Review: Pong comes to PSP...though Pong never let you look at Maria Sharapova's virtual ass.
While the PSP has more than its fair share of sports games, one sport that hasn't been represented at all is tennis. Like golf games, tennis titles can be enjoyable even if you're not an avid follower of the sport, as seen by the success of numerous console tennis games over the years. Virtua Tennis was one of those games ? originally released in 2000 for the Dreamcast, VT captured a following thanks to its arcadey, but addictive gameplay style and wacky mini-games to break up the action and help your skills increase. The series spawned a sequel in Tennis 2K2 and a GBA version of Virtua Tennis, but since then the franchise has been left in the dust during Sega's recent struggles. However, Virtua Tennis is back, and for the PSP no less. Dubbed Virtua Tennis World Tour (as the '2K' name left along with Take Two's acquisition of Visual Concepts), the PSP version of this beloved franchise is based mostly on Tennis 2K2, but designed with the portable in mind. Some might find the game too heavy on mini-games, its pace is a wee bit slow, and veterans won't find anything truly revamped, but the same addictive gameplay the series is known for is here...and that's all you'll need to have a good time.
VT World Tour contains a decent amount of playtypes to keep you occupied. In addition to basic quick match and exhibition modes for either singles or doubles action, there's a handful of deeper setups like usual. Tournament is the typical arcade-style ladder, where you choose a character from either the 14 professional players included or your own created player, and climb through the ranks to win the championship. There's also LAN play for up to 4 players, alas it's not playable online, just local. Finally, there's Ball Games that are just 4 original mini-games to screw around with as a diversion. World Tour is the meat, however, and likely where you'll spend the most time. Those who've played Tennis 2K2 on either DC or PS2 will recognize the setup; you create both a female and male character using a somewhat basic engine, and off you go hoping to make both characters #1 in the world by dominating their respective leagues. Of course, you start at the bottom and must win to advance your rank, via winning events in both singles and doubles play, and you have to increase your skills too via the dozen or so mini-games included. For some these games will be annoying, since a great deal of your time will be spent with them since if your characters don't get better they'll wind up slaughtered by the higher leveled AI opponents. Strangely, both your characters share the same equipment and money.
What made Virtua Tennis great back on Dreamcast was its addictive play, and World Tour retains this. Tennis is the perfect fodder for a video game, since stripped to its basic form, tennis is really just pong, as the lone goal is to get the ball past your opponent using whatever means of trickery you may have. The gameplay is extraordinarily simple ? all you need to worry about is moving your character into position to hit a good shot using either lobs, slices or volleys, even smashes; it all depends on your location on the court. At first, the game is pretty simple since the AI is quickly outsmarted, but as you go along and the intensity picks up, everything ramps up and it becomes a back and forth battle ? sometimes you're playing defensive, other times aggressive. Not only do you need quick reflexes, quick thinking is necessary as well, since you might need to hit just the right shot to avoid making an error, be it hitting the ball out of play or setting up your opponent for an nonreturnable smash. The learning curve is pretty solid, and you'll get better as your skills and equipment becomes stronger, but one warning before for World Tour mode ? be sure to rest when your stamina drops, or you'll get yourself whooped every time since your characters will be way too weak to do anything.
When you're involved in a doubles match, things kinda change a bit. In World Tour, you must 'buy' a contract for a doubles partner, and it lasts 2 months, but long as you're winning consistently getting the 10k needed shouldn't be too bad. Obviously in doubles exhibition/Tournament matches is as easy as choosing who you want. All your partner choices are pros, so if you've ever wanted to play tennis with Andy Roddick, Roger Federer, Venus Williams or of course, the new hotness Maria Sharapova, this is probably your only chance. In actual doubles play, the most important thing to do is be on your toes in case your partner screws up. Of course this is a rare thing ? almost always, your partner is an absolute beast
, and will return anything and everything at a rapid fire pace like a complete psychopath. Anyone else would call it cheating, though admittedly sometimes the AI partner hits the ball towards opponents rather than attempting to hit it away from them. You could seriously sit there and watch your CPU partner throttle opponents like one of those WWE handicap matches where the outnumbered guy always wins. You can issue orders to your AI partner though, and have them do what you want, but it's hard to take them off the 'normal' setting when they're cleaning up the court. You just have to pay close attention to what's going on and play defensively and usually you'll win.
Whatever way you play, you'll have almost all the intangibles in order ? the controls are smooth with either the d-pad or analog nub (the nub most especially has far better aiming ability it seems, it used to always be about the d-pad in the Dreamcast days), though sometimes it seems unresponsive. The mini-games are fun, though they can be pretty difficult at times, but even if you can't beat them you usually get experience and that will eventually level up skills. The gameplay is just very sound, and if you've never touched a VT game before, you'll probably find it extremely fast-paced, addictive and intense. On the other hand, this is one of the problems with the game ? if you've played the older games to death, you won't find much new here, and that might be a detriment. Though optimized for PSP, it's easy to see it's a reworked port of Tennis 2K2, right down to the same World Tour setup that wasn't as good as the one in Virtua Tennis. It's still good but the pace is slow, taking numerous runs through the calendar to actually complete all the events ? and that's not even mentioning the lagging load times leaping around the World Tour map and before matches. The game itself is still very, very good, but it's disappointing to see a rehashed Career setup rather than something 100% new, and of course, actual online play would be nice, and it's surprising it's not there seeing Sega was one of the pioneers of online play on consoles.
Virtua Tennis World Tour is visually very nice for a PSP title. There's a lot of variety in the court types and areas, matching the surface you're playing (though in gameplay terms, the surface matters little as the game plays the same), and the various locations match up as well, be it Africa, Asia, Australia, the US, or other locales around the world. Character designs have come a long way from the original VT, with those zombie-like faces, as now they actually look good, though there's a disappointing lack of designs for the create-a-player engine. The framerate holds up during the action ? it only slows up for close-ups of a player after a point is scored, though at least that's for show only, not a real flaw. The music seems to have been directly taken from the older games, so you'll have either some Sega cheese rock or Sega cheese techno to choose from. Players grunt and groan as they return shots, and the crowd gasps, cheers, and moans at the on-court action. Shoes squeak across the court and the announcer speaks out the names of real characters, but not your own. Unfortunately they don't use the voice representative of whatever country you're in unlike Virtua Tennis on DC, as the announcer voice speaks English only.