• Top Spin Tennis Review - Microsoft Xbox

    There will come a time in the future when there will be no point in developing a videogame of tennis; someone will have created the ultimate tennis game and that will be the end of that. Releasing any iteration after this will just be a waste of developer’s time - there is only so much you can do with the sport after all. The current genre leaders are getting close to the real thing and, with the release of Top Spin, it just got that bit closer.

    This is the best replication of tennis on any computer system bar none. More importantly, it’s the most enjoyable game of tennis without stepping onto a real life court. It’s better than Mario Tennis. It’s better than both of Sega’s Virtua/Power Smash series. It’s better than old stalwarts Super Tennis and Smash Court. It is sublime.

    That is not to say that it is perfect. Faults are present, mainly in the front end. Also there are some baffling omissions that a sequel will inevitably correct. The most surprising of these is the lack of a mixed doubles option. One can only assume it was an oversight on the design brief, because both male and female players are equally present. The choice of star players is slightly strange too. Sampras and Hewitt are in, but neither of the Williams' sisters nor housewives' favourite Tim Henman are present. Thankfully it does include the option to play a full five set match, something that some of the older titles above cannot boast.

    Long loading times are a slight frustration and blight an otherwise excellent career mode. It seems peculiar that a second-party Microsoft title would take so long to enter a very ordinary shop screen. Possibly due to a rush to meet the deadline for the release of the XSN sports network.

    The online element is the game’s main addition to the genre. Unfortunately here too, there are restrictions. Only two Xboxes can connect online, which means that doubles matches have to be played with your partner in the room. Apparently this decision was taken because of bandwidth issues, but it would have been nice to have been given the choice.

    However, once the players step onto the court, the game’s true virtues reveal themselves. From the first serve, it’s clear that the game has taken its cue from Virtua Tennis: the serve power bar is present, the movement of the players feels similar and the way shots are directed around the court will appear very familiar. The game gets the basics right by unashamedly copying the previous champion, but then adds to the recipe without over-egging the pudding.

    The face buttons control the four basic shot types: safe shot, top spin, slice and lob. With these alone, the player can replicate a high level of tennis. Each shot aside from the ordinary safe shot carries its own level of risk. Shots do not always land inside the court and players must always judge the risk of a shot against the opportunity to exploit a gap in the opponents defence, just like the real game.

    The trigger buttons operate the two most daring shots - difficult to master, but necessary to reach the top level. Holding down either trigger brings up a moving bar. Players must release the trigger at the right moment to pull off the shot. The beauty is that the right trigger allows for a high powered hit whilst the left gives a drop shot. Thus if a player sees his opponent’s risk bar appear, he doesn’t know if he’s about to be hit by a huge cross court pass that will bury itself in the back wall or a cheeky little drop shot that will just scrape over the net. On top of all this, there is enormous subtlety and depth to the control, from deft after-touches to the precise accuracy of the analogue stick.

    Beyond the amplification of the controls, it’s the small details that elevate Top Spin to Grand Slam status. Lob shots are no longer the cheap trick they were in Virtua Tennis. The ball leaves an obvious trail whilst in the air making the direction of the ball easier to judge. Visually, the animation is some of the best ever seen. Big name players have their own signature moves similar to the Winning Eleven series; Hewitt has his leaping double backhand, whilst Sampras does his two footed leaping smash. Winning successive points increases the “In the Zone” bar, making risk shots a little easier (although not by much). After each point, players can press either the white or black buttons to display “attitude”, either congratulating or antagonizing the opposition. It seems a pointless addition, but it does add to the fun in multi player games, in which it excels.

    The final result is a game that if you squint, looks and feels exactly like a match at Wimbledon. It also highlights how “un-tennis-like” some of its forebears can sometimes be.

    As mentioned earlier, the online play is the new addition and it works as well over Xbox Live as you would expect. With another player on a fast connection it feels as though they are in the same room. This is also one of the first titles to use Microsoft’s new XSN sports facility. Players can create tournaments and leagues via the XSN website and the scheduling of matches will be arranged for them. The website keeps track of every point scored and details every statistic, from which player has the best serving average to who has the best cross-court return.

    The single player game is expanded by the now obligatory career mode, which again works in a similar fashion to the Sega games around a world map. Raising performance levels is undertaking by training and competing in events with varying degrees of difficulty. Except this time the stakes are much higher, because the character the player builds up is the one that will be taken into the online world. Players can learn a variety of disciplines that complement their style of play, from serve and volley to back of the court tennis. A comprehensive set of design options allows players to create a character in their own image or as grotesque as possible. Gear won in the career mode can be worn and displayed online, so that no two players look exactly the same in the online world.

    Top Spin is a title that gets everything right where it really matters. The small issues with the front end will no doubt be resolved in a sequel, but it seems hard to imagine how PAM can improve on the rock solid mechanics of the game itself. It joins the ranks of Winning Eleven as a title that can be truly decreed master of all it surveys. With the significantly improved gameplay over its peers and additional online elements, it must be considered as an essential purchase.

    A review by Jez Overton