Top Spin has always set itself apart from other tennis games by being the least accessible and the farthest from what you would call pick-up-and-play. Following that tradition, Top Spin 3 came with a very steep learning curve, and only those who persisted with it for hours knew how rewarding it eventually got. But as is the trend nowadays, with Top Spin 4, 2K Sports has aimed to deliver that from the word ‘go’ by simplifying gameplay and thereby doing away with that initial learning phase.
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The most noticeable change is in the controls. Earlier games had you holding down triggers and bumpers along with the face buttons to pull off the array of shots. This time, every stroke is played using the face buttons only, except for the drop shot, which will require you to hold down a trigger as you slice. The game also does away with the risk shot, which is a big disappointment. Risk shots were game changers; when used well, they would turn the tide in your favour, and if misused, they almost certainly resulted in an unforced error. Without risk shots, the game is a lot more predictable.
Having said that, the unique Top Spin gameplay is still very much in evidence, albeit with a, dare I say, Virtua Tennis twist to it. There’s still a heavy emphasis on positioning, power, and timing. Each shot is accompanied by a visual indicator to tell you how well it’s been timed, and the timing will determine how much power you get behind it and how accurately you’re able to direct it. Holding down shot buttons is vital to get good power or spin behind a shot, but when you’re stretched in a rally, just a well timed tap of the button can do wonders by helping you not only keep the ball in play, but also claw your way back into the point. Serving and volleys will take some getting used to, especially the timing aspects of both. Unless your player’s volley attributes are really high, you will have to ensure that you time volleys very well or risk throwing the point away. Similarly, delivering a great serve isn’t hard, but it’s nearly impossible to serve an ace at will, mostly because there are no power meters associated with serving; timing relies on your ability to closely watch the player’s serve animation. The risk-reward nature of past games will be missed, but the series’ new approach to gameplay isn’t bad at all.
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Career modes in tennis games usually turn into a series of matches separated by boring menus and uninteresting mini-games, but Top Spin 4’s career mode feels fresh. You can build your created player’s attributes across three base skills – baseline offense, baseline defense, and serve and volley. XP earned from matches can be used to level up your player, and the game encourages you to focus on one skill rather than spreading XP across all three and making your player a jack of all trades. You also start to generate a fan base as you play and the number of fans as well as your tournament wins will help you move up through various statuses, from rookie to your ultimate goal – legend.
Even after you reach the level cap of 20, you can still get further performance boosts by hiring various coaches who specialise in different areas of the game. Completing in-match objectives set by them will boost certain attributes and add skills such as crushing passing shots or accurate serves to your repertoire. You can keep switching coaches and play around with various performance boosts till you find the combination you like. Like everything else in the career mode, it’s very well implemented. The only annoying parts of the career are the optional exhibition doubles matches. The partner AI is horrific, especially at the net, so points that you should be winning are instead gently volleyed by your partner into the path of an opponent. If you have any sort of experience with tennis games, you should play the game on Hard mode, as Normal is way too easy and only manages to pose a challenge when the difficulty jumps to Hard during grand slam semis and finals.
Top Spin 4 has one of the most enjoyable career modes I’ve played in a tennis game in a long time, and it almost makes up for the omission of a standalone tournament mode. It’s bizarre that despite having official licenses for three out of the four grand slams as well as ATP events, you can’t play these outside the career mode, which is a terrible waste. Hopefully, this can be added via a patch somewhere down the line, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
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The stadiums look great, and there is a subtle change in behaviour as you move between grass, hard, clay and carpet surfaces. There’s a fairly large roster of male and female tennis stars, both past and present, and although their likenesses could be better, they are instantly recognisable and possess the same skills and strengths as they do in real life. The lack of commentary is disappointing, especially considering that tennis is the sort of sport that only requires commentary between points and not on-the-fly as in football. The crowd cheers during and after rallies are great, but there are times when you expect rapturous applause after an epic rally, only to hear an uncharacteristically lukewarm response. The soundtrack is very limited and you’ll hear the same songs over and over, but its’ got Daft Punk, so can’t be too mad.
Online multi-player is erratic at best. I’ve played some matches that were completely lag-free; others would lag occasionally, while some would randomly freeze for a second or so in the middle of a point, upsetting both players’ timing. Finding players on PSN was instant at times, and at other times, the game failed to find any other players. So the frustrating trend of poor online coding in tennis games continues. Those expecting good Move implementation will be disappointed. You can’t use the Move controller to choose between backhand and forehand shots and the precision isn’t what it should be either. The Dualshock is the way to go.
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Fans of older Top Spin games – approach Top Spin 4 with an open mind because this isn’t the game you’re used to. It does many things differently; most of them are for the better, but some tend to take away what made the series unique. But despite all the changes 2K’s made to make Top Spin 4 more accessible, it retains its identity and manages to find a nice balance. Virtua Tennis fans will love this game because this one is more in line with what they’re accustomed to than any of the earlier games in the series. Simply put, it’s a great tennis game, thanks in no small part to a wonderful career mode. I’ve always felt that Top Spin held a slight edge over the more simplistic Virtua Tennis, and after this, 2K has a bit of breathing room. The ball’s now in Sega’s court.