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Top Spin 4 (PlayStation 3) artwork

Top Spin 4 (PlayStation 3) review


"If the aim for a good sports-game is to allow the player to experience TV-moments on the screen, only without all the waits and commentary. And while being able to influence the events believably – without needing the years and years of training and repetition that would be needed in real life. If that is the aim, then there are a few things that need to happen.(...)"



If the aim for a good sports-game is to allow the player to experience TV-moments on the screen, only without all the waits and commentary. And while being able to influence the events believably – without needing the years and years of training and repetition that would be needed in real life. If this is the aim, then there are a few things that need to happen. The graphics need to be detailed, and the animation must be context-dependent and fluid. For the interface, the game must guide the player enough to allow for the athletic moves to be executed with ease. But also not so guided that it removes the player from feeling in control.

If this is the goal – is a sports-game like this possible to make? 2K Czech, earlier Illusion Softworks (Vietcong, Hidden&Dangerous, Mafia) takes a seriously well-aimed stroke at this concept with Top Spin 4. Not achieving total perfection, but an entertaining and interesting game nevertheless.

Presentation


The game welcomes you to a pristine and simple menu. Thankfully nothing is wasted on flashy introductions or movies or stress-tunes for a soundtrack. Instead, the first time you start the game, you are offered to begin a tutorial session that gradually introduces you to the techniques and approaches to the game. When you start the game up afterwards, it takes you directly to a warm-up session. I can't imagine a better intro-screen.

Then you can hit start and choose a friendly match with or against any of the many famous tennis-players included in the game. There's also a fairly successfully set up two-player mode, intended for short knock-out competitions. The online modes are well developed as well (you can apply for virtual cups, if you'd like). Or, you can advance in a career with your custom-made players.

The creator for this custom player is as deceptively complex as the rest of the game. You can pick a simple preset. Or pick and choose specific preset parts and playing styles. And all the way to changing the mesh for the face-model. You can also pick different shirts, shoes, socks, shorts, haircuts and rackets – which you can continue to do throughout the career. The permanent choices will be your face and build, as well as the personality of the player (in terms of whether he will be all business, or tilt some degree towards “Vintage Agassi” and Nadal). It's not necessary to go through all of these steps to play the game, though. But if you feel like creating a particular avatar to take through a championship against the tennis-legends, then the option is there.

As you advance the career of the player, you then train and level up particular playing styles. You effectively and very easily can train and choose a path here that has meaning in terms of what strategy you pick (and choose as your strong suit). On top of this, the trainers you can hire will push you towards certain goals during the main matches. Which is a very good way to reward you for experimenting, or for perfecting your style of choice.

After playing for a while, you will definitively have the “aha” moments here. And that will help you develop your unique style more easily. I'm not entirely past the fact that the game is deep enough to allow something like that, but that's nevertheless how it works. This also makes the game interesting to play for a long while, of course.

Meanwhile, all the matches take place on any amount of authentic and fictional tennis-courts around the world, with some local shout-outs from the referee and the audience. There are small touches like this that set the stage. The audience doesn't have the standard loop for cheers after each point either. Instead they go for approvals for power-plays, and boos for weak forced errors. Exciting plays also makes the audience react in subtle ways, and they do not feel scripted, or the same every time. They even have well-orchestrated silences. Sometimes the audience cheers more on the popular players than the rest. Or they end up cheering on a good duel, and on the one to ultimately win the game. Sometimes the referee will ask them to be silent if it carries over into the next play (though you don't have to wait to start the play).

On the court, the players get tired and sweaty eventually (this also affects performance – and different players have different stamina), get clay-marks on their shirt, stop to catch their breath, etc. The best part is that all of these things are subtle enough to add to the setting, rather than intrude and keep you from playing. The same goes for watching the replays and stadium shots (which are rare and far apart in this game). The pauses are cut short very consciously when the match is ongoing, to avoid breaking the rhythm too much.

Still, the bulk of the game-development was focused on the players and the animations. From Federer's vicious backhand, to Nadal's fast two-handed clips - along with an exhaustive list of other characteristic playing styles and looks (including Agassi's virtual mullet) - all of them are recreated with the kind of detail that will continue to surprise you as you play the game more. (Or maybe even make you clap softly on the back of your hand while nodding unnoticeably). The graphical detail on the faces might be a bit artificial up close sometimes. And the audience may be flat as cardboard. But in motion the game really does shine brilliantly.

Infrequent replays of particularly interesting plays, surveying in beautiful detail the shifts between the animation stances serve to drive the point home. It is simply extremely difficult to find the “computer game” moments in this game, where the models tiptoe strangely, or make forceful sweeps in the wrong angles, while the eyes stare zombie-like at a point past the camera. In fact, none of these happen in Top Spin 4. Whether it is late sweeps, panic-swings or perfectly controlled shots for high and low balls, the animations all fit together as well as in a cut-scene. And the variety also makes the game avoid looking repetitive.

Interface


One reason this works so well (apart from the extensive animation and motion capture work) is the way the controls are set up, and the way you are expected to play the game. Tennis-games tend to have very artificial types of play, where you increasingly smash the ball harder and harder to the extreme sides of the field. Top Spin 4 instead chooses a more relaxed style where you place your player, aim for the approach, and then strike back in a more or less controlled fashion. There are three main modes you can pick here: power-shots, normal shots, and control shots. Beyond that, there are spins, slices and lobs, all fairly easily added with a button for a modifier. Then you pick the direction of your shot by indicating the direction on the thumbstick in the gap between the preparation and the actual stroke. The more precise timing, the farther you can aim down the line accurately in pressured situations. While a badly prepared shot can result in errors or weak plays.

This entire approach offers a set of more guided and controlled steps towards the ball when it arrives, which allows the fluid animation and neatly timed strokes to play back smoothly. The sacrifice that was made in the design is that you prepare and finish the control movement a bit earlier than when the ball arrives at the racket. And this took me a while to wrap my head around. Before it became obvious that without this it would have been impossible to really control all the moves with any precision. You also don't actually flick at the ball at the last minute when you play in real life either, so that should probably not have been a problem.

For example, for the game to recognize that you wish to perform a smash on the volley, instead of flat volley, you prepare the shot with the modifier you want when spotting the incoming lob. And then release when you have prepared the shot. Practically, this means placing the player near the approach of the incoming ball, at the point where you will strike the ball on the volley. And then prepare the swing early – before releasing the shot just before the swing. Or, if you don't feel too certain about that, you might want to back up and hit the ball with a more controlled stroke with wider reach.

In other words the timing when playing is more strategic than mechanical. Where the "difficulty" will be to remember the different strokes and the modifiers, and find the right circumstances to use them. But the preparation, placement and swing mechanic as a whole is intense and involving. So that balance between guided gameplay and degree of control really is an achievement.

Since the AI also has all of these variables to go on, it ends up being challenging to various degrees - but without being ridiculous or invincible. Which of course extends the appeal of the game.

Top Spin 4 also has Move-support. I thought this would be a simplistic add-on. But was surprised to find that all the complex button-combos had been effectively replaced with meaningful gestures. In fact the game becomes easier to control with it to some extent. You still use button-modifiers for lobs and slices. But the advanced shots and serves have to do with the shape of the swing. Top spins, for example, are done with a circular preparation from low to high. While the reverse delivers a weak slice. That last shot actually isn't there on the controller. The power-shots and control shots are also done very easily with the bulb-controller. By using short preparation, or long preparations by pulling the arm farther back. In addition, the game picks up a power-shot on a well timed fast and strong swing. Which again isn't possible to do on the normal controller - but it makes a lot of sense when playing. The game also picks up on the direction of the preparation if you position early, making it easy to perform inside-out swings. Apart from looking great, and involving you a bit, this also has a function in the game if your (character's) backhand is weaker than his or her forehand. The animation will also favour high shots for an overhand smash, and low underhand swings for the low sweeps with the bulb. But the character won't miss because you swung the wrong way, of course.

So the controls are not “one to one”, either with the bulb or the thumbsticks and buttons. But both provide a very deep and immersive way to play the game. Allowing you to easily play tennis strategically, similar to the way professional players do - without needing the precise shots that take years and years of training to accomplish in real life.

Meanwhile, the game-design has enough attention to detail to never annoy you with “unrealistic” plays or strange ball-situations. But most importantly: the attention to detail in Top Spin 4 made the game richer, instead of more complex and difficult to play.

Rating: 9/10

fleinn's avatar
Community review by fleinn (April 05, 2011)

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Feedback

If you enjoyed this Top Spin 4 review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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True posted April 05, 2011:

The headers are one of the coolest things I've seen in a review but they still throw me off the first time I see them.
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fleinn posted April 06, 2011:

Mm.. it does look a bit strange. I deleted another one towards the end, because it looked off for some reason...

Is it because it stands out too much, now that the rest of the site is more white..?
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True posted April 06, 2011:

Personally, I like them.

There just so well done that I often forget I'm reading a user review because they fit and look so professional. When I opened it I had to double check cause I wasn't sure if I clicked the wrong thing.

If that makes sense...

Still though, keep them.
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Ben posted April 10, 2011:

Really, really, really good review. Read from top to bottom with ease, and there's so much meaningful content in here that I feel like I've learned a lot about the game - not impeded by flashy text or colorful language.

I was a big fan of Top Spin 3, and though I had my doubts about Top Spin 4, this review has convinced me to buy the game (when the next payday comes around). Only the second person on this site to have done this.
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fleinn posted April 10, 2011:

:D

...anyone think it would work with a small gap towards the end there..? Last two paragraphs..?

Also, the descriptions of the way you make the shots - do they make sense if you haven't played the game before..?

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