It’s almost impossible to ignore the relationship that games have enjoyed with the ol’ back-and-forth of tennis, and the racquet sport has forever been enshrined within the annals of video gaming. The simplicity of Tennis for Two and Pong have long been superseded by the latest offerings on modern consoles, and Top Spin 4 is no exception. This game allows you to play as successful contemporary superstars like Serena Williams and Roger Federer, vintage greats like Boris Becker and Pete Sampras, or even to take control of your very own custom-created superstar.
Or Andy Murray.
As the joy of tennis was easily demonstrated in games using technology far more primitive than what is available today, it is understandably tough to know how to improve the formula. Top Spin 3 was quite complex; the steep learning curve proving a huge obstacle for many players and the hitting of a ball over a net had suddenly become an intricately tough and complicated ordeal.
It’s refreshing then, that 2K Czech have simplified the mechanic so that now striking the ball is down to series of basic inputs. You can hold down a face button for a power shot or tap it for a controlled shot, with shoulder buttons utilised for modifiers, such as drop shots. This doesn’t mean however, that the game is easy or lacking finesse, as these seemingly straightforward controls are dependent upon the timing of the button-presses. There are relatively small time windows for the player to pull off the perfect smash or baseline shot, and visual cues are a constant reminder that the shot was played either too early or too late.
Obviously this could quickly become frustrating for the uninitiated, so thankfully the Top Spin Academy is present for players to learn the ropes. This surprisingly competent series of tutorials not only covers the basics of play, but also manages to introduce the fundamental tactics of professional tennis. The determined player will graduate with a rudimentary understanding of the variety and timing of how to place each shot, and will be ready to embark upon Top Spin 4’s career mode.
The career mode is fairly comprehensive, with an appreciated shortened length of game to allow players to progress without having to play endless five-set marathons. The calendar-based career grants players a preparation session and a tournament each month, with the reward of success being experience to spend on improving your avatar’s abilities. It’s a testament to the balancing of the career that when the point at which the likes of Nadal and Federer are featured as opponents, a genuine feeling of nervous anticipation will be felt by most people who reach it. Also fantastic are the restrictions placed upon character development, with a level cap at 20 enforcing players to focus upon one or two aspects of their game, rather than attempt to become an all-round unbeatable tennis machine.
Wimbledon is noticeably absent, as are the trifles of professional tennis, as seen in EA Sports games. There is no idle spending of cash on cosmetic or attribute-enhancing gear, and no off-court interactions to engage in. This will be a relief for players purely interested in the tennis, but for others more used to the ‘whole pro experience’ offered by other games, it will appear as somewhat shallow.
In other areas, the game does borrow from EA sports games. The tracklist is more contemporary and developed than ever before, and a free-play loading screen is an obvious nod to the likes of FIFA. This is a case of imitation as flattery however, and the game is a richer, slicker experience as a result. The character customisation tools are powerful and fun, featuring both the ability to create realistic avatars and to generate the most awkward, alien-like freaks ever seen holding a racquet. The online play is good fun too, and much better at finding a suitable partner than Top Spin 3, though it still largely remains a reminder that there are many players out there much better than you. The system uses mini-targets for players to aim for more achievable goals rather than to reach for the very top of the leaderboards, which is certainly a welcome addition.
The look of the game mirrors televised tennis, with slow motion and replays used to emulate the professional game to good effect. The player movement is still a tiny bit sloppy, but the waters of animation in tennis games are notoriously muddy in this area. The time spent using the stereoscopic 3D for this review was very limited, but was great fun while it lasted. It is unknown what extended periods of play would be like using the mode, though the slower frame-rate was definitely noticeable when it was in 3D.
With Virtua Tennis 4 breathing down its shoulder, 2K Czech has done very well to make a game to be proud of, and the three years taken to develop it since the last one is a great argument against the annual release schedule of other sports games. It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly could be done to improve the Top Spin 4 formula, and perhaps the only limitation to the experience is the dichotomy of the game; exactly what made the concept so appealing to early game designers in the first place: endlessly hitting a ball back and forth over a net just isn’t that sophisticated.
Top Spin 4 is the greatest tennis experience available to gamers. The easy to learn, hard to master control system is a triumph and the game is the closest simulation of tennis ever seen. Even without Virtua Tennis’s sense of silliness and whimsy, Top Spin 4 is still a real hoot, and apart from one or two niggles is perhaps only limited by simplicity of the subject matter itself.
Graphics – 70%
Sound – 69%
Gameplay – 88%
Originality – 78%
Longevity – 85%
Overall Score: 8