Being a tennis player and a fan of the sport, I’m a close follower of the Top Spin franchise. While Virtua Tennis can be fun, 2K’s series typically outstrips Sega’s in terms of realism and authenticity. With the fourth installment, 2K Czech worked hard on the accessibility; they streamlined just about everything and enhanced the depth of the Career Mode. The online mode works well and while I still have a few reservations in terms of the aforementioned realism, this remains the best Top Spin entry to date. Tennis is a great sport because it focuses entirely on the individual; it’s all about both physical and mental toughness and when playing against the toughest opponents, you do have to utilize true-to-life strategy. As the fans know, this is a huge plus.
The game has been upgraded in the graphics department, even though I still say some of the character modeling is off, and I believe the designers can continue to flesh out the courts and stadiums. The animations are top-notch and the entire production is very clean; it’s almost entirely devoid of glaring or significant hitches and glitches, and I just love the player-specific reactions and behavior. When you’re playing as Nadal or Ivanovic, you know it. Everything from swing style to body language has been meticulously implemented, and most of the major tournaments boast a awe-inspiring feel (the U.S. Open looks and feels just about right), and the flow of the gameplay remains rock solid; i.e., no frame rate hitches. As I said, a few athletes look a little silly when up close, but no biggie; I’ve learned to accept that.
The sound isn’t much different than the audio in Top Spin 3 , but it does seem as if the effects have become more pronounced. Every grunt and smack of the ball is brought to the forefront, and the reactions of the crowd are much more diverse and spontaneous. This atmospheric tinge really lets you sink into the on-court action. The developers have explained why they didn’t include any commentary – we might get it in the future, though – but I keep thinking the likes of Johnny Mac (and his brother) would help to spice things up. The music doesn’t play much of a role, as you might expect, and much of the game is quiet…but then again, that’s tennis, isn’t it? Provided the creators nail down those distinct gameplay effects, they’ve done their job and I’m not about to complain.
Let’s talk about the increased “streamlining” and accessibility first, because it’s clear that 2K Czech put these at the top of the priority list. In the past, we’ve had “risk shots,” which were attempted with the shoulder buttons and required a healthy amount of timing. In all honesty, I never liked them and I never had to use them to succeed. This time, the four basic shots (flat, top spin, slice and lob), are once again mapped to the four face buttons and the only “risk” involved is built into your timing. You’ll soon realize that you can fire back a hopeful winner or a more controlled shot simply by pressing the button at a certain time, and in a certain way. This may sound complex but it’s actually quite intuitive and easy to grasp. They’ve also limited the use of the analogs this time, and I’m fine with that; I’ve never felt comfortable with that particular option.
I do, however, use the right analog for the “advanced serve” in Top Spin 4 , just because it feels natural and isn’t overly difficult. As for moving around the court, we also get the benefit of a feature that can reestablish our balance and momentum, and rushing the net is easily accomplished. At first, you might think the serve-and-volley aspect of this game was incorrectly presented, as you’ll dispatch most all your early opponents without much trouble. But what you may not realize is that you can do this from the baseline, too; the “accessibility” is most obvious during the first few hours of your Career. Even pros seem scaled back big time and at first, I was very disappointed. But then I realized that the game is matching their talents to yours, so when you rank up to Lv. 10 (20 is the max, by the way), guys like Federer and Roddick will be that much more difficult. This tones down the severity of the learning curve, which was a common complaint in TS3.
Personally, I never did understand that complaint. I never had any trouble dominating in the last iteration and provided you understood the timing, you’d rarely lose. But it seems I was in the minority, so when I complain about the early goings of TS4 as being far too easy, I may once again be in the vast minority. And when I say I really didn’t need the timing assist feature in this fresh effort – a circular meter that tells you how far off you are – that should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s a fine feature that works well, even if I think it takes your eyes away from the court. This is all far too personal and I don’t want to let it impact the review, but I will say that 2K Czech’s decision to make most all surfaces the same chafes. I understand the reason: if clay really played exactly like clay, and grass really played just like Wimbledon, things could get crazy.
Yeah, you really would have to re-learn the gameplay on different surfaces but then again, that’s realistic, isn’t it? I’m really hoping they institute a feature in the next Top Spin that allows us to see and feel significant changes between surfaces. Here, players will make different animations and the ball might bounce a little differently, but that’s about it. However, some of my complaining aside, I once again love a Top Spin game, and it’s simply because the control, presentation and depth is better than ever. You play events to earn experience, and there are new events in which to participate, including cool motion-capture sessions. You can also earn new fans this time around, and you can hone your skills by hiring coaches and completing some mini-challenges. None of this is really new, but there’s just more of everything the fans enjoy, and that’s what matters.
On top of which, the World Tour online mode allows you to take your player and compete for the #1 ranking. You’ll continue to earn experience both offline and online, which means you’ll always be rewarded for playing, regardless of the situation. Playing against others online is a simple and easy process; it isn’t hampered by a lot of freezing, crashing or lag, and for the most part, matches go off without a hitch. Then there’s the PlayStation Move functionality- you move about the court with the Navigation controller and swing away with the Move wand, but as was the case with the demo, it doesn’t work perfectly. In some cases, I’d say it works surprisingly well but there’s always this frustrating lag that negatively impacts the gameplay and at the end of the day, it doesn’t quite feel as if you’ve been playing “real” tennis. It'll still give you lots of exercise, though.
Still, Top Spin 4 does just about everything right. The control is beautiful (and I’m pretty sure the momentum physics have been ramped up), your opponent AI is intelligent and challenging at higher levels, the presentation and atmosphere is immersive, and the Career Mode never ceases to be entertaining. Tennis fans will get their fill with this one, provided they can overlook a few sacrifices for the sake of that accessibility and streamlining. I also think they can bring the camera a little closer to the court; some fans will remember how close it was in the original title. That was too close but ever since then, I’ve felt a little too far away from the action. Even so, I’m having tons of fun with the game, because as a tennis player and fan, it provides me with almost everything I desire, especially in regards to the smart, timing-based gameplay. A definite must for tennis followers, I say.
The Good: Enhanced visuals and sound. Control is great. Animations are excellent and player-specific behavior is a huge bonus. Career Mode is satisfying. AI is smarter. Playing online is a fun, easy process.
The Bad: Some characterizations seem off. No significant difference between surfaces. Game starts off too easy. Move is functional, but not perfect.
The Ugly: “…pretty sure the pros don’t play this badly even on their worst days.”