Tennis games have always been a staple on console systems going all the way back to the beginning of video games with the famous “Pong” or the original “Tennis” for the NES back in 1983. We’ve all played at least one tennis game and for the most part the saying “if you’ve played one you’ve played them all” tends to apply. Today tennis games seem to come in two different flavors, the wacked out, cartoony, over the top action titles (i.e. Sega Superstars Tennis) and the more down to earth, reality-based sims (i.e. Virtua Tennis). The Top Spin series has always fallen into the latter category and has been praised by many for its hardcore simulation style that attempts to recreate the action of tennis on consoles. The newest version of Top Spin is no different and it does an admirable job of continuing the series by adding a new gameplay style and improving on graphics but it ultimately fails to accurately capture the excitement and passion of the sport.
Top Spin 3’s visuals are exceptional. Everything from free flowing hair and cloth effects, gorgeous and semi-accurate player animations (for some players such Federer and Henin) and very creative, cool-looking court locales can be found. Players strike the ball and move very realistically, although they can be a bit on the slow side at times. The matches play out in a true-to-life fashion with the umpire calling out your “faults”, “outs”, and “loves” with the same tone you’d expect if you were watching a match on your TV. After you score or concede a point you are treated to a mini-cut scene that might show either player's reaction, whether it be a triumphant yell or a less exciting fiddle around with their racket strings. These in between point animations add some much needed flavor to the game but otherwise the presentation can only be considered vanilla at best. A ball boy/girl (person?) would have been impressive, but they must have decided against it. The crowd is also woefully quiet and stiff for most of the match and will only start screaming and yelling for a particularly good shot, after which they’ll go back into a trance. This hurts the overall presentation and makes the on-court action feel lifeless and inert for much of the match.
Although Top Spin 3 takes new steps in the direction of the perfect looking tennis simulation, it doesn’t do enough to really pull you into the matches. While the players may look super realistic, the action gets a bit too repetitive and I often found myself yawning after 5 or 6 games. The pre-match loading screens try to give you a few panoramic shots of the court, but it would’ve been a bit more interesting to have some sort of fly-by effect or maybe an announcer talking about the court and what to expect while playing on it. Commentary about the pros or just the match in general would’ve been welcomed as well.
The Player Creator option allows for the generation of a wide variety of players from a number of different effects which can be used in the creation of your tennis avatar. It certainly contains an impressive amount of customizable options including a facial molding system that lets you mold and morph your created players face in many different ways to get your desired look.
Top Spin 3 isn’t exactly overflowing with different game modes, which really hurts the final variety as you are fairly limited with what you can choose to do. On the main menu you’ve got Exhibition, Career and Tournament modes, Top Spin School (its highly recommended you complete all the courses before playing), Player Creator, Player Area (for player upgrades and your statistical history), and finally Xbox Live.
Exhibition mode lets you play either a singles or doubles match with a current pro (i.e. Andy Roddick or Monica Seles), your own career player or a downloaded player. It is unclear at this point whether 2K is going to provide any additional downloadable players or courts. Most of the selection screens are superbly uninspired and boring to look at but are snappy and functional which means you shouldn’t need to be looking at them for long. The addition of former tennis greats Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg allows you to create some very interesting match-ups (just imagine Becker in his prime vs. Federer) but there are definitely some notable exceptions such as top Spaniard Rafael Nadal (PS3 version only) along with American’s Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. You won’t find the Williams sisters in the game either. Of course more players would have been welcomed but 18 male pros and 19 female pros still gives plenty of choices. 40 different courts are available to you initially on clay, grass, indoor and hard surfaces. You can choose to play at a number of real-life tennis stadiums including the Roland Garros, Paris (French Open), the Australian Open, the US Open and the Pacific Life Open. They’ve also included a whole slew of fictional courts that look like they were created in a tennis fan’s widest dreams (have you ever wanted to play tennis on top of an aquarium? Check out the Tokyo Tennis Box). You do not have the option to play at Wimbledon however which is likely to upset a lot of tennis fans.
During matches the pause menu lets you change the camera between TV, TV Far, TV Close, Zoom Far, Zoom Close, and Zoom views. The differences between the views are minimal and all put you in the typical vertical view you’d expect if you were watching a game on TV (no side view, no first person view, no top view, etc...). The replays are some of the best I’ve seen in a tennis game to date but you still are not able to take total control over the camera. I’m not sure why tennis games haven’t caught onto this feature yet but I’d definitely like to see it included in the future along with the ability to save and possibly upload replays online.
The career mode is lackluster at best. You create your player and take him through season after season, winning tournaments and upgrading not only your player stats but your wardrobe and equipment as well. Upgrades to your clothes and choice of racket don’t seem to affect the way your created persona moves and plays but they do add some level of customization which provides a bit of uniqueness for online play. The major problem with the career mode is its plainness, as you basically just move from month to month competing in singles tournaments (Easy or Hard types) and then once you’ve finished that month’s tourney you upgrade your player. After awhile it becomes too monotonous, a problem that many tennis games seem to suffer from. Sure the gameplay is deep and you can spend lots of time learning how to move around court and strike the ball properly but why can’t tennis games turn the career mode into something more exciting? Why not start players out in high school and then build up their career from scratch? It’d also be fun to select coaches and performing training exercises similar to those found in Virtua Tennis (but maybe not quite as cartoony, this is a tennis sim after all). In all fairness, though, the career mode is well done. Unfortunately, its simplistic nature may not hold the casual fans attention for too long.
Where you’ll want to spend most of your time is on Xbox Live taking your game online against human opponents. You can do so either in a Player Match or the World Tour (Ranked) modes. The player match lets you play a quick game against another opponent and you can choose either your created player or one of the available tour pros. World Tour however is a much more interesting choice and can provide you with some really fun competition, provided you have taken the time to learn how to play the game with some success. The World Tour mode requires that you use your created player which can be daunting at first as you’ll often find that players with higher attributes are abundant and will not hesitate to give you an embarrassing lesson in tennis skills. However, as you develop your game and your own player’s attributes, World Tour can be a ton of fun.
Top Spin 3 introduces a brand new style of gameplay that has so far been praised by some as fresh and realistic while shunned by others as being difficult to learn and unintuitive. I put myself in the first category even though I spent many initial hours sitting in frustration as I struggled to learn how to hit the ball with any force or accuracy. To strike the ball you first hold down the button to build up your strength and then release the button when you want to actually swing your racket. As someone with ample experience with tennis games, I was really confused in beginning because it felt so unnatural. However, after an hour or two something clicked and I started “feeling” the gameplay a bit more. I’m still not sure if its better than more traditional control schemes, but it certainly isn’t any worse. All of your usual tennis shots can be performed including slices, lifts (top spins), flat shots, drop shots and lobs. The RT trigger can be held down to add some extra power, but you’ll need to strike the ball perfectly in order to keep it from going outside the lines. The LT similarly can be used to hit your shot as close to the line as possible. Early on in career mode you’ll probably want to stay away from RT and LT shots as the weaker players generally have a tougher time keeping the ball inbounds. As you progress in your career and your ratings improve, your player gets much better at hitting the ball with more force and accuracy and has a better chance at pulling off some impressive shots. The RS can also be used for serves, lob and drop shots if you prefer. To initiate a lob for example you simply push back on the RS and then upwards when you want to hit the ball. Again, it’s a bit strange at first but after a few games its starts to become second nature and you should be flipping the RS around with no trouble at all.
Player movement is more realistic but feels lethargic at times usually when the player is moving out of a dead standstill or changing direction. There is also a lack of dives when chasing down cross court shots which makes the players look like they have absolutely no hustle when moving from line to line.
The ball animations occasionally feel a bit scripted, especially when it comes to shots that hit the net as they always seem to hit the same top area. It is also difficult to know exactly how to strike the ball depending on on player position as there isn’t a good feedback mechanism in place to teach you the best possible way to hit your shots. Although you will get some rumble feedback if you make good contact with the ball, it just isn’t enough. At times I wasn’t sure exactly what I had done to send the ball sailing out of bounds when it felt as though I had performed the exact same button combination just previously to hit a clever cross court strike.
Replay Value / Longevity: 72
If you can deal with Top Spin 3’s vanilla nature and manage to embrace the difficult to learn, even more difficult to master gameplay, then you should get a fair amount of mileage out of the game. The offline career mode didn’t have much to hold my interest so l found myself mostly going online to play against human opponents which are always more exciting matches than the computer AI. The World Tour (Ranked Match) option can be fun depending on how much time you’ve spent upgrading your players attributes as it is difficult to win with a sub 60-70 rated player.
My final impression of Top Spin 3 is its the best tennis experience that you’re going to find on the 360, but it still has some things that I’d like to see get fleshed out a bit more in the next version. If you take the time to learn the new control scheme (go to Top Spin School!) and show some patience in the early going you’ll start to appreciate just how much depth the game can have. The lack of variety in the game modes however really hurts the replay value, especially if you don’t enjoy online play over XBL. In future versions, they need to inject some serious passion into the matches and evolve the career mode into something that is much more involved and engaging. As far as tennis goes on the 360, Top Spin 3 wins out in a close fought tiebreaker game over the competition and is the best tennis simulation I’ve played so far.