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Top Spin 2 (PC) artwork

Top Spin 2 (PC) review

"With that said, Top Spin 2 is still the most intricate, most amazing tennis game I have ever played. I built rivalries, I toppled pros. I found myself hunched over my desk, completely oblivious to the outside world, utterly enthralled. Every win I fought for, every shot I calculated."

Sports games really only work if they have one of two options--realistic, no-gimmick gaming that allows you to get a real feel for the sport or zany, comical antics that allow you to look at said sport from a different perspective. Both can be entertaining in their own right, but the true "greats" of the enterprise--PGA Tour, NHL, Madden--stand out because of their loyalty to the game and their ability to capture it like no other. Now, finally, tennis has that flagship series in Top Spin 2, an incredibly realistic, extremely technical tennis game that surprised me from the very start with its amazing look, its solid game-play and its all-around, well thought out structure.

The first thing I noticed was how amazing this game looked. From the opening intro to the amazing rendering of tennis greats like Roddick and Sharipova this game was stunning. Each court had a different feel. Some were broken-down back alley courts that had chain link fences and cracked concrete benches. Wimbledon stretched for miles and the crowed seemed to come alive. When I finally stepped into career mode and began tweaking the look of my character, I again noticed how amazing and real this game looked. This is the first game I've played where I felt like my character looked like a real person. But in building my actual character, I also started to get a feel for what would be the game's driving force: its intensity.

Building the character is one thing. You can change everything, from the stoutness of his jaw to the appearance of wrinkles on his forehead. Age spots, blemishes, even freckles can be diminished or intensified. It took me a long while to make my character look exactly like I wanted, but that I appreciated the results.

The stat building I did have a bit of a problem with, though. In Top Spin you build stats like virtually any other game out there, adding increments to certain criteria like speed, power, backhand and forehand in the form of stars. The higher the stars, the better that aspect will be. You will start by winning only bronze stars, but as the game progresses you earn silver and even gold, giving you that much more of a boost on your stats. The only problem is you can only earn one or two stats at a time, which made building my Tennis player a lengthy process. That's fine, but those training sessions to earn the stars cost money. When I ran out, I would play a tournament, lose, get frustrated and think it was a lack of stats that was causing me to lose.

Over time I learned to deal with it though, mainly because Top Spin's challenge and fun factor arenít made up of superior stats. They're derived from realistic gameplay and good old fashioned know-how. Tennis, to me, has not really been a watchable sport. Up until this game I thought it was simply bouncing a ball back and forth, hitting it at different angles to try and catch your opponent off-guard to slip the ball past him. Even in playing, I found myself a bit bored with the amount of sets I had to play in order to win a match, and it felt like I was just doing the same thing over and over.

However, as I progressed further into career mode, unlocked more of the tutorials and the game started getting more intense, it also got lot more fun. Tennis is a thinking game, and Top Spin recreates the feel and science of the game unlike any other.

At first, you really only know how to use four shots--the safe shot, the topspin shot, slice shot and lob shot. Those are enough to get you by, at least for a while. But as the game progresses and the opponents get harder, your "coach" will introduce you to advanced shots and risk shots. This is where the game really starts to get intense, and actually where it starts to get fun as well. Each shot corresponds to the keys used for normal shots, but the risk shots involve holding down the space bar while the advanced shots require the shift key. These shots require a fair amount of timing. Once the shot is performed, a gauge appears next to your player. Hit the proper key again at the right time and you pull off one of these miraculous shots; miss and it may go out of bounds or right into the net.

The true enjoyment of the game comes from both learning to use these shots, and learning when they are necessary. My first few rounds in the game, I couldnít score on any opponent who was hogging the net. I would just volley back and forth until I lost patience and let the ball go past me simply to start over. Only once I learned the Risk Lob Shot and forced each and every net dominator to back pedal to a safer position did I truly start to appreciate this game. At times, players would stay stationary in the middle, merely having to outstretch their arm to return one of my shots. Yet when I learned Diagonal Shot and I could smack the ball from one corner to the other, I could cause my opponent to pace back and forth until he finally lost his footing, as well as the point.

It took me a while to learn the shots, and even longer to master them but once I did, the game took on a whole new light. I found myself involved, calculating players movements, timing my shots, using different shots for different situations. I spent a good amount of time honing my skills in career mode, but with all the advantages and disadvantages, playing it safe and playing it risky, I never got bored. Top Spin allowed me to mentally get into the game. Rather than just pushing buttons or moving my mouse, I had to think about every shot, every movement and concentrate on only the game. It's been a long time since a sports game has been that unique and kept me that interested.

My quibbles with this game are minor. The controls are outstanding during actual game play. The mouse is never so overly sensitive as to cause wasted movement. It almost always defaults back to the player's character if moved too far, ensuring that he doesnít traipse off somewhere you donít want him. You also donít have to pound the keys to make shots register. In the actual menu, however, the controls seem unresponsive at times. I found myself tapping the up or down arrow several times before it moved as I tried to scroll through options.

My games would sometimes get interrupted by other programs running on my computer, to. When that happens, Top Spin minimizes and pauses itself mid-action. When I brought the window back up in such circumstances, my player would turn completely black, devoid of any outfit or customization, and those wonderful controls I spoke of earlier were not nearly as responsive. I finally ended up turning everything else of before I played Top Spin as this little glitch happened without fail.

Also, I've said it before and Iíll say it again: sports games need soundtracks. Top Spin 2 is no different. Grunts and bouncing noises only go so far. The announcers I appreciate, the crowd cheering I love, but in the extensive task that is creating a character I would have preferred more than just one song looping over and over.

With that said, Top Spin 2 is still the most intricate, most amazing tennis game I have ever played. I built rivalries, I toppled pros. I found myself hunched over my desk, completely oblivious to the outside world, utterly enthralled. Every win I fought for, every shot I calculated. Tennis, finally, was entertaining because Top Spin 2 was focused enough and loyal enough to the game it portrayed, yet brought it to me in a level I could understand. Much like other sports games--Madden, PGA, NHL--Top Spin 2 isnít just a game for the fans, itís a game for everyone.

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Freelance review by Greg Knoll (April 21, 2007)

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