going to influence the outcome of matches, along with your own application of skills. It is theoretically possible for any athlete to beat any other with a skillful player behind the controller, but running an athlete with a 67 total stat value successfully against a 75 athlete is going to be a challenge.
The athletes are going to be one of the main draws for fans of tennis, and represent a wide variety of current star competitors along with the addition of classic competitors like Boris Becker, Monica Seles and Bjorn Borg. 2K Sports has promised more athletes will be available in the future as downloadable content. There is a major controversy with the 360 version of the game that may be relevant to tennis fans: Superstar player Rafael Nadal is going to be exclusive to the PS3 version of the game, and PAM Development has stated that there are absolutely no plans to bring Nadal into the 360 version as DLC at this time. The game offers plenty of other fine names, but Nadal's absence from what is sure to be the top-selling U.S. version of the game is a bitter taste in the mouth of 360 owners. For now, we've identified athletes including Mario Ancic, Tomáš Berdych, James Blake, Roger Federer, Tommy Haas, Justine Henin, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Amélie Mauresmo, Gaël Monfils, Andy Murray, David Nalbandian, Mark Philippoussis, Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova, Nicole Vaidisova and Caroline Wozniacki.
A Top Spin 3 player is not limited to just playing with the game's roster of star athletes. One of the most valued features in the game is the Create-a-Player mode, where players can create their own star athlete. Once created, you can send your player through Career mode, where you can unlock additional outfits for them and build up a win/loss record. Customization options are extremely robust, including ways to both customize and sculpt virtually every aspect of your athlete's facial appearance. Your body customization options are more limited, but a wide variety of hair and accessory options helps make up for this.
Use of graphics in Top Spin 3 deserves discussion because your athlete's detailed animations are more than just eye candy. The time it takes for an animation to complete is going to be a critical element of your in-game performance. Becoming proficient at playing Top Spin 3 demands having an intuitive grasp of how quickly the ball moves, how quickly your on-screen character can move, and the ability to predict how long you'll be "locked" into a particular animation associated with the type, strength and direction of strike you've chosen. The animations are pleasingly realistic to watch and distinct for certain athletes, but also represent the limitations of your athlete's movement. In-game athletes can no more turn on a dime than real athletes playing a real match can. This touch may seem subtle at first, but once you're playing matches, it will become a huge factor in determining your approach to gameplay, and is also a sign of the kind of depth and realism Top Spin 3 can offer that competing tennis games don't.
Of course, the game itself is beautiful. Aside from the tremendous detail that goes into the athletes' stances, costumes, and even how they hold their rackets, the different courts you play on and even the crowds in the stands are marvelously detailed. The weather effects don't just alter the gameplay, but are also gorgeous and authentic to look upon. A little less pleasing is the game's roster of EA-style licensed music, which frequently feels like little more than a barrage of wannabe Top 40 singles. None of the tracks that cued up during play felt especially memorable by themselves, and the licensed music certainly didn't enhance the play experience. The song that plays at the opening title screen is especially grating, almost off-putting, and 2K Sports would do well to rethink their approach to licensed music in future installments in the series.
Top Spin 3's commitment to realism and depth makes it a title that is not easy to learn how to play, but one that is rewarding once you've mastered the steep learning curve. The Top Spin School feature is a wonderful way to learn the game's physics, rules and controls, but it does demand patience. This is not a game for instant action junkies, but it is presenting something rare and wonderful instead: a game that feels both faithful to its source material and totally unique to play. Whether or not you enjoy Top Spin 3 is going to be a matter of personal taste, but the game as it stands seems to be near-flawlessly assembled and dripping with game modes for prospective players to enjoy. There's much to be said for a title that, even if it doesn't please everyone, is going to make its limited audience extremely happy.
More articles about Top Spin 3