Top Spin (Xbox) review
"''Tennis? Boring.'' That is the response one might get when talking about Tennis. It's really not the most popular sport out there to watch, or play. If you give it a chance though, it is a lot of fun to play, like a really advanced version of Pong. Game developers have seen this, and many tennis games have been released over the years trying to reach the untapped power a tennis game could have. There have been a few successes over the years (Virtua Tennis, both Mario Tennis games). These three ..."
''Tennis? Boring.'' That is the response one might get when talking about Tennis. It's really not the most popular sport out there to watch, or play. If you give it a chance though, it is a lot of fun to play, like a really advanced version of Pong. Game developers have seen this, and many tennis games have been released over the years trying to reach the untapped power a tennis game could have. There have been a few successes over the years (Virtua Tennis, both Mario Tennis games). These three games all sold well, showing how popular a good tennis game can be. Perhaps this is partly why so many Tennis games have come out. On the Xbox alone six other Tennis games have come out, or are coming out, and who knows how many more are in the future. None of them have been good though, until Top Spin.
Not only is Top Spin the first Xbox tennis game to be good, it's also the first Xbox exclusive sport game to be great. Most of the Xbox exclusive sports games were made by Microsoft themselves, and have ended up lacking compared to the games by EA, and Sega. Top Spin though, was made by PAM (Power and Magic) and manages to not only be the king of the slew of Xbox tennis games, but the king of all Tennis games ever made.
What makes it the king of all tennis games though? Depth. There are quite a few ways in which this game has depth. One of them being the nice selection of shots for you to use. You have your ''flat/safe'' shot which is basically a regular shot, and the shot you will probably be using the most in the game. ''Topspin'' Which kind of bounces a bit higher than normal. It's mostly good to use as a serve to throw the other guy off balance. The ''slice'' which moves slow, but kind of hooks, and goes far on the court. The ''lob'' which is a shot that goes high in the air, and hopefully over your opponent’s head. Finally, the ''drop shot'', which goes just over the net. This is mostly used to pin an opponent in a corner, or to throw them off balance.
A lot of these shots are the norm for tennis games. So Top Spin throws a risk shot in the mix. Risk shots are tough to perform, as you have to stop a little line in the center of a meter, when the line is moving fast, in order for the ball to stay in bounds when you hit it. If you get it off though, you'll hit a very powerful shot at your opponent. PAM did a good job of making the risk shot not so powerful where when you get it off, you are done for. While a good risk shot can win a game, one poorly done can easily go out, or be returned.
The risk shot being balanced is just one example of the game being... balanced. No technique is too cheap, no one skill is more effective than another. Top Spin is a true battle to see who can outwit, or just simply outplay their opponent in a game of tennis. While there are some pretty effective strategies, most of them aren't easy to use. For example, one neat strategy is to use a drop shot (like the risk shot, drop shots can be difficult to use) in a corner, then rush to the net, thus trapping the opponent. If you think about it though, this strategy can be countered. You can hit a lob shot (though if you don't hit it right, your opponent may smash it back into your face) or you could simply... hit a drop shot right back. That's the way it is with Top Spin, you can't blame a loss on the other person being cheap, because there isn’t anything in this game that is cheap. It's all balanced perfectly.
Another example of balance (and an example of how deep the game is) is the character development system. You can completely customize the way your character plays. At the very start of the game you decide if you are right, or left-handed, and how many hands you will use for backhands. You also put yourself in one of three classes. These classes all alter your stats, by bringing some up, and bringing others down. These decisions affect the way you play for the rest of the game.
The other huge character customization thing is stats. For the whole game you are given 14 ''stars''. After completing some sort of training you put a star into the category you decided to train in. You can put stars into forehand, backhand, volley, and serve. You can put a maximum of 5 stars in each category. PAM did a good job giving you just enough stars to drastically improve your player, but limiting your stars as well. I feel this adds a lot more strategy, and depth, since you'll have to make some tough calls deciding which stars to put into your player. Also if you don't put your stars in correctly (for example, putting 5 stars into volley when you plan on playing the baseline) you will end up having a terrible character.
The strategy in making your character is just one of the fun things that adds to the Career mode. In the Career mode your goal is to become #1 in the world. To do this you must obviously win tournaments and, as stated before, train. Another cool thing you can do is gain sponsorship with a major company, to earn money on your way to the top. The Career mode has a lot of things to do (there are seriously 100's of different shirts, shorts, shoes, and accessories you can buy) but it is all ruined by it being too easy. I flew through the career mode in a few days. It was a fun ride, but I don't see myself replaying because of the low difficulty.
The reason for the low difficulty could have been Xbox Live. With the game as easy as it is, it is not hard to get all 14 stars to your character in an hour. This way you can quickly make a custom character to use on Xbox Live. You don't need to use a custom character for the exhibition mode, but custom characters are preferred since you can tailor them to the way you want to play. Xbox Live has three modes. Official match, exhibition match, and XSN sports match. Besides slight differences in changing around a few options, they are all just tennis matches. Not to put the Xbox Live matches down. It's my 2nd favorite live game. It's just so addictive, and challenging. Unlike in career mode you will be playing a lot of games that go down to the wire, and that are just plain fun.
There are a few problems with Xbox Live on this game though. First off, once every five games or so games you'll come across lag. This is most likely because there are many people from across the world on this game, since tennis is somewhat popular in other countries besides the U.S. It doesn't really affect the game when you are in the middle of play, but it makes it frustratingly hard to get off a good serve. Also, the stats are quite detailed, but they have a weird habit of resetting out of nowhere in matches. This really sucks because, it is fun in a game with such detailed stats to try and raise them. This dream is crushed, when after finally making it to the top 1000 in the world, your stats reset. While these problems are somewhat hefty, they also don't manage to ruin the terrific Xbox Live gameplay.
Some right down gorgeous graphics also assists the great gameplay. The character models look great (especially Anna Kournikova's... RAWR). There are a wide variety of environments to play tennis on. Not just the standard clay, grass, and hard. The stadiums range from little fenced in public tennis courts, to huge grand slam arenas. Each one looks pretty nice, and realistic. One of the things I liked the most is they actually put some work into the fan character models. They look decent, thus creating a better atmosphere when you are at the huge stadiums.
The sound is also phenomenal here, though there is one problem. There really isn't any music, but the light rock they play in the menus, and on the world map is a treat for the ears. It made me wish they maybe had thrown in some sort of music in the matches. The sound effects are also great, with a huge variety of sounds depending on how hard you hit the ball, and what type of court you are on. The crowds are what really made me love the sound though. Depending on how exciting a point was they would cheer louder, or quieter. For example if after a long point, you smash the ball for a win, the crowd will get on their feet, and go bonkers. If the point was real quick, you'll get a polite clap. If it's kind of exciting, the cheering is a bit louder. It's all perfect. Unfortunately there isn't any announcing. It would have been nice to hear some sort of commentary in between points, but it's not to big of a deal. The crowd provides all the sound you need.
Despite everything stated, you won't get much playing time out of the game without Xbox Live. It takes roughly 7 hours to reach #1 in the world. I could see the game going for 20 hours if you were to try and do everything, for example winning all the tournaments. Also buying all the clothes, getting through sponsorship with every company. The true fun is with Xbox Live though, where you face off against people who are actually decent at the game. I see myself playing this game on live for years to come, as long as it stays popular (if you create a game someone will usually join within seconds, meaning there is a decent user base).
Top Spin succeeds where the others fail. Those of us looking for an Xbox exclusive sports game that is good have finally found it in tennis. It doesn't matter if you like the sport or not, as some truly great, and innovative gameplay is in this package. Heck, if anything just get it for Anna Kournikova! I mean, the graphics are good too... along with the gameplay. Now excuse me as I go to the, erm, bathroom.
Community review by icehawk (February 06, 2004)
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