Review: More ?Outlaw? hijinks? hmm, maybe it is good that EA bought out Hypnotix, as this series has just about reached the end of its arc.
The risqu? brand of sports games created by Hypnotix has been around for several years now and has seen two very successful golf entries, a lukewarm volleyball foray, and now (as the company's final independently developed game) a stab at the world of tennis. If you know ?Outlaw? games from the past, you'll immediately be familiar with the look and feel of this game ? for better or worse. The series has maintained its mechanics and presentation through all of its titles -- this doesn't change here ? and the only real innovation in the series was the jump to online (which worked for Outlaw Golf 2 and didn't for Outlaw Volleyball). Unfortunately, while this tennis entry does provide some decent value (both in replay and price), it does just feel like Hypnotix slapped the brand on a tennis game and didn't attempt any real innovation or change.
Much of the setup for the game's main modes, as well as the character list remains pretty much the same as in previous Outlaw titles. The offline portion of the game will have you taking various characters through their individual tours (each player has several matches specific to them for their tour), adding skill points in the drill events, and sharpening your game in exhibition matches. In regards to said characters, you'll eventually have 16 after you unlock them all, but you have to start with four: the ubiquitous and sultry Summer, the Latin smoothie El Sauve, the seemingly always-paroled Killer Miller, and Donna, who seems ripped straight out of the Sopranos yarn. Each character gets their own off-beat caddie, and every character also has unique animations, outfits, and attitude. While there are some new entries here for the character list, much of the misfits' ?vibe? and ?'tude? is just getting lame to see; essentially, what was once kind of charming back in Outlaw Golf is now starting to grate.
Like the previous games in the Outlaw brand, the gameplay is about 60% simulation and about 40% arcade ? plus there are random doses of humour, attitude, and titillation along the way. Outlaw Tennis feels similar to the recent Xbox game Top Spin, and many of the mechanics almost seem lifted directly out from that title. Serving the ball uses a circular meter which goes up to 100%; the timing for the serve isn't too punishing, but getting perfect serves is a challenge. Like most tennis games, you have four different shots that the face buttons correspond to and these include a standard forehand/backhand, lob, slice and top spin. There is the usual assortment of other ?situational? shots as well, such as smashes when the ball is hit lazily above your head or dive shots when you are caught out of position. You'll also need to keep your hand primed and ready to depress the L trigger, as this will put various amounts of spin on your shots, and this is absolutely key to putting your opponent out of position or just straight-up blowing one past them. These spin shots are also necessary because of the turbo meter which each player has, and this is where some of the arcade element comes in. Not only does the turbo meter allow you to fly around the court much faster than normal, but you can also put some extra emphasis on your serves and shots; while these power shots are not unstoppable, they do put you in a pretty tough spot if placed right. I must say that I don't really like the amount of turbo that people can use in this game, but I guess it does make sense in relation to the game's general over-the-top nature.
Timing your shots will be a key for winning games in Outlaw Tennis, and you'll definitely need to employ plenty of the aforementioned turbo and spin shots. The time at which you attempt to hit your shot is actually different than games like Top Spin or Virtua Tennis, as you'll likely press a button as the ball is just crossing back over the net. This early timing system does create some problems as you'll end up pressing a button too early and have your player not swing appropriately or not at all, costing you a point. The timing does seem to be kind of random for the power you get on your shots as well. For instance, the game implores you to aim deep in the court of the opposing player if you want more power, but sometimes it seems like no matter how far in advance you set up, your player will still hit some sort of half-assed shot when, normally, any player would just bury it ? this can get frustrating. Still, the mechanics work reasonably well, and these moments don't ruin the gameplay beyond the point of no return.
The artificial intelligence of your opponents can be a bit hit or miss, and you'll often only really find a challenge when you're playing 2-on-1 matches against the CPU, as they can essentially just block out the court, making your shots somewhat tougher. At first the CPU might be able to hang in against you, but once you start mixing in turbo and spin shots, they might start to lag behind. The online portion, having friends play, and game variety help alleviate this problem somewhat, but the shoddy A.I. might bother some that are mainly offline players.
Fighting is another feature that returns to the world of Outlaw, which, not surprisingly, still blows in a big way. Hypnotix claimed that the fighting mechanic had been re-worked for this game, but all you do is just use a fighting token to challenge your opponent and then proceed to mash every face button in order to fill a meter; whoever fills the meter first will get to watch a canned animation of them whomping on their opponent and they will get a temporary boost. This fighting mechanic is even worse than previous games' attempts at it, and it even goes as far as to make you not want to even do it at all.
Some of the variety in how you play will come from the various game types that you can play, as not every match will be standard tennis rules. You'll be able to play games of ?Baseball? and ?Football,? and each one simulates that sport using tennis as the way of scoring points, touchdowns, etc. In the Football mode, for instance, you'll have possession when serving and your drive will keep going as long as the rally goes; you'll need to win the point to keep possession, and long rallies, aces, and turbo shots will all lead to bigger gains. Pinball is another variant that adds a bit of life to the game, as you'll be serving into the opponents' court and attempting to hit bumpers that are randomly placed on the ground. Scoring a point will keep you ?shooting,? but hitting the bumpers is the only way of really scoring. Some of these variants do provide a fresh change from the standard tennis game, but admittedly many of them just rely on holding serve to win, and they usually give little to no chance of scoring for someone who is not serving.
The online portion of the game does have some strong points, but there are a few key detractors that pull the experience back down to mediocrity. The game should first be credited for having a very smooth interface online, much the way Outlaw Golf 2 had an easy-to-use and reasonably lag-free environment. You'll be able to play your games with minimal slowdown and almost no network interference, and most games actually feel as if they're being played offline. One of the better ideas for online was to have all characters automatically levelled up, which means you just have to worry about whom you're using and what they're wearing ? ratings don't get in the way. Yes, there will be subtle differences based on characters' strengths and weaknesses, but you won't have one-sided battles pitting an upgraded player playing against a new player, like in previous Outlaw outings. All gametypes from the offline mode also make their way to the online arena, which is nice to see. However, the omission of tournaments online is a bit of a downer, plus DLC is not likely seeing the light of day as Hypnotix was bought out. Also, the lack of true four-player support for doubles is definitely agitating, as you can only play with four players over two Xboxes; this is inexcusable at this stage, seeing as net code in all Xbox Live games has improved dramatically, and Outlaw Golf 2 featured four unique players.
Visually, Outlaw Tennis looks quite a bit like every other game in the brand, with reasonably well-detailed characters that have smooth features and goofy animations. Many of the on-court entrances and celebrations are humorous, but you will see quite a bit of repetition. The courts themselves are the usual Outlaw assortment, ranging from slaughterhouses to Mexican villas to the very depths of Hell. Each court features some specific landmarks or characters, and the surfaces in each environment are quite varied, which creates different traction and speed for players and shots. Still, this is another area where the Outlaw series has just toed the line and not really changed too much; this isn't to say the series looks bad, but it has looked the same for about four years now.
The audio side of things also remains the same, but actually begins to annoy a bit more now than the repetitious visuals. You've got Steven Colbert (The Daily Show) doing commentary, which is mildly funny, but not only does it get repetitive fast, but it also just shows that Hypnotix has gone for the same humour vibe in every outing. The characters themselves do have some funny on-court quips or double-entendre sayings, but again, this has all been done before. The soundtrack features licensed tracks, but nothing that will have you really excited ? stick with custom stuff, here.
So Outlaw Tennis doesn't really try to go far away from the existing formula that Hypnotix created a few years back, and this is good for the elements that already worked, but it's annoying when facing flawed elements that have never been corrected. At $19.99 USD, this game does seem appealing from a value standpoint, but even if you're a fan of the series, the reduced price and online play only barely manage to put the game into mediocre status. Leave this series alone now and let it finish on a middle ground ? don't let it fall further down.