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Top Spin (PlayStation 2) artwork

Top Spin (PlayStation 2) review

"Indisputably a revelation at its initial release, Top Spin spent its first two years of existence secluded in the land of Microsoft. But with the sequel tapped to expand the franchise fiefdom to Nintendoís handhelds, Sony needed a piece of the action as well. So out came the PS2 version of the original game, raring to teach everyone who avoided the XBox how deep and enjoyable a well done game of tennis could be. Unfortunately, the main lesson here is how much an old and unimproved pi..."

Indisputably a revelation at its initial release, Top Spin spent its first two years of existence secluded in the land of Microsoft. But with the sequel tapped to expand the franchise fiefdom to Nintendoís handhelds, Sony needed a piece of the action as well. So out came the PS2 version of the original game, raring to teach everyone who avoided the XBox how deep and enjoyable a well done game of tennis could be. Unfortunately, the main lesson here is how much an old and unimproved piece of sports software can underwhelm and disappoint.

Given the time lapse, the biggest expected difference in this new incarnation would be the lineup of pros included, but thereís been surprisingly little turnover; only four of the twelve players have been replaced. A solid core group remains, including Hewitt, Demetieva, Blake, and even Martina Hingis, coinciding with her real-life comeback. Fresh faces include the unbeatable Roger Federer, no longer dominant Venus Williams, rising darling Maria Sharapova, and a fading Carlos Moya, replacing the likes of retirees Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, and Anna Kournikova. However, Amanda Coetzer and Jan-Michael Gambill, less spectacular individuals who have long since hung it up, have been questionably retained. Thereís also a lack of younger professionals; Ashley Harkleroad canít still be considered an up-and-coming prospect when her rank is still languishing in the hundreds.

But most of us arenít here to be the stars; weíre here to beat them. Top Spinís career mode allows you to work a player of your own creation up to the top spot in the world rankings. This isnít done through the regular yearly schedule followed by pro tennis. Instead, tournaments are divided into four levels, from the most minor venues all the way up to Wimbledon and the French Open... err, I mean The Great Britain Championship and the Paris International Championship. As part of the rise to number 1, your player can acquire sponsors, collect tacky attire and accessories, and train to earn new skills to make him or her even more lethal on the court.

At first, that journey moves at a fast and easy pace, because Top Spin is just too easy. Opponents at the lowest level of competition donít seem to understand that the ball will ever return to their side of the court, forcing them to hit sitting floaters in response to any shot not within their immediate reach. Granted, this coddling atmosphere will get even the most novice of players acquainted with the controls. Each button corresponds to a different type of spin, and you aim with the left analog stick, though accuracy towards the lines is nearly automatic. However, the tutorial continues for way too long; more than half the game is spent clearing tournaments where you wonít lose a point, and you can jump into the top ten without playing anyone remotely substantial.

There is definitely a watershed moment, though, where tougher computer opponents become more adept at using angles and hitting winners, and afterwards youíll actually have to follow some fundamentals of sound tennis play. Good footwork and early backswings are necessary for clean and deep groundstrokes. Shot selection is very important; using a slow backspin can give you time to recover court position, while a flat shot will zip by an opponent more quickly. Just as in the real sport, winning is about placing your adversary in a position of weakness while you operate with the upper hand, and the game reinforces how you should use an appropriate amount of aggression based on your relative amount of strength. Top Spin certainly wonít replace the Bolletierri video series Ė swinging volleys and lob winners are much too effective here Ė but it definitely rewards you for actual intelligent play rather than forcing the use of cheap, unrealistic trickery.

Itís the only real reason the game is playable, as other factors severely limit the accuracy and excitement of the game experience. While Top Spin allows you to manipulate the number of sets and games in exhibition mode, in career mode three is always the magic number. Every tournament consists of only three rounds, each match is the best of three sets, and each set is the first to three games. When itís possible to capture a Grand Slam title in a mere fifteen minutes, something is really wrong. Unless itís completely obfuscated, thereís no way to alter these settings, and it destroys the buildup or realism that the game should feature.

Itís also really disappointing how Top Spin limits the growth of both you and your players skills. Over the course of the game, your player can improve basic skills and earn special ones by completing minigames. These usually consist of hitting a certain number of targets on the court in a limited amount of time while concentrating on a particular stroke, volley, or serve. The tasks are often more challenging, and thus more fun and better practice, than playing against any computer opponent because youíre able to gain command of a shot through experimentation and intense repetition, something that isnít replicated in match play. Now, the catch here is that once youíve beaten one of these challenges, it canít be done again with that player, and after a certain number are completed you canít participate in any more at all, not even outside of career mode.

You also canít play doubles inside of career mode, which makes the one-player experience very one-dimensional. Unfortunately, the game doesnít fare much better in multiple dimensions. Namely, the graphics engine is woefully underpowered. That doesnít so much include the well-worn grass or dusty clay surfaces seen when you travel off the hardcourts. Nor is it at all a sleight of the fluid service motions and groundstrokes that ably mimic human motion, even if relatively few variations exist. Itís that the playerís faces look more Cro-Magnon than homo sapien.

Perhaps the problem is exacerbated by the player creation system. It follows standard procedure; the computer randomly generates a new player and then provides sliding scales that allow you to mold the physique and facial characteristics within completely unrealistic bounds. And the program generally uses all of those bounds with no sense of how the pieces are supposed to fit together. My female player started out with dark black hair done up in cornrows, platinum blond eyebrows, a thin nose turned up like a pig, over-botoxed lips, and eyes so close together she looked perpetually cross-eyed. Forget making her attractive, I spent 45 minutes trying to make her look human. Of course, nothing can be done about the lesser opponents it has created that look like drunken frankensteins. On an even more frightening note, Top Spin offers to scan your face into the game using the EyeToy.

Still, player creation and the career mode are the key to this game, which makes the following fact all the more perplexing. Each Top Spin save can hold only two new players. Think about the limitless combination of appearance and training regimen available. Heck, thereís three types of baseline skills available for initial selection. Want to be a speedy defender? A powerhouse attacker? How about beginning with the pinpoint accuracy of a true technician? What about righty or lefty? Male or female?!? Yet with all those possibilities, only through the deletion of an old character or finagling with multiple memory cards can you experience more than two careers.

There is online play to consider; this is one of the only PS2 tennis titles available with an internet component. Still, given the long availability on the XBox version and the sequel hitting the 360, that hardly seems a bankable asset. Itís seals Top Spin as a perfect rental. The short matches and simple learning curve ensure a swift rise to tour domination, and there are all kinds of obstacles that diminish the thrill of starting anew. The game is just authentic enough, but it doesnít deserve a permanent place in anyoneís collection.

woodhouse's avatar
Featured community review by woodhouse (April 24, 2006)

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