When you consider that new football, basketball and even golf video games are released every year, it's easy to forget that it's been a while since we've seen a new tennis game. The somewhat unrepresented sport doesn't get a lot of attention in the U.S., but new entries in both the Top Spin and Virtua Tennis franchises have recently emerged. With Virtua Tennis, there's a strange feeling of déjà vu, but not in a good way. This is mostly the same game you've already played, and the minimal new features and upgrades fail to impress.
Virtua Tennis' calling card has always been its casual-friendly style. The face buttons on the controller dictate slices, topspins or lob shots, and all players need do is run to the spot where the ball will arrive and hold down the corresponding button until it's time to make a shot. There's also a super shot that can be obtained by filling a meter utilizing your chosen playing style's favored shots. Triggering a super shot leads to a slow-motion view of your avatar hitting the ball, and the result is a low-flying, fast-spinning shot that is extremely tough to return. Even so, it's not an automatic point, as a well-positioned opponent can still return this special shot and put you right back on the defensive.
Adding to the more casual tone of the game is the fact that most returns find the ball landing in bounds. Though there is a bit of strategy required from time to time to combat certain play styles, most matches can be won by either rushing the net and playing with fierce aggression or hanging around the baseline and placing shots until you force your opponent into a mistake. While this approach makes the title simple for most folks to pick up and play, those who are really into tennis and demand intricacy and substance will likely be largely disappointed. If you just want to focus on hitting the ball and let the game take care of the rest, though, this is likely your best bet.
Though Virtua Tennis 4 recycles a great deal of gameplay from previous entries, it tries something new and novel with its career mode, and the result is mostly a success. Rather than simply entering players in tournament after tournament and maybe peppering it with a few training sessions, the World Tour mode is presented very much like a board game. For every turn, players are given tickets with various movement points allotted, and where you ultimately land determines what sort of activity you'll undertake next. Players will sometimes tackle training exercises to improve various aspects of their skills, or may enter matches or promotional events to earn more stars. A high star count is a necessity in World Tour mode, as it dictates which tournaments one may enter and if you're required to first slog through qualifying matches before each of the season-finale major tourneys. It's not all sunshine and lollipops, though, as some spots on the board house disadvantageous events that will drain your star count, wallet or even your conditioning, which you'll need to keep a careful eye on in order to be at your best for you next match.
This massive overhaul to the way we think of sports game career modes is entertaining, but it can also grow frustrating from time to time. Because the movement tickets are distributed randomly, it can be difficult to plan too far ahead, and it's easy to find yourself landing on bad spaces or blowing right past needed events because you don't have a ticket with the correct number printed on it. There are certain spots on the board where you can buy specifically numbered tickets, but in a sinister twist, you have to actually land on them first. The biggest drawback to this mechanic is that players may sometimes miss out on a lot of optional matches or promotions and thus find their star count woefully short when tournament time rolls around. Also, since stars are cumulative across all four seasons in World Tour mode, a slow start can lead to all but certain failure down the road.
In spite of its sometimes irritating movement system (not to mention the inane text boxes that compose the "story"), I found myself mostly enjoying the Virtua Tennis career mode and had more fun than frustration. Even so, some gamers will likely be turned off by the somewhat random nature of World Tour. For those folks, there's still the traditional Arcade mode, where players run through a series of four singles or doubles matches and then attempt to unseat a tennis great at the end. This mode is enjoyable for those who want a quicker experience, but later matches can grow very frustrating even on lower difficulty settings.
One area where Virtua Tennis 4 shows marked improvement over its predecessors is in the realm of visuals, as the new character models and courts look pretty stunning. The digital representations of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and the like look pretty spot-on, and the ball boys and line judges even show a nice degree of detail. If nothing else, it's clear the development team took a great deal of time and put forth some nice effort to make sure everything looked good.
Sadly, visuals seem to be the only area where Virtua Tennis is taking itself seriously, as the rest of the game is rather quirky. The training minigames are entertaining (who doesn't love leading baby chicks back to their mothers while dodging basketballs?), but many are rehashes from previous titles. World Tour mode is also a bold risk, albeit one that doesn't totally deliver in every respect. Given such a large gap between Virtua Tennis 3 and this entry, you would hope that we'd see considerable improvements and a nearly flawless experience. Instead, we have yet another mediocre sports game with a bit of squandered potential.
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