Being a tennis player and a fan, I know what comprises a good virtual experience. We got one when Top Spin 4 released back in March, despite my issue with the new character advancement that doesn’t allow me to place hard-earned experience points in any statistic I wish. I was hoping for another solid tennis game from Sega but I had my reservations, because the Virtua Tennis franchise hasn’t reached the level of Top Spin in terms of realism and authenticity. But I might be okay with that. It doesn’t have to be a simulator. Maybe it just has to be fun. …the problem is, because this feels just like any past entry, the entertainment factor is low.
The lone highlight can be found in the graphics, which seem to be the only upgraded aspect of this new iteration. Better character models, detail, and lighting make the gameplay shine in some places, and with the exception of a few bizarre animations, player movement is fluid and characteristic of a pro tennis player. Overall, there’s just another level of polish that doesn’t go unnoticed, even if the character modeling isn’t 100% perfect in regards to the faces. Player styles are relatively well captured and there’s a pleasant color and sharpness that pervades most courts and stadiums. It’s also a fairly consistent presentation, with solid frame rate and no major hitches and glitches.
The audio, on the other hand, doesn’t really help to enhance the experience. The grunting is downright out of control , especially in long rallies with powerful hitters, and the soundtrack is repetitive and limited in scope. I also don’t think the music fits the on-screen action at all; then again, I’ve always had this complaint about the Virtua Tennis series, so perhaps this flaw is more personal in nature. The on-court sound effects are okay but nothing to get excited about, and there are a few small balance issues concerning the soundtrack and effects. It feels as if the sound simply wasn’t a top priority for the developers and while tennis is a quiet sport by rule, that lack of effort is glaringly obvious.
If you’ve played a VT title before, you’ll know how to play this one. There are three basic shots: top spin, slice, and lob (the standard flat shot is still conspicuously absent), and these can be varied by power shots and approaching the net for volleys. You can sort of direct your shot with the left analog stick, and if you’re too far away when you select a shot, your return will be weak. This is all pretty normal stuff and it works fine but there are several problems- first on the negative checklist is this old-fashioned lack of feel. Most of your shots will go in regardless of position (you really have to be in a bad way to commit an error), and there just isn’t much depth. We’ve all done this before and not much has changed at all.
One new arcade-y feature is kinda fun but it seems meaningless. Once a meter fills up entirely, you can supposedly upgrade your power shots to super shots, which are actually a little different depending on the player. The game will go into slo-mo as your character delivers this “super shot,” which certainly sounds like a cool John Woo-ish feature. But the problem is that your super shot isn’t really any more difficult to return than a regular power shot, so what’s the point? On another note, the control is mostly fine and responsive, but the players lack weight and never seem to be affected by the different surfaces. Everything is too speedy and light; this isn’t “arcade-y,” it’s just weird and a little disconcerting.
Clearly, like in most sports games, the available franchise-type mode is the primary draw. In this case, it’s World Tour, where you create your own player and attempt to raise his or her status from amateur to all-star. To do so, you must compete in tournaments, participate in publicity events, up your skills via minigames, and travel all over the world, winning and earning a lofty reputation. It’s not a bad system and it has some high points, and those minigames can be fairly entertaining…even if you’ve seen most of them before. Personally, the silliness is just a little too over-the-top for me, but I had fun doing some of it and besides, it’s a more creative way of upgrading an athlete. That’s not a bad thing, per se.
But even here we have issues that interrupt the flow of the game. You can only move around the world map by using tickets, which you can get from your coach. Each ticket dictates how many locations you can visit, but here’s the kicker- you can’t just ask your coach for tickets; he randomly hands them out. So you really can’t plan ahead. To top it all off, the map icons aren’t explained at all, so half the time, you’re not even sure what event you’re trying to enter. You learn as time goes on, of course, but what’s with these unnecessary limitations that only hamper our progress? And for no good reason? I liked earning stars to move forward and I liked the variety of events, but there isn’t much in the way of flashy content. Publicity events are just text-based scenarios, for example.
So yeah, I can smile a bit when playing a Bomb Match or running around as the Egg Collector to increase movement capability, but all of this wears thin all too quickly. And I can appreciate the enhanced character design, the added detail to a court and its background, and the decent control. But the rest of it has a distinct “been there, done that” feel and the lack of a flat shot and even the slightest semblance of normal physics bugs me. And then I took out the PlayStation Move controller and things went downhill fast. It had already started on that course but the erratic, laggy, and overall unreliable motion controls just soured me on the whole game. Like I said, I know how to play and that knowledge did me no good.
Virtua Tennis 4 is just like its predecessors with only a few cosmetic tweaks and updates. The graphics are indeed better and World Tour can be engrossing for a while, but the uneven and often weak sound, same ol’ same ol’ in regards to physics and movement, and a super shot feature that feels useless all combine to bring this one down a notch. Plus, with the competition of TS4 and the fact that as each year passes, we expect more from developers, VT4’s lagging is all the clearer. Going online doesn’t alleviate much of the staleness, either, so don’t think that’s much of a saving grace. It’s not broken. It’s above mediocre. But it’s just…blasé.
The Good: Graphical improvements, especially character modeling. Control is decent. Minigames are often fun diversions. Game is very accessible overall.
The Bad: Audio doesn’t cut it. Old-fashioned, simplified gameplay. Move controls are very poor. Physics still feel way off. Not enough growth; it feels just like past franchise entries.
The Ugly: “Still no standard flat shot. …un-freaking-believable.”