March 20, 2007 - There are a few certainties in life - death, taxes, clichéd opening sentences like this, and Virtua Tennis' game design. Honestly, watching Virtua Tennis evolve is like watching grass grow - it's pretty bloody slow, and you can basically shut your eyes and still know where it's headed. That's not to say that the Virtua Tennis games are in any way bad - as far as grass growing, this is pretty good stuff; it's just that with each iteration, it's harder to justify spending more money for what is essentially a very similar experience. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with [Register or Login to view links], and in fact, the core gameplay is as good as ever, but it just doesn't take the step forward that it could, and probably should. Particularly in its PS3 incarnation, but more on that later.
Somewhat critical introduction out of the way, there is a lot to like about this game. SEGA nailed the sense of movement and the ball physics right from the first game in the series, and these elements have continued to improve. Player animations are stunning for the most part, only falling down occasionally by virtue of the fact that they are so good. When you see a player sprinting back down the line in an attempt to reach the ball while he's still facing forward, for instance, it doesn't gel with what you know the player's intent would be - to simply get to the ball. If anything these moments are a compliment - as with any game that emulates real life, the closer you get to reality, the more you'll pick up on minor flaws. By and large Virtua Tennis 3 is a joy to watch, and even after extended play you'll still see the odd animation you haven't come across yet.
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Federer shows more emotion after one point in this game than he generally does across an entire tournament.
The animations aren't just eye candy either - the smooth transitions and depth of movement really add to the feel of the gameplay, making every smashed lob, every reflex volley and every ball crashed down the line a satisfying experience. As we've seen in previous games in the series, controls are kept deliberately minimal. You only get top spin, slice and lob buttons to worry about, with the key to the gameplay being positioning. The earlier you set yourself up for a shot, the more power and angle you'll be able to generate. Using the left analogue stick you can angle the ball a little or a lot, drop it short or hit it long, and the more you play, the more deft your touch will become. Cheap tactics won't often work in this game - like a real game of tennis, play revolves around taking control of the point by forcing your opponent out of position then hitting a winner. Even the potentially all-powerful drop-shot takes finesse to execute - no simple button press, the player must get in position early, then hit a slice with the analogue stick pushed away from the net.
Of course, a tennis game needs more than just silky smooth animations and compelling gameplay to hold a player's attention over the long term, and that's where the World Tour mode comes in. Here you create a player, pick a home base, then travel the world playing in tournaments to raise your ranking, as well as training at the academy and completing mini-games to raise your stats. In principal it's a great way to structure the career mode, giving the game a somewhat RPG-like appeal. From the globe hub you can change your player's gear (which is mostly cosmetic - although switching racquets can boost stats), you can access your emails to read the latest inane drivel from your coach, and most importantly you can access your calendar, which has all the tournaments for the year and their ranking-based entry requirements laid out week-by-week. The calendar allows you to plan your training and playing schedule, balancing the thirst for tournament wins with the necessity of levelling up.
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Tennis and curling, together at last.
From the outset you'll be able to enter into a number of tournaments, where you'll go up against pale imitations of many of the top players from around the world. It's somewhat surreal, for instance, to come across Federer in the semi-final of your very first tournament, while ranked 292 in the world, and win the match without dropping a point. Obviously the higher your stats and ranking, the harder the opposition becomes, but this is just one example of many where SEGA has taken the easy road in Virtua Tennis 3's transition from arcade to console, instead of really trying to flesh the game design out. Throughout the entire World Tour mode, you only ever play against the same 20 players. They get better as you get better, but not only does it make the experience repetitive, it also cheapens their inclusion. Granted, SEGA probably paid a pretty penny (who am I, my grandmother?) to get these players in the game, but if the development team really wanted gamers to stick around for the entire World Tour mode, wouldn't it make sense to have a whole heap of no-name players to play against initially, so that when you eventually can face off against the likes of Hewitt and Federer, you've worked for it, and it becomes a signature confrontation.