Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: PAM Development
Release Date: June 24, 2008
The last time I played a tennis game, it was from the Virtua Tennis series a few console generations ago. Top Spin 3 has certainly taken to improving the tennis simulation genre and offers a great single-player career mode as well as online multiplayer. If you're looking for one of the most technically accurate licensed tennis games, Top Spin 3 is it.
Let's start with the Top Spin School, which serves as the game's tutorial. Here, you'll learn all of the fundamentals through a trial-and-error setup for serving, returning, and how to control your shots with some sense of accuracy. While the school offers several different focuses (serving, volleying, mixed, returns, etc.), each of them feels exactly the same. You have to hit the ball into a marked-off zone to proceed through challenges, and may the tennis gods help you if you don't. You'll repeat the same event over and over and over until you hit things just right. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the title is helping condition you to play the game the way it's meant to be played. After trying to serve the ball into a tiny little square in the corner 30 times, you'll be about done with the school and move on to other aspects of the game.
Let me break out of the school mode for a moment to talk about the actual game mechanics. Top Spin 3 lives and breathes through timing. Place yourself in the right spot for a forehand or backhand shot, time your swing, determine your power, and then follow through to place yourself for the next shot. There really is a lot that has to happen for you to play this game well, so this title is by no means a button-masher. Between the Top Spin School and simple trial and error, you'll eventually find your groove, but there is a decent learning curve here that's akin to Skate or learning to drive a stick shift. Things have to be done just right in order for you to properly pull off the shot. Get too close to the ball, and you'll deflect it with no control; swing too soon, and you'll clip it, possibly into the net; swing too late, and you'll lob the ball up to the center of the court, priming your opponent for a smash. Top Spin 3 strikes a balance between fun and real, and it comes across very, very smoothly.
Top Spin 3 allows you to make your own tennis player in the image that you choose. Character creators are a huge thing for me; I absolutely love the narcissistic ability to make a virtual me, whether it's in Tiger Woods, The Sims or Top Spin 3. The title does a good job of letting you tweak nearly every aspect of your player that you can think of. I say "nearly" because it seems that no matter what I did on any of three virtual characters, they all had creepy eyes that made them look like they belonged in a special little padded cell where they'd be nice and safe. Aside from the crazy, though, the creator does a passable job. It's not quite up to the same level that Tiger Woods 08 had (although in my opinion, that actually went a bit backward from the quality in creation in Tiger Woods 07), but it's good. You can't layer objects, which is a disappointment because layering with facial hair, accessories and tattoos is a great way of customizing a player. Aside from the avatar creation, you can choose your shirt, shorts, socks, shoes, and racket as well. You can even customize the style of swings you have for your forehand and backhand, and if your guy is one of those people who has to grunt on every swing. Once you're done, you'll have created a guy or girl who is ready to hit the career mode.
If you don't want to use the character creator, however, you can choose from a number of huge names in the tennis world, such as cover athletes Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova. A nice nod to the players of yore has included virtual representations of Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg and Monica Seles.
Top Spin 3's career mode takes you from an unknown and unranked amateur through qualifying matches, eventually to semi-qualifiers, finals, and into being a ranked player. The amount of available courts and locations is great, and it provides a nice change of visuals. From the public courts in Chicago at dusk to the tournament courts in Brazil at noon, the lights, shadows, and weather all factor into your style of play, so it's not just a change in scenery for the sake of changing it. I found myself cursing the shadows being cast on the stone court, as I found that I had to concentrate harder to follow through on shots than I did on other well-lit courts.
The one thing that I found somewhat lacking in the career mode and tournament ladder was that for all the buildup and visuals that display brackets, group information and ranking, when you win a round, a splash screen simply says something to the effect of, "Congrats, you won. Press A to continue." Really? That's it? Not everything has to be rendered fireworks, but it definitely seems that the career path and tournament modes could've used a lot more polish to make the game a lot more cohesive.
As you play through matches, you'll be awarded XP and Unlock points. The XP allows you to build up your personal stats by increasing your forehand, backhand, volley, return, power, speed and stamina scores. You'll likely want to increase your stats after every successful match, as every person you face will always have higher stats than you. It's uncanny. I'm all for a challenge, but every now and then, it'd be nice to face someone with worse stats just to absolutely smash them. Of course, you can alternatively change the difficulty level — from Very Easy to Very Hard — if you get too stuck. You can go. The default normal setting should provide enough of a challenge without utterly destroying you, but the option is there to lower it, should the need arise.
The abundance of earned Unlock points allows you to buy new outfits and gear. Again, unlike Tiger Woods, where new equipment actually buffs your stats or offers an incentive or improvement, all of the shirts, shorts and rackets in Top Spin 3 are purely there for cosmetic reasons. It's a nice subtle visual tweak that really doesn't amount to anything in the long run. Wear a red shirt, or wear a white shirt. It doesn't matter, really. You know what accessory would've been nice, though? Sunglasses to hide the creepy, crazy eyes of my guy.
Once you get tired of kicking butt in the career mode or, conversely, getting your butt kicked, you can hop into multiplayer mode, which plays in the exact same way. Singles matches, mixed matches, single sets and triple sets are among the available play options, with as many as four online tennis trash-talking folks at once.
One of the bragging rights 2K Sports had on Top Spin 3's release was the all-new music soundtrack. It features a good handful of licensed artists whose songs you'll really only hear while in menus (sorry, no Franz Ferdinand blaring while running around the court), and the music seems light and airy enough to fit the genre without being misplaced. But there is one song in particular that I keep getting stuck on: Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat." Every single time it comes on, all I can think of is "Napoleon Dynamite." I tend to let the song play out every time it comes on because it's such a fun ditty, and with only a dozen or so tunes in the game, it tends to pop up a lot. As a result, my tennis career is balanced between singing along to "Canned Heat" and laying down a mean forehand crosscourt smash.
All told, Top Spin 3 is a great title that definitely does the franchise proud. It doesn't reinvent the genre or bring anything amazingly new to the community, but as Tiger Woods has done for golf titles, Top Spin does for tennis. It's great to pick up and play a single set for 15 minutes or work your way through the career ladder for a few hours, depending on the amount of time you want to put into the game. With the ability to make your own avatar, customize the stats and gear, and to play at courts around the world, Top Spin 3 delivers a great sports game. And when "Canned Heat" comes on, you can dance around the room. How many games can deliver that, hmm?
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