Creating a tennis sequel can't be easy. It's not like you can just add a few bigger courts, a lava level and some smoke grenades - though you can add enormous balls, rolling fruit and occasional alien invasions. Obviously.
Virtua Tennis 3 is a sometimes strange combination of po-faced simulation and knockabout mini-game wackiness. It's a mark of its essential quality, however, that the more austere side is a feeling that emanates from the presentation, rather than the tennis itself. The control system manages to inhabit that rarefied space where it seems ludicrously simple at first, but turns out to have impressive depth and subtlety the more you use it. Keeping new and experienced players happy, without baffling or boring them, is no mean feat.
You have three types of shot and that's it. But when you add automatic forehand or backhand depending on your positioning relative to the ball, and the ability to charge up or swipe at shots - plus, obviously, the ability to send them left or right of court - it starts to get tactical. The player you create has stats for everything, so they might be better at, say, the forehand.
So you can then either build up your weak backhand, concentrate on creating a weapons-grade forehand, or simply improve your footwork in order to get a better position
in the first place. Differences are noticeable, especially in opponents - clumpy-toed types are easily sent the wrong way, and frequently slip if panicked.
How to improve? A fruit-based minigame is the answer (see 'Anyone for minigames?'), or perhaps one defending against ball-chucking aliens. Each game concentrates on a certain aspect of your abilities. Dive straight into the career and these novelties are the only choice you have, in fact - at first you're not good enough to qualify for an actual match. It could be frustrating (though there's always Exhibition mode's quick play), but in reality it's an interesting way of framing a tutorial. Success opens more games, while existing ones gain new difficulty levels.
And when at last you do make it to a match, you're rewarded with such wonders as new sweatbands, rackets and shorts. Sounds slight, but there's just enough of those infamous 'RPG elements' to keep you hooked. The initial character creation is reasonably flexible, while he or she must be tactically rested (for one to three weeks) or risk injury. Injury means months off, and considering the 20-year career is calendar based, the effects can be unfortunate. Anyway, as your stats bulge and tournaments get bigger, it's somehow quite fun to slip on the colourful new trainers you got for free.
Virtua Tennis 3 is often daft, and should never really feel clinical at all, but somehow it can. Cheesy pop-rock wails from the menus, an extra-cheesy mid-Atlantic announcer smarms about your choices and it's all very cheerful. Yet it remains a bit antiseptic at times, and that's in large part due to its looks.
The animations are frequently fantastic, with players twisting, diving, lunging and spinning to hit their shots, but unfortunately you can rarely appreciate it during a match. There's simply no time to watch - you've got your eye on the ball. So what you do see is the frippery during the pauses in play, and that's much less well done. The physics of flapping T-shirts and shorts are just complex enough to look unrealistic, for instance; it would have been more convincing if faked with set animations. On the other hand, pressing Q on our avatar's gear select screen made his sleeves billow stupidly, which we quite liked.