Virtua Tennis 4 (Xbox 360) review
"It’s no easy task to follow up a perfect original game with sequel after sequel. Virtua Tennis will always be Virtua Tennis, no matter how you package it. In other words, Virtua Tennis will always be a joy to play."
In the late 90s, real gamers were the ones who frequented smoky arcades until there were no more quarters. When the original Virtua Tennis made its way into arcades for the first time, it made quite a splash. If you have had the pleasure of maneuvering the sticks of the original, then you and I can likely agree on one thing: Virtua Tennis was perfect. It was a game that nailed every aspect of what a virtual tennis experience should be. It looked awesome and was a blast to play. You could play by yourself, or duke it out with a friend to determine who would pay for the next game.
This is what has sustained and always will sustain the series. No game will ever quite replicate the experience that the original offered, but Virtua Tennis 4 is another valiant attempt from SEGA to recreate that old magic in gaming’s modern era. The newest installment is still a blast to play and it holds onto the core mechanics that are a staple of the franchise.
Those who have played prior games will find that the gameplay experience and controls need no introduction. To their credit, the developers at SEGA have done an excellent job of preserving the feel of historic Virtua Tennis. Player movement is tight, timing of the strokes is spot-on, and the ball reacts realistically to different spins and techniques. To a knowledgeable player, having any real-life tennis shot in the bag of tricks is valuable. For example, my “go-to” shots have always been the top-spin lob and volley drop-shot. The most rewarding moments of gameplay that I’ve had with the series so far have revolved around the execution of those shots in virtual form. The bottom line is this: for better or for worse, this feels like Virtua Tennis as it always has been.
That’s not to say that there is nothing new of note. The major addition to the gameplay this time around is the Super Shot. Over the course of each game, set, and match, you’ll repeatedly fill up a power meter, which allows you to unleash a slow-motion power stroke once it is full. Essentially, the ball will be hit harder and at an optimum angle. Super Shots are not necessarily winners, and need to be used at the appropriate time to be effective. For example, a Super Shot used when on the defensive is a waste, as you’ll be unable to take advantage of the additional power. When the ball is sitting up for you at the service line, however, the Super Shot is just what you need to ensure the point will be over with a single stroke. The Super Shot is implemented very effectively; it is used just often enough to create an extra layer of fun, but not so much that it dominates the strategy of play.
Apart from the usual exhibition, mini-games, tournament, and online modes, the meat of the game is found in the World Tour mode. No sports title is worth its salt these days unless it has the obligatory career-style outing. World Tour mode is essentially the same offering contained in VT3. You’ll create your player and then start jumping around the globe for a series of events. Along the way, there are increasingly difficult exhibition matches intended to be a measuring stick for how your talents stack up to the competition. You’ll have to train your player by completing a variety of mini-games which, unfortunately, become repetitive and something of a chore.
Make it through enough of the training, however, and the real fun begins in the form of tournaments. Of course, you won’t begin your career with an appearance in a Grand Slam event, but rather in smaller satellite tournaments that allow you to work your way up the rankings and eventually gain entry into larger events. Overall, World Tour mode is serviceable but underwhelming. It would have been great to see more scheduling customization, and more incentivized perks for sloshing through the training sessions.
Online play does provide much-needed longevity to VT4, at least. Playing on the Dreamcast was a blast, but unless you had another player on the couch, you were stuck playing against the AI. The ability to hop into a match with another living, breathing, thinking human being is entirely more engaging than sloshing through countless offline tournaments. Online play was smooth and lag-free in my experience. I did notice occasional hiccups, but they never came often enough to hinder the gameplay experience.
One disappointment in VT4 is the lack of licensing. The accomplishment that pushed Tiger Woods 12 over the hump this year was the ability to play The Master’s - Not “The Augusta Championship” or the “Georgia Shootout,” but THE MASTER’S. It’s disappointing not to be able to play at Wimbledon. Instead we get only a grass court and stadium that resemble Wimbledon. The player roster, while boasting several of the current stars, is lacking depth. There are only 11 APT players, 7 WTA players, and 3 legends (legends only available in the PS3 version).
Visually, VT4 is a treat to the eyes even though you’re not visiting Wimbledon and the like. The simple and accessible menus and navigation system you’ve come to know and love are largely unchanged, which makes for a pleasant and comfortable setup. Once you jump into a match, the action looks fantastic in high-definition. SEGA always has opted for a somewhat animated style, and the fact that it didn’t try to make the action look like tennis on television helps the cause. The almost “cartoony” players are smooth and bright, and dart around the court with surprising believability. The sun and lights cast realistic shadows and bring out the sweat on the player models, as well.
The sound work also serves to create an immersive gameplay experience. Fans of the series immediately will recognize the “ping” of the racquet hitting the ball (in quotation markss because it sounds nothing like a struck tennis ball in actuality). This is a staple of the series, and always should be. You’ll hear feet squeaking against the hard court and sliding on the clay court, as well as familiar grunts of effort from the players as a long point drags on in the afternoon sun. The highlight of the audio work, however, is the crowd. If you played competitive tennis in high school or college as I did--or any sport for that matter--you know that nothing inspires you and me like urging chants and yells from the onlookers. This dynamic is executed to perfection in VT4. The longer a match drags on, the more excited the crowd gets at the prospect of a real barn-burner. A winner that creates Deuce #4 insights a noticeably bigger explosion of cheers than one that evens the score at 15-15. In my time with the game, I’ve experienced several of those moments that truly bring the game to life and force you to forget, even for a moment, that this is not real life.
This much has been established: Virtua Tennis 4 is a blast. The problem is that there simply is not a great deal of innovation or drastic improvement on past entries. Try as I might, I was not able to rid myself of the feeling that I was playing VT3 in a slightly-shinier package, as was the case with VT2 before it. It’s no easy task to follow up a perfect original game with sequel after sequel. Virtua Tennis will always be Virtua Tennis, no matter how you package it. In other words, Virtua Tennis will always be a joy to play.
Freelance review by Dan Nielson (May 31, 2011)
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