(Xbox 360 Review) Virtua Tennis 4

Developer: Sega AM3 / Sumo Digital
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Sports
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8 = Excellent

The Virtua Tennis series has had to cope with the rare problem of getting it right from the beginning. Since its console debut in 2001 on the Dreamcast, the core mechanics have served to anchor five releases that have spanned three console generations. What seemed to be a fancy version of Pong quickly showed itself to be so much more, as its smooth controls and easy-to-pick-up system gave way to a host of subtleties that nurtured and rewarded play. For the series’ developers, the problem hasn’t been on how to deliver an addictive experience, but how to best refine and enhance an already-stellar base.

To inject some life into the fifth outing, Sega-AM3, developers of the original, and Sumo Digital have gone about bulking up the feature count while keeping the serve-and-return system as elegantly simple as possible. In addition to Arcade, Exhibition, Practice, Party, and Live multiplayer modes, there is now World Tour mode and the Kinect-supported Motion Play mode.

It’s important to emphasize that Virtua Tennis is interested in the sport itself, with the trappings of the sport playing second fiddle. The seemingly simple mechanics are housed in a friendly setup that sports a lot of flash and little substance. Serious sport sim fans might balk at the lack of stats and oversimplification of the sport, but those who put in the time will come to appreciate the system’s ever-revealing sublime subtleties. Players are largely differentiated by one thing, and that is their preferred playing style. There are around 30 styles, and each describes that player’s general approach to the game and how to effectively play against them; for example, if a player has aggressive net play, then it’s best to use lobs to get them to fall back as much as possible. By playing to their strengths, players build up an adrenaline gauge that allows for them to unleash a powerful shot once it’s filled and synced up with a return that complements their style. Aside from their style and hand preference (right or left), there is little differentiation between players—physique, age, experience, everything is encompassed in those two items.

The players are really only there for the ball to be moved, because it’s the physics and controls that are the real stars. Direct options are limited to returning using a strength gauge, a lob, a slice, and the adrenaline shot. The complexity increases when the realization hits that the return type isn’t as important as spacing and timing. If the player is within an unseen radius of where the ball will land, then any of the return options will work; once a return is chosen, the player will then start a sometimes extensive animation to return the shot. Get to the spot soon enough, and a hit can be charged up enough for a powerful return. Positioning becomes paramount, as getting back to the center of the court in time to prepare for an opponent’s return can mean the difference between stumbling to the ground or slamming it back. Reading the opponent is also important, as returning all of the shots won’t make a difference if they are there to send it back. It becomes crucial to note whether they favor rushing the net, a side of the court, powerful shots or quick slices in order to take advantage of any weaknesses. Getting set for a likely position before the return is delivered makes the difference between long slugfests and short, decisive victories.

Fortunately, the game rewards your patience with a pick-up-and-play system that’s easy to get into and extremely rewarding. The gradual learning curve keeps the game fresh and the action addictive. It’s also due to the strong mechanics that much of anything will be learned thanks to the game’s very poor documentation and almost worthless practice sessions. While the positioning, timing, and spacing revelations come with practice, it can be frustrating trying to figure out why your player is missing shots or how they keep missing what looks like surefire returns. The disconnect between the timing windows and on-screen cues are such that, even if it seems as though the player is in position, it’s possible to miss, stumble, or swing too late. Experience will teach just when to hit the button in order to return and where to be for the type of shot desired, but it can seem like a mystery at times when starting out. The practice sessions have a few hints, but they are nothing close to a proper tutorial. Being able to hit a never-ending stream of balls and seeing the landing zone is nice and all, but information and guidance is what’s needed. The included (very) abridged manual is no help, either, clocking in at about four pages, half of which is in French. There’s a URL given for the full manual, but all the address returns is XHTML. I can’t recall a game providing so little detail. Given how long it’s been since I played a tennis title, it would’ve be nice to know the small things from the get-go, such as how court texture impacts play and how to choose the proper return shot. In fact, the only way I found some of this out was by delving deep into the World Tour mode.

World Tour is the biggest addition that 4 brings to the franchise. Similar in appearance to the Quest Mode found in the later Virtua Fighter releases, it’s actually quite different in that it adopts a boardgame design. Those wanting a proper career mode will no doubt be disappointed; instead of getting the usual sports-RPG mix, you’ll get a strange hodgepodge of tournaments, exhibitions, mini-games, and off-screen events. You get to create a player from a handful of features, including body type and hair and skin color, though all of which never fail to make a person who seems a little alien. After creating your creepy player, you then send them off into the world. My effeminate-looking musketeer started off rough, with little skill, poor conditioning, and a ridiculous outfit. His first destination was Asia, where he was to test his mettle against other upstarts.

Now this is where things get interesting, and sometimes infuriating. You cannot simply travel from one destination node to another on the map. Instead, the game uses movement cards, which restricts how far you can go by what’s available in your deck. A card can be played each turn, and depending on what’s in your deck, you may opt to rest, shuffle the cards (in the hopes of getting a better card), or advance. There’s no going back, so once you commit to a path, that’s it. The goal is to qualify and reach each region’s major tournament by the given deadline. The regions—Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America—are fairly large and take some time get through, and each are dotted with nodes and pathways. Each node offers a variety of opportunities: nothing (empty space), practice (single or doubles), training (mini-games), a publicity event, an exhibition, special tournaments, and satellite tournaments. There are even negative nodes, such as major and minor accidents as well as the chance to drop your wallet and lose cash. To qualify for the region’s larger tournaments, you must accumulate enough stars, which represent popularity. Popularity is gained through winning satellite tournaments, exhibitions, and by participating in publicity events. Other activities also earn cash. Cash is used to purchase kit items (re: clothes) that are unlocked as you progress through the maps, as well are regular or super agents. Agents quickly prove their worth as they increase the amount of stars earned per event for as long as they’re under contract, which can mean the difference between making it in a tournament and sitting it out.

World Tour’s unique approach can be fun, until the system turns on you. Imagine having three movement cards worth three move spaces apiece, and that the third node on the only path available is an ‘accident’ node. An accident worsens your player’s condition, which makes them less effective; if the condition meter decreases too much, an injury will be noted, and I can tell you from experience that playing with a wounded player is infuriating. Unless you have a rest card, which calls in a sports trainer to rebuild some of the condition bar, then you’re stuck hitting the accident and taking whatever damage it deals. If there are no nearby resorts or clubhouses, the former allowing for rest and the latter the chance to purchase a rest card, then you will only get more worn down as you progress. The very randomness that makes the approach so intriguing is also what will cause you to rage like McEnroe at your television.

As frustrating and strange as the mode is, it does have some significant upsides. The biggest of which is that it’s the only one that goes into any sort of detail about play styles. Once you’ve trained enough, your stats will have built up to the point where various styles become unlocked. The mini-games used for training are all enjoyable, and as with the other Virtua Tennis titles, a bit weird: hitting a soccer ball past guards and  goalie, lobbing a hot bomb back and forth, raising shields at the net to block your opponent’s returns, hitting a highlighted card to make a poker hand, hauling chickens to their roost, etc. It’s only when a style is unlocked that you get a small description indicating just what it is and how it will impact your game. The skills are broken down into Stroke, Defensive, Tactical, and Net-play. Each has five different unlockable styles, so, for example, Stroke Skill’s styles include Hard Hitter, Strong Forehand, Strong Backhand, and Great Return. It’s by reading their descriptions and practicing with each that the game’s true complexity is revealed. Unlike most sports titles, though, the beauty of the Virtua Tennis method is that players only need to know that their goal is to get the ball past their opponent to get started, and they are eased into the process quite nicely with a fast and friendly early game. Decent documentation would have been helpful, however gradual the learning curve, since it’s nice to go into a situation with some sort of know-how.

After getting the hang of things against the computer, you can then advance to online play. Online games were smooth, though getting a doubles partner on the same console into a double game wasn’t to be. As good as the AI is, and it’s fairly solid, it’s always exciting to go against other people to see just how you measure up. It’s also extremely humbling, so be sure to practice a lot beforehand. That’s especially true if a World Tour player is taken online, where even a so-so pro will humiliate your rising star.

For more exotic thrills, you can delve into the underwhelming world of motion controls. Kinect functionality, unfortunately, is more of a gimmick than anything else. While I’m sure it would draw interest at a party, the fact that all but the swing is switched to autopilot means that most of what makes the game so addictive and unique is removed. There’s no subtle position of the hand or arm or anything when returning, either—just waiting and waving. It’s a novelty worth a try, but it’s not something that should factor into the purchasing decision. I just ended up getting a sore shoulder and switching back to the controller.

The rest of the modes are standard, though each offers something to enjoy. Arcade mode goes through a tournament setup, which is a nice counterbalance to Exhibition mode’s focus on one-off matches. The mini-games can also be played with a friend, which proved to be a hit. At this point, though, I wish they would just keep a running collection of them so that the older ones would remain available for play in newer releases. Those wanting a more traditional Virtua Tennis experience can freely ignore World Tour and still be satisfied as all the standbys are included.

Overall: 8/10
The series might not change much over the years, but its core mechanics remain one of the best in any sports title. The lack of stats and an in-depth approach to the sport will turn off hardcore fans, while newcomers will be put off by the lack of information and at times bewildering behaviour exhibited by the players. However, both would be well served by sticking with it as Virtua Tennis 4 has a lot to offer. The beginner-friendly early game and gradual learning curve makes sticking around a reward in itself—there’s little else as rewarding as realizing that you’re getting better. The World Tour mode might not be as a big of an addition as hoped, but even for all of its weird and quirky faults, it’s still strangely addictive and offers a chance to raise a rookie from nothing to something. Plus, it offers the side bonus of providing what little info there is on how to approach the game, which is helpful for vet and rookies alike. Oh, and I’d like that manual some time, Sega.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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