Developer: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: August 19, 2008
Marking one of the few handheld-to-console ports in existence, Smash Court Tennis 3 recently arrived on the Xbox 360 and stands out from the pack as an arcade tennis title on the surface with some real sim elements in the underlying gameplay.
In the world of tennis games, Virtua Tennis once reigned over all, but Smash Court has started to gain quite a bit in popularity in the U.S. and overseas. It would appear that this renown is what secured the port from the PSP to the Xbox 360. With some slightly upgraded visuals in tow, every feature in the PSP version is present here, and for the most part, the gameplay feels exactly the same as the portable version of the title.
When you begin Smash Court Tennis 3, you can opt to jump into the career mode and create your player from a limited set of parameters — including gender, race, and a few other options — to distinguish him or her from the pack. As you advance along your career, you can gain sponsors and points that can be spent on items to further customize your player. There are tons of sports-related sponsors in the game, most of which are taken from the real world, so you'll be able to unlock a variety of clothing items and accessories that can mirror just about anything you might see on an actual tennis court.
Along with the real-world sponsor element, a vast number of tennis players from around the world are featured in SMT3. Tennis fans will recognize a majority of the players, while even casual fans will be able to pick out a name or two. Like any great sports title, there's a lot to be said for instant recognition, and it helps to make you feel like you're a bit more involved in this virtual world when you're facing off against people you recognize.
While the presentation of SMT3 is definitely in the upper echelon of tennis titles, the actual gameplay feels a bit perplexing at times. New players will definitely want to acquaint themselves with the tutorial mode, which introduces the various types of shots and serves that you can perform. Most of these are done by using the different face buttons at your disposal, such as hitting Y for a lob shot, and you can also charge up these shots by holding down the button. Serves are performed by tapping one of the face buttons, and then timing your strike, which can be aided by a visual circle around the ball as it falls back toward the ground. Getting the precise timing can be difficult at first, but when you nail the ball at the right moment, you'll be able to perform a faster serve to put your opponent on guard.
If your opponent manages to mess up a shot, a small tennis ball icon will appear on your side of the court, and if you're standing within this icon when you return the ball, you'll perform a Smash, which is basically a practically unreturnable shot. The computer AI will almost never be able to return this shot, but I noticed that actual players have a bit less difficulty as long as they get the timing right.
Everything sounds good on the surface, but there are a few underlying problems with the gameplay. For one thing, SMT3 can't seem to decide whether or not it's an arcade tennis title or a sim. While the controls lend themselves to an arcade style of play by allowing a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to the accuracy of hitting shots (most of the time, you just need to hit a button and be close to the ball), being able to accurately return a shot to a specific point on the court is generally a pain. The idea is that you can hold down the right thumbstick in a particular direction to try and control your shot, but most of the time, I'd either find myself knocking the ball out of bounds or hitting it back to where the opposing player is standing, instead of being able to knock the ball through an opening on the court.
This becomes more of a frustration as you play through the career mode, with the computer AI ranging from completely incompetent to massively difficult, and there's no real way to tell which type of AI you can expect to encounter, aside from a global rank. I'd face off against some in the lower 100s and often have an easier match with them than against someone ranked at 200. Every match felt pretty unpredictable, and while I don't want to know exactly how a match is going to turn out every time, I'd like to feel as if I have some control over the outcome, aside from waiting for the AI to do something really stupid. With SMT3, I never felt like I was in control of the ball, which really kept the game from feeling fun, despite the supposed simplicity of the controls.
For me, the gameplay ends up being the most frustrating aspect of SMT3. Everything else — including the graphics, presentation and sound — feel polished and well done. It puts some of the features of other popular titles, like the Top Spin series, to shame. However, since I feel like the controls and mechanics under the "hood" are constantly working against me, I had a really difficult time getting the hang of the game.
I found the multiplayer aspect of SMT3 to be a bit more enjoyable, but it hardly clears up the control issues I had with the aiming of the ball, and it would appear that this held true for quite a few of the other people against whom I played in the online matches. Unfortunately, there's only the option of singles and double matches, and these are just exhibitions, so there aren't many reasons to stick around with the online mode.
There are other issues with the 360 version of the game, such as the emotions you can opt to display after a round, which really have no purpose other than some slight graphical animation. The actual player animations seem as if they've been pulled straight out of the PSP version, and while you could get away with some animation shortcuts on the small screen, they become pretty noticeable in the home console iteration. Every player controls in the same way, and while there's an RPG element to the build the character model that you'll use for the Pro mode, it's hard to tell if you're making any impact when you apply points to various stats.
Smash Court Tennis 3 looks like a solid tennis game on the surface, but there are a lot of underlying problems that keep it from being the top game in the genre. The controls are obtuse, and it becomes obvious with a bit scrutiny that the game is definitely a port; it's nice to see an online mode included, but it isn't particularly fleshed out or engaging. The Pro mode is definitely long and can take players a while to master, but it's difficult to believe that anyone would want to stick with it long enough to see it through to the end. Even as a fan of tennis-themed gaming, I'd have to give SMT3 a pass, so don't be fooled by the solid presentation.
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