Name: Top Spin 3
Genre: Sports - Tennis
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, DS (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
To quote the late, great George Carlin, “tennis is Ping-Pong played while standing on the table. Great concept, not a sport.” While I may not agree with him on the “not a sport” aspect, conceptually, he’s pretty much got it right. By extension, therefore, video game tennis should be Pong played while standing on the table. 2K Sports apparently does not agree with this, as they have crafted Top Spin 3 into the most complex and realistic tennis simulators ever. It definitely isn’t for everyone, but for hardcore tennis enthusiasts with plenty of patience, it might just be the perfect tennis game.
Unlike the simple mechanics found in the Virtua Tennis series, Top Spin 3 makes use of every single button on the Xbox 360 controller. A is your standard safe” shot, B delivers drop shots, X hits a slice shot and Y performs the ever-effective lob. The accuracy and effectiveness of the shots depends on your positioning in relation to the ball and the timing of your button release. Yes, pressing the button merely gets you ready for your shot; releasing it actually hits the ball. In fact, you can hold down your shot button from the time you hit your previous shot, then release to return your opponent’s shot. It takes some getting used to, but it does eventually feel right. Holding either trigger modifies the face buttons to perform “Risk Shots,” which return for this iteration of the series, and just like in the previous games, they’re extremely difficult to master. The timing required to effectively hit these shots is brutal, and you’re far more likely to hit shots too wide or too long when using them, making them almost useless in actual gameplay. Serves are accomplished by either timing button presses, or pressing up then down the right analog stick. There are actually several uses for the right analog stick, but getting the timing right on these shots is prohibitively difficult, and most players won’t find much use for them. For some reason, the bumpers allow you to draw closer to or further from the net, but using up and down on the left analog works just fine, so I’m not sure why these were even included.
All the game modes you’d expect are present, including exhibition, tournament, online and career modes. Exhibition allows you to play as any of over 40 tennis greats, from current stars like Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer to legends like Boris Becker and Monica Seles. The most notable omissions from the roster are the Williams sisters and Rafael Nadal, who has his own licensed game. Tournament mode allows you to play through 24 of the world’s biggest tournaments, which include up to 32 competitors. Sadly, the most famous and prestigious tourney of them all, Wimbledon, is not on the list. This is an omission that effects not only tournament mode, but also career mode, where most people will probably spend most of their time. This mode has you create your own player, which you’ll build up through a series of challenges against no-names, and, eventually, real tennis stars.
The character creator is simply incredible, allowing you to tweak just about every facial feature imaginable. It should be noted that your created character will inevitably look better than any of the fictional early round players you’ll face. As you progress through the ranks towards tennis immortality, you’ll earn points to spend on your abilities as well as your equipment and clothing, allowing you to develop a player that suits your style perfectly. Because of the extremely steep learning curve, there’s a real sense of accomplishment in advancing through the various levels of prestige, and career mode is where you’ll truly learn to play the game if you have the patience to stick with it. Online play is marred by serious lag issues, and for a tennis game, that’s just unacceptable. There’s also a training mode, but it’s so poorly designed and frustrating that you’ll want to avoid it until you’ve played quite a bit of the other modes. It’s easily the game’s most difficult and frustrating mode, which is not exactly ideal for a training mode.
Top Spin 3 offers some of the best visuals ever found in a tennis game. Character models are simply gorgeous, with silky smooth animation, strikingly lifelike faces and realistic cloth modeling. Perhaps most impressive is one visual facet that few games have igured out: hair. If your character has a ponytail, you’ll see it swing and drape over your player’s shoulder more convincingly than in any game I’ve seen. Period. The game’s audio presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. Every shot, footstep and crowd reaction sounds perfect, but the in-game music is repetitive and ill-fitting for a tennis game, and is probably best left off while playing.
Top Spin 3 is probably the most realistic tennis sim ever created. Whether or not you’ll have any fun playing it is a matter of how willing you are to dedicate some time to mastering the game’s nuances and surprising level of depth. Those looking for a casual, pick-up-and-play tennis experience will be better off sticking to the Virtua Tennis series (or even one of Nintendo’s tennis offerings,) but for those with the patience and interest in tennis, Top Spin 3 is an undeniable smash.