Now in its fourth home console iteration, Virtua Tennis is no stranger to fending off the competition. Sega's flagship racket game has seen off the likes of TopSpin and Smash Court Tennis over the years. But it's 2009 (as the new title affirms) and there's Wii Sports and EA's Grand Slam Tennis to contend with. Can Virtua Tennis change it up enough to feel fresh or has the tennis genre gone as far as it can?
There are two answers to that question, which depend on what platform you opt for. PS3 and 360 versions follow the familiar formula, while the Wii version features Wii MotionPlus. We took the 360 version for a workout and can confirm that little seems to have changed since Virtua Tennis 3.
In order to compete with the big boys and girls you have to start at grass roots level and work on your abilities in the almost identical Career mode. Abilities are broken down into groundstroke, footwork and technique and serve and volley areas, with each having its own mini-game or club house mission that'll tone that specific area. Check out the video below for more insight into the mini-games.
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So far so similar then. But once you've maxed out a level of one ability, you unlock a new playing style that you can pin on your custom-made character. Then you work on building up that skill to the next level that unlocks another style and so on. So while the career mode looks and plays just like VT3, this extra layer of details adds more depth to the personalisation and progression of your character.
After playing tennis games for as many years as we have, we've come to realise that single player matches are ultimately limited by the AI routines of your NPC opponents. If you know how a tennis games works (where to position your feet before a shot), then you'll find the first few hours of spanking low-ranked players dull and void of any excitement. This is only highlighted when you get an achievement for winning 25 games to Love after playing exactly 25 games (okay, maybe 26). The mini-games tide you over as you keep chipping away at your vitals, but even they start off ridiculously easy.
After a couple of hours of moving up through the world rankings the NPCs then go into Neo mode and trying to outwit them becomes a test of patience rather than skill, placement and tactical awareness. You can coax your mate into thinking your going to hit the ball down the line and then smash it cross court. But against a higher PC opponent, it feels like they're hitting everything back because they know where you've chosen to hit it.
If tennis games are to survive then advances need to made. If you take FIFA as an example, EA has breathed new life into an annual franchise by exploring new modes of online play. Advancements must also be made to the social side of tennis games.
Virtua Tennis 2009 offers a basic set of online modes (four-player tournaments and mini-games) but there's almost no sign of any attempt to really explore how tennis can be played online and enjoyed together.
You could compare it to Pete Sampras. Technically it's as good as a tennis game can be. Visually it raises a few 'eyebrows' here and there (hideous player models). But when it comes to thrills and spills, it's predictable and lacks excitement. Multiplayer is where the fun is to be found.
If you've never played Virtua Tennis before then maybe it's nearer 8, but for VT veterans there's little new to get excited by and you can't help but think that more effort should have gone into the online component.