The Top Spin franchise has traveled an interesting path. The first game was an Xbox-exclusive title, published by Microsoft itself, before the rights were sold to Atari for a PC version and ultimately 2K Games for multiplatform use. With its focus on simulation more than arcade antics, it grew quite a following and became a serious competitor to Sega's Virtua Tennis series. While Top Spin 2 was mostly noted for bringing the series to a new generation of consoles, it was Top Spin 3 that heavily divided the fans with its very complicated control scheme and pure focus on simulation. Nearly three years after that release comes Top Spin 4, which has the unenviable task of maintaining its status as premiere tennis sim while bringing back disenchanted fans. Though Top Spin 4 could still improve a bit, it's safe to say that the team at 2K Czech has accomplished just that.
The player creation system is probably one of the deepest in a tennis game. The amount of depth can be attributed to facial construction alone, as there are three levels. You can go with preset facial pieces, special meters handling every body part, or pinpoint detail for every part of the face. It's eerie what can be done with it, and while it will take some time to create someone who doesn't look hideous, it is one of the better facial creation systems on the market, and it loads fairly quickly.
As for everything else, it's quite basic. There are loads of tattoos and clothes to choose from, and weight and body builds are limited to a few presets instead of a variable metered system. Behavior and swing type are also available to change, though those are also limited since there aren't as many options as one would think. While that needs to be addressed in later games before it can be considered the best series for create-an-athlete aficionados, what's present is already much better than what tennis fans have had to deal with for a while.
There are a few offline game modes to enjoy right out of the box. Quick Play lets you select any combination of pro tennis players or created characters to play in any stadium and with any rule set. The roster of pro tennis players has grown to 25 this time around, and while that might not seem like a high number compared to other sports titles, it is the most featured in one sports title to date.
The roster still features more men than women, but the number of legends has grown significantly, with some notable names such as Andre Agassi and Michael Chang making an appearance in the series for the first time. As expected, each of the pros comes with a signature play style, and it comes through on the court nicely. The stadiums also sport their signature surfaces, which change the play style somewhat in terms of running speed for players and ball bounce. Although the game features licensed events like the U.S. Open and the Sony Ericsson Open, it's still missing the same locales that it was missing in the last iteration. Not having Wimbledon, for example, hurts when you're trying to market yourself as a premiere tennis sim.
You'll immediately notice the physics system in place for each player and court type. The different court surfaces can affect players by helping them run faster or causing balls to move further. Those aspects have been present in other tennis titles, but it's really the player momentum that brings an added sense of realism to the proceedings. Run fast toward one direction, and you'll notice the player start to skid once a direction change has been made. Turns aren't instant, but they are responsive enough that the game doesn't feel sluggish. It's a system that requires you to plan out your movements instead of jiggling the analog stick in any direction, and it makes the game more cerebral than reactionary.
Quick Play mode introduces you to the new and improved control scheme. The controls for the previous game were the deciding factor in whether people loved or hated it. While some of the options remain, some very welcome changes have also been made. Those who loved using the right analog stick as a racket will be pleased to hear that it's still used here; those who preferred using the face buttons will also find that configuration here.
Both are responsive, but the big tweak comes from the timing system. It's still in place and requires expert timing to get off the best shot each time, but it's not as strict as before. Swings produced too early or too late from the given target zone might not produce the best shots, but they won't produce poor shots, either. It somehow finds a nice balance where arcade players can hit the button at fairly the right time to return a good volley while sim players constantly strive to learn the timing of each player to get the best, most accurate shots. The controls really needed some balancing, and now that it's done, the rest of Top Spin 4 feels better.
In an attempt to make things more accessible, the difficulty level isn't as punishing as before. Both Very Easy and Easy difficulty levels present opponents who that are pushovers and perfect for those just learning the sport. For those new to the series, the Normal difficulty feels just right; it makes every point tough to win but not impossible. Hard and Very Hard are built for Top Spin vets who are used to the brutal, earlier games. The balance of levels feels just about right.
Career mode has also undergone some streamlining, and people may either lament or appreciate the changes. You take your created character on a quest to rise from amateur to legend. Ranking is determined by the completion of a list of requirements needed to advance to the next level, and all of those tasks are accomplished through games. Each month gives you the opportunity to participate in one practice session and one tournament, minor or major. You'll also get special tournaments that don't count toward your monthly quota but provide an opportunity to earn more fans and the eyes of sponsors to unlock more items.
Earning fans, ranking up, and winning tournaments also lets you access coaches who give out bonus goals that, once fulfilled, give you permanently learned skills or stat boosts. It's a straightforward experience that seems to dispense with the micromanagement of other career modes. You'll still get e-mail, for example, but you'll never have to worry about your finances or try to balance out your public image and your time on the court. Training doesn't take place with minigames, so you'll spend more time going through actual matches instead of bowling or dodging barrels. While it cuts down on the overall length of the mode, players will feel that the time is filled with significant events instead of time-wasting fillers.
Aside from the structure of the mode, the experience system is another tipping point for players. Every mode and match type nets your created character some experience points, and while there are various stats for your player, you can only select three categories to boost: serve and volley, baseline defense, and baseline offense. Increasing any one of those not only levels up your character but also adds points to each stat. (Some stats being overlapped by different categories.) It's a simple system to comprehend and makes for quick upgrades, but since you can't exactly determine the amount of points to dole out per stat, those who love crafting every detail of their character will find the whole system frustrating to work with.
In this mode, there's a fatigue system in place for all players. It's also in the other game modes, but since all of the pros are already at level 20, it becomes more apparent at lower levels. Essentially, the meter that appears below each player indicates his or her level of energy. Normal movements won't drain the meter very much, but running back and forth across the court to perform long rallies and power shots definitely takes its toll. Players get slower, shots become weaker, and in the case of some CPU players, they give up on chasing down shots. Even though some of that energy comes back in the next session, it isn't a full refill and, if you play things right, you could get some free points by keeping the opponent worn down. It's a simple strategy, but it demonstrates some of the game depth.
Rounding out the offline package is a new multiplayer mode called King of the Hill. Matches are shortened to around three points per game; the winner stays on the court while another player tries to step up and dethrone him or her. Whoever reaches the target game limit first wins the mode. It's a simple affair that is fun in small spurts, but since it's the only other alternative multiplayer mode aside from quick play, don't expect to play this more than you would traditional matches.
Top Spin 3 had some great online multiplayer options, and they make a triumphant return in Top Spin 4. Player Match is still limited to a one-on-one affair as opposed to giving players the ability to play in doubles matches, but at least there is no lag. The 2K Tour lets you go through tournaments online, though the big restrictions is that you can only use pro players instead of created ones.
For those seeking online action with created players, World Tour is where the main focus is going to be. Acting like a truncated version of the offline Career mode, it lets you take your created player and engage in practice matches as well as quick matches that come complete with its own ranking system and the ability to gain experience for your player. It also comes with its own set of tournaments and worldwide ranking system based on your performance in those tournaments. Unlike the last version, you won't have to wait around for someone who's ranked the same as you before you get into a match. While that means you'll spend more time online in matches than waiting around, it also means that you'll most likely face someone ranked higher than you since the online space is already filled with level 20 players. If it sounds like something you can live with, you'll be happy with everything the online mode delivers.
The series has never been a slouch graphically, and that remains the case in Top Spin 4. As mentioned earlier, the create-a-player system can make some great faces, and the modeling for all 25 of the pros looks great. The animation system highlights the physics system in place, with no move seemingly coming out of nowhere and no abrupt changes. While the crowd is comprised of clones, they still look impressive. They're a tad lower in detail compared to the athletes themselves, but they still animate well. The courts sport some great details, especially the clay courts, where you can see every step and ball bounce stay persistent throughout the match. It's a looker, but there are complaints, such as the bland and uneventful menus scattered throughout the game. You've also seen some gaffes like the shoulder bags floating above the shoulder instead of being connected to the player and clothes swaying on the rack.
Like the graphics, the sound in the game remains good, though flawed. The soundtrack is still comprised of licensed tracks and confined to the menus. Occasional snippets come through what sounds like a courtside radio or PA system. Despite having a robust catalog of songs, though, don't be surprised if you hear the same three or four tunes every time you enter a menu. You don't have much in the way of voices, save for the stadium announcer and bystanders at the training grounds. They do their job well, though you'll tire of the bystanders saying the same lines over and over again whether you succeed or mess up. Unless you're playing as or against one of the 25 pros in the game, get used to hearing Player 1 or Player 2 after every score. The sound effects are pleasing to the ear, though the anticipation from the crowd as a rally gets bigger and more heated is always a welcome sound, especially when you end up winning.
Despite Virtua Tennis 4 releasing a few months from now, it's safe to say that Top Spin 4 will be a difficult game to beat. The physics and fatigue system make this a deep sport simulation, while the improved control system and streamlined character leveling mechanic is simple enough that newcomers and casual players won't feel overwhelmed. With some good graphics and sound and a robust online system in place, Top Spin 4 has the depth to ensure tennis fans will be playing this for a good while. Unless you're a Virtua Tennis fan and want to wait until that comes out before making your decision, it'd be best to clear some room on the shelf for what will be your go-to tennis title.
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