Review: The third installment of Sega's noteworthy tennis brand arrives on the scene.
Many gamers fondly remember the original Virtua Tennis back on the Dreamcast because of its strangely appealing blend of simulation trappings and arcade speed. The game served as the ultimate ?moment in time? experience because it came along at just the right time and gave people an approach to sports games that was very easy to get into, but very rewarding when mastered. Virtua Tennis 2 didn't really see the light of day (other than arcades), and because it came out in the same era it essentially followed the formula of its predecessor. Now Virtua Tennis 3 is here, which actually follows up a current mainstay for tennis fans, Top Spin 2. Does Virtua Tennis 3 usurp the likes of Top Spin 2 (or even Virtua Tennis)? In a word, no, but Virtua Tennis 3 does manage to make some headway in the online game space, and the feature set is certainly acceptable.
The magic of the original Virtua Tennis was in the simplicity of control and the blending of gameplay styles, and this is something that Top Spin 2 managed to emulate quite well (while adding some distinct aspects of its own). The original Virtua Tennis had an exaggerated sense of pace to the action ? and an added punch to some of the sound effects ? but everything else from the players to the racquets was handled in a very straightforward and ?simulation? manner. Virtua Tennis 3 is able to recapture some of this charm, but does kind of skew things a bit too far into the ?arcade? side of the ledger, and it loses some of what made the original so enjoyable.
At first, the on-court action of VT3 seems quite similar to previous tennis games, including Virtua Tennis and Top Spin 2. The speed is slightly above average, and the control scheme is based on established conventions and provides lob shots, slices, drop shots and smashes. As in previous games, each character has a specific strength that is highlighted in the select screen, whether it is a strong serve or an aptitude for counter shots. Of small note is the lack of ?unknown? players that people remember for the previous games, meaning only established stars like Roger Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova are selectable. In fact, along with the players, even the sound effects and color scheme ring true with previous VT games.
But while many elements of the base game are the same as before, some issues arise once rallies start getting longer. To be fair, there was a good amount of diving in the first Virtua Tennis, but VT3 seems to take diving to a completely new level. Almost any shot that's out of immediate range for your player results in a dive, whereas in the past players could often run down shots for a backhand or forehand return. Obviously, diving doesn't happen too often in real tennis, and it's fine that it is a part of this game, but it really begins to dominate every rally to the point of becoming reasonably annoying. Diving becomes especially problematic when you're basically on top of a shot, yet your player inexplicably dives because the game doesn't allow for the aforementioned running shots. Sure, you can anticipate shots like in previous games and you will inevitably improve in terms of shot timing, power and selection, but there really is far too much diving, and it will be commonplace to see several dives for just a normal rally.
The other gameplay issue that becomes apparent (and that is linked to this diving overload) is the lack of true put-away shots. For whatever reason, it becomes hard to truly blast shots past people who are out of position or to put one up the line on somebody who is playing in the middle. The chief reason for this is that the power on the shots isn't powerful enough (except for a few powerful players), and because of the aforementioned diving and its ability to allow players to flag down shots that they should have no business getting. Clearly, some of this is done to keep rallies going and to keep them exciting, but when people are diving and keeping in smashes (and getting up very quickly after doing so) it just seems like the developers couldn't decide what they wanted to be more effective: Dives or put-away shots. This gripe isn't to say that every player should be burying every shot ? of course not ? but when someone is grossly out of position and your player floats one back over (even when you're on top of the shot and putting as much power as the game allows you), it can be quite frustrating.
With these complaints said, the game still plays well enough in some areas to merit playtime. The service game works well, and players like Mario Ancic and Andy Roddick will have a decided serve edge over some of the precision players. The meter used is pretty much like any tennis game in recent history, and it actually strikes a good balance of ?MAX? serves so that they happen at the right frequency. In addition, the net game actually works quite well, and once you get the hang of where to place yourself and how to angle shots, you'll be able to bury players more effectively than forehands or backhands from deeper in the court.
The AI you'll play against certainly provides a challenge on the higher settings, and you will have to mix up your shot selection and power in order to start putting the computer out of position. The diving becomes frustrating when used by the computer, as they seem quite adept at keeping certain shots in when they are totally out of position. There really is no rhyme or reason to certain shots staying in and others going out, and only shots that are absolutely labeled (with the opponent inside the baseline) are pretty safe bets for going out. As another aside: What's with the lack of shots going out on the sides of the court? They almost never happen, but this is also a pet peeve for other tennis games.
The main bulk of the offline experience will be spent in the familiar season mode that resembles the one found in previous VT games, and you'll be globetrotting to various training sessions, minigames, and tournaments. As per usual, the minigames provide a good dose of fun, and knocking over bowling pins, collecting fruit in the middle of an avalanche and hitting scoring targets with lobs will remind fondly of the original game. Most of the other training and tournaments just serve to power up your player, but no tournament experience grates so much since the usual Virtua Tennis format remains true (short games, short brackets). You will experience injuries, e-mails, equipment buying and text vignettes, but most of this just ends up being pedestrian or forced. None of the storylines really mean anything, and it's absurd to have to manually press the A button for each week of injury. Of course, you could avoid injury by chilling at your mansion or by pounding an energy drink; with a press of the A button, I feel great! The player creation for the season mode is pretty simple, so much so that you'll probably have made your character within a couple of minutes. The one cool thing is that you can bring your character online for all of its game modes, but it seems that most created characters can't really hang with the big boys.
In terms of said online mode, this is an area in which Virtua Tennis 3 provides a pretty good deal of fun. You'll have access to one-on-one and doubles play, and the doubles experience manages to be entertaining for three reasons: 1) It actually supports true four-player online (each user is a unique Live user); 2) it has a ?party? system that allows two buddies to go into ranked play and go up against the world's best, and 3) because the addition of two more players on the court actually fixes some of the issues associated with diving and lack of put-away shots. Putting together a party system with doubles action that actually works is pretty cool, and it's satisfying to see how you stack up against people from all over the world. A small gripe comes from the bizarre matching system which occasionally puts you in other people matches or forces you to be a spectator for a match ? kind of odd. The action is quite playable online, but there is a slight delay in how the ball moves off the racquet, but this is something that varies from game-to-game. In the instances where the game gets out of sync or lagged horribly, the match usually halts for a moment and declares the point a ?let,? hence nullifying the sequence and penalizing nobody ? probably the best solution that could have been implemented for situations like this. Overall, this doubles play is quite a bit of fun, and it could be a source of much value if you enjoy playing sports games with a buddy.
Beyond the inspired doubles play, there is the usual optimatch searching options, tournaments, and leaderboards. The addition of tournaments is pretty cool, especially because you can have quick elimination bouts to crown a mini-champion, much like in Rockstar's Table Tennis. The leaderboards are quite comprehensive, and you'll be able to filter by singles or doubles, men and women, weekly or monthly, friends or worldwide, and many other variations. As other games have done, it's cool to see people's country flag beside their name, giving the game a nice international touch.
As said before, the presentation harkens back to the first VT in both the visual and audio departments. The color palette is quite similar, with the players donning pastel colored shirts and the courts being distinctly recognizable based on their surfaces (clay, grass, hard). The players look fairly good in terms of facial detail and fluidity of animation, but some of them still have a bit of a creepy polygonal thing going on with some of the more extreme facial expressions, and there could certainly be more variation on the shot types and bridging animations for on-court movement and action. Just the same, the peripheral detail is decent, if unimpressive, and consists of the usual chairs, equipment, line judges and spectators. What can be said is that there are a lot of environments throughout the game, and they do a good enough job of varying the trappings of your tennis experience. The game also runs at 1080p (for those that can support it), and the framerate is very good. The audio is on a similar keel, but not really anything out of the ordinary. The sounds of the ball flying off the racquet have the familiar exaggerated ?boom? or ?pop? that previous VT games had, and there's plenty of squeaking shoes, labored grunts, and roaring crowd. The music is nothing spectacular, and it actually begins to grate after a while, but that's why there are custom soundtracks.
Achievements are plentiful in Virtua Tennis 3, and you'll be able to unlock 50 different awards for the full 1000 points. Achievements range from winning online matches and being a spectator in a match to getting three strikes in a row on the Pin Crusher minigame to using every male and female player to get a win. Some of them require long-term commitment ? getting hundreds or thousands of points by lobbing, volleying or playing 100 games on clay, 100 on grass, etc. ? and they will really make you put in some serious hours to get every point.
It's hard to expect a game to achieve the magic brew that the first Virtua Tennis game had ? and realistically, games like the first VT are rooted in the time in which they were released. You wonder if in trying to recreate the original's formula, the people at Sega-AM2 didn't take into consideration the system the original was released on (Dreamcast), the input device used, and the lessons learned from games like Top Spin and Top Spin 2. What is here in Virtua Tennis 3 is a solid tennis game that really excels when played online and with four players to cover up some holes ? almost literally ? in the core gameplay. For those with Top Spin 2 and not looking for online co-op doubles, you may already have the game for you, and quite likely the better game.