The virtual tennis court has certainly seen its ups and downs over the past decade. From the memorable Virtua Tennis to the entirely forgettable Hard Hitter Tennis the millennium version of pong has certainly come a long way. While most gamers usually have no interest in such simplicity there is a lot to be said for a game that can entertain regardless of skill level or allotted play time, thus making Tennis a perfect candidate for the ultimate party game. Most of you may remember the original Top Spin for the original Xbox, in fact next to the aforementioned Virtua Tennis it is widely considered the best iteration of the sport ever. So the question on everyone’s mind is simple; can the 360 sequel do the original justice, or are we simply in for another quick cash-in?
The overall premise to TS2 will be very familiar to anyone lucky enough to have played its predecessor. Developed by Indie Built (Amped 3) and newcomer PAM the game falls distinctly between the arcade stylings of Sega’s masterpiece and a full blown simulator. Simple moves and shots can be achieved effortlessly, but at the same time mastering some of the game’s subtle nuances will take quite a bit of practice and lots of un-needed frustration.
The game supports one to four players with a collection of four separate modes including singles and doubles exhibition, career, party games, and of course Xbox Live. The exhibition and part modes are perfect for those quick gaming fixes where the career mode is the place to go to create your avatar and take them to the top by learning new skills and mastering the game’s finer points. There are a total of 24 official players in the game with an even mix of male and female personalities and a grand total of 19 courses scattered across the globe to play out your tennis fantasies on.
The exhibition mode can be a Devil’s Advocate at times in the fact that all the pros are already maxed out and certainly have no shame in displaying it. The AI is truly relentless so if you want to jump in thinking you are going to tear up the competition it may be best for you to spend a few sessions in the career mode to learn some of the more difficult shots. The game feels almost like it was built for veterans of the genre, so if you are the self-proclaimed master of Virtua Tennis, then by all means this game is constructed just for you. Casual gamers would be best off playing against friends or trudging through the career mode in order to beef up your skills before taking on the pros.
Speaking of the career mode this is where the bulk of the game really takes place. You begin by creating your character with an extensive set of tools. It is becoming commonplace for CAC modes to include several facial options nowadays and TS2 certainly does not disappoint in this category. Once you avatar is set you will begin your journey to the top of the tennis world by competing in low-level training events, singles matches, and of course tournaments in order to progress through the game. Along the way you will have the option to take on new sponsorship, managers, and of course beef up your character’s skills by completing specific training missions.
The biggest gripe about the career mode however is its lack of a true balance. You will find yourself skipping tournaments to train and increase your skills only to eventually run out of money and not be able to advance. The loading times between sessions is also ridiculously long and overbearing, you will find yourself growing tired of the globe long before the second or third week into your career. You can switch coaches as I mentioned earlier and this is definitely for your benefit, each one will give you new abilities and give you a chance to add stars to your character, thus increasing certain abilities. However with the excessive loading and real lack of balance the career mode will more than likely become a tedious obstacle most gamers will not have the patience to follow through to the end.
The basic game play takes a lot of notes from the school of the original Top Spin. Character movement is quite fluid and really responsive and the basic serves and shots are simple enough for anyone to achieve. What isn’t so user-friendly though are the advanced moves you earn further into the game that allow you precision and power shots by pressing the trigger buttons before each strike. While these are certainly for advanced users they rarely ever come without a hitch, in fact the timing on most of these shots are so tough that you will more than likely only land one out of every four attempts. Needless to say you won’t be trying to pull them off in tight matches for fear of simply blowing a long running game. The basic moves are nice and simple, the A button is certainly your best ally, no matter where you aim it the ball will never go out of bounds using the A button. The X and Y are a little trickier but at the same time better for throwing off your opponent and the lob is basically worthless, even when your opponent is completely crowding the net.
The visuals in this game are far from what you would define as next-gen. Now I know some people may think I am being picky but honestly if you put this game side by side with the original on a standard definition TV you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Sure the animations are a bit nicer and the course a tad more detailed, but for the most part the game really lacks that certain next-gen look and feel. The saving grace is the rock solid online play. Being able to build up a tennis superstar and then take them online for some virtual ass kicking is certainly worth the time spent and not to mention the game runs with little to no lag even with up to four players simultaneously.
While it is finally nice to see some Xbox 360 titles well below the $60 mark you would be hard pressed to charge full price for this game anyways. While it certainly is not a horrible addition to the library it really does lack something to make it worthy of being dubbed next-gen. Top Spin 2 is certainly not going to win any awards, but at the same time if you are simply looking for a relatively cheap party game for online or off you cannot go wrong here. Perhaps with a better balanced career mode and some optimized loading times we can finally get the tennis game we have all been dreaming of, for now TS2 will simply have to do.