Reviews: Hey! Somebody get that dog off the court!
PAM Development had a brilliant tennis outing on Microsoft's first console, so it's only natural that the team has come back for round two. The first Top Spin provided a solid mixture of tight controls and lasting fun. Top Spin 2 builds on nearly every facet of its predecessor to deliver, quite frankly, the most complete racquet-swinging rendition the sport has seen.
Concerning the roster, cover stars Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova are just the tip of the iceberg. There are 24 available pros to choose from, and 2K Sports was able to get a number of big name stars. Federer, Hewitt and Blake are a few of the more well known players on the men's side, while Davenport, Mauresmo and Venus Williams round off the women's side. Each player is rated with stars corresponding to different attributes of his or her game, and each pro has an individual forte. If you want to run a player back and forth from the baseline, Hewitt or Grosjean would fit your playing style perfectly. Contrarily, if you are more of a serve-and-volley player, Tim Henmen and Max Mirnyi have the necessary skills to maximize your net game. For a well-rounded game, perhaps you'll want to use Roger Federer, a player with plenary skills.
While it's enjoyable playing with the world's best in tennis, you'll have to create your own player when beginning a career. Thanks to Digital Identity, the create-a-player feature has virtually no boundaries. With a seemingly endless amount of parameters to tinker with, sculpting any face imaginable is possible. No details are left forgotten. You can choose your gender, country, age, serving style, handedness, and body composition, among others. Wrinkles, skin stains, freckles, and veins can be magnified or minimized, and there are plenty of hats, hairstyles and goatees to sort through. The multi-faceted system is impressive, and with the proper amount of time invested, players can create a fairly convincing replica of themselves.
Once your player is created, you can then take the action to the court. All the surfaces are available too, from grass to hard to clay to even indoor and carpet. As an amateur, your skills are not developed enough to hang with the world's elite, but you have a coach to help you augment your skills. Each week, you can either choose to train in a drill, enter a tournament, or compete in a special event. Since your ranking is so poor at the start, you can't meet the prerequisite ranking that many tournaments require. Instead, you have to train hard in the early months of your career, building up your skills and increasing your ranking. There are a number of drills to partake in, each one focusing on a different aspect of your game. Mostly consisting of hitting targets, the drills are fun to play and help to hone your skills. When you complete one, you are rewarded with stars that you can distribute to improve the different areas of your game. In addition, your ranking is affected by your training results, so finishing a drill unsuccessfully can make it difficult to progress your status.
Since you can't go toe-to-toe against an Andy Roddick or Roger Federer right away, you'll have to enter smaller venues in the beginning to ascend yourself in the rankings, like the Mexican Regional. These small tournaments take place in smaller settings with less authenticity. At times, these smaller matches don't even feel as though they bear any importance. No ball boys. No line judges. No umpire. Be that as it may, your ranking is still in effect, and prize money is awarded for each event. This money can be spent on a number of different things, including clothing, accessories, racquets, and even coaching. There are a whole slew of coaches you can hire and each one has certain skill levels. One coach's prowess may be the ability to teach you how to serve, while another may be better suited for improving your groundstrokes. As you move up in the rankings, you build the interest of sponsors, who pay you for fulfilling given tasks in tournament play.
The bigger tournaments feature some of the more experienced pros. Winning these events will quickly ascend your spot in the rankings. The Tokyo Open in Japan, for instance, is an excellent place to showcase your skills against some of the middle-of-the-pack players. Of course, these tournaments pale in comparison to the four majors. The Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open are where the big money is to be found, but you must defeat the likes of Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt on the men's side, and Venus Williams and company on the women's bracket.
The controls are very tight and responsive. With practice, controlling the angles of your shots becomes second nature. Your basic shots include lob, safe, top spin and slice. Safe is the only shot that you can't hit out of play, but it won't win you many points in a rally. To control the tempo of a point, you'll need to use combination of top spin and slice shots. However, getting the upper hand in a rally starts with the serve. Serving out wide or up the tee usually gets your opponent off balance and out of position, opening up wider angles for your forthcoming shot. Just like the groundstrokes, players can opt out of any risk with a safe serve, or they can up the ante with top spin and slice serves.
Once the basic strokes are down, you can try your hand with some of the more difficult shots. Risk shots work somewhat like serving. As the ball is approaching, holding the right trigger in conjunction with a face button initiates a devastating power shot, drop shot, diagonal shot, or lob shot. While these techniques can easily put you ahead, they can just as easily lose you a match, especially if they aren't used at the proper time. When hitting a risk shot, a small bar goes up (the same way as when you're serving) and you have to release the button when the bar is at its apex. If you pull it off, the bar will read ?max?. Unfortunately, even when this shot is pulled off, it doesn't necessarily guarantee you the point, and the window of opportunity for stopping the bar on max is extremely slim. Since hitting one of these shots requires such keen timing, most players will find themselves better off by just avoiding these shots entirely.
Thankfully, there are also advanced shots, which are far less challenging. During a match, there's a momentum meter that increases and decreases as a direct reflection of your on-court performance. If you start to dominate play, your meter will become high enough for you to utilize your advanced shots. Holding the left trigger while pressing a face button executes them and luckily, timing isn't a factor with these strokes.
Whether you're hitting an inside-out forehand, crosscourt backhand or beaming ace, the animations look scarily accurate ? even helplessly lunging for a ball that's entirely out of reach looks realistic. Each animation is conducive to the shot too, including positioning, footwork and timing. For instance, hitting a down-the-line forehand has a completely different animation from hitting a more crosscourt-angled forehand, and a player's positioning before a shot not only influences its power and angle, it also effects the animation. There were even a few instances where a player at the net was able to hustle down a lob over his head and execute a dazzling in-between-the-legs shot to save the point. What's more, the available pros all convey their own distinct mannerisms, be it serving the ball, hitting a forehand or slapping a backhand. Pam Development really got down to the nitty gritty. The photorealism is so on point it's amazing, with each player embodying a host of unique subtleties.
While the animations were done to perfection, the graphics on a whole aren't necessarily next-gen material, although that isn't to discredit the game's meticulous level of detail. Each locale boasts a unique background, replete with foliage, onlookers and other particular aspects conducive to a tournament's topography. The courts all possess unique features too, including tree shadows and wear-and-tear marks. In some cases though, the game's level of detail is a little overdone. As previously stated, some of the smaller venues lack authenticity. With dogs running down the court and fans nonchalantly walking in the playing area, it seems as though you're playing in the sticks. Even odder, there's no trace of line judges or ball boys anywhere. While all this seems out of place, it doesn't discredit the significance of the tournament, as the results still affect your world ranking. None of these minor gripes hold true for the big events though, which are stocked to the brim with fan seating, line judges, balls boys and so on. In some places, you can even view other matches taking place on some of the nearby courts. There isn't a whole lot to complain about with the player models and faces, but it seems they didn't receive the bulk of the attention, as they don't stand out from the backgrounds, which are lush with detail and are bolstered by rich textures and impressive intricacies. While the game may not win any awards for its aesthetics, perhaps the even distribution of detail can overshadow the lack of polygonal horsepower.
If Top Spin 2 was narrowed down to its one weak point, it would be in the sound department. Aside from your mundane whaps and clinks of the ball hitting the racquet, and the occasional feet screeches and grunts, there isn't a whole lot that the game offers. The menu music grows old rather quickly, and except for the player introductions by the umpire at the start of a match, there isn't any commentary. Of course, fans applaud after nice shots but aurally, the game is dull. Implementing a play-by-play commentator would have added more liveliness to the experience. The witty John McEnroe would have been the perfect candidate for such a role.
Going online with Top Spin 2 is an entirely different experience, albeit still a good one. Playing against human opponents is very different from playing against the ever-so-predictable enemy AI. The matches are set up the same way that they are in career mode ? first to three games for each set, best of three sets to win. In an unranked match, you can choose from the assortment of tennis pros or use the player you created in career mode. For ranked matches, you have to use the latter. Therefore, it's wise to build up your career stats thoroughly before testing your skills against others, or you'll get wiped off the court by a physically superior opponent. Playing online is refreshing from playing the normal computer-controlled players, and the frame-rate never becomes bogged down during play.
Even if you are without online access, you can still enjoy the game with a few friends. Up to four players can compete in doubles and mixed doubles, and custom tournaments can also be set up. Similar to the drills in career mode, players can play against one another in various party games, where winning points isn't necessarily the focal point. Instead, the goal is to hit specific objects.