It’s best to go into a new Virtua Tennis game not expecting a whole lot different from what the last game did. Sega has always been quite content to keep its arcade-style gameplay unchanged, while tweaking game modes and mini-games around it. They reckon they have a winning formula that doesn’t need changing, and they’re partly right because even though Virtua Tennis 4 doesn’t play a whole lot differently than Virtua Tennis 3 did four years ago, it’s still just as fun as it’s always been. The problem, however, lies outside. The competition is upping the ante significantly, and so the ‘old wine in a new bottle’ approach may not be enough anymore.
Virtua Tennis games have always epitomised ‘pick up and play’ gaming, and if that’s what you’re looking for in a tennis game, VT4 will surely interest you. Then again, if you’re looking for a tennis game for just brief sessions with friends, VT 2009 or VT3 will do just fine as well. But if you’re considering VT4 in the hopes that it offers something deeper, or if you want to know if it’ll put your Playstation Move controller to good use, read on.
For a series that’s been so averse to change, the new career mode structure in VT4 came as quite a surprise. It does away with the calendar system and replaces it with a world map. The career plays like a board game; it gives you coupons that you must use to move across the map, much like the roll of a dice in a board game. Depending on how many moves forward you make, you will either find yourself at a practice session, an exhibition match, a promotional event, a rest spot, a tournament, or one of VT’s quirky mini games. The career is broken up into four seasons, where each ends with a grand slam tournament (they aren’t licensed). The board game system might sound weird, but it will grow on you and you’ll appreciate the move away from the generic calendar system.
The gameplay is designed so anyone can get a hang of it instantly, and this is achieved via a considerable amount of AI assistance in both shot power and direction. This allows for long rallies and tense, hard-fought points, which are hallmarks of classic Virtua Tennis gameplay and one of the reasons why it’s been such a multiplayer favourite over the years. A new addition to this otherwise unchanged core gameplay is the ‘super shot’. A bar fills up during the course of the match and when full, it lets your player unleash a stylish special shot that nine times out of ten will win you the point. It’s also accompanied by a slow-mo animation where the camera zooms in to the player. This can be off-putting for the opposing player, but since super shots only come around once or twice in a match, it doesn’t get too annoying.
You can create a customised player, but the customisation options are extremely basic, and nowhere near those in Top Spin 4 or any sports game for that matter. Most of what is there is locked away at the start of the game, and you’ll need to spend a lot of credits to unlock even basic clothing items. You don’t have a choice of body types, neither do you get to tweak the minor details of a player’s look to your liking. So you can forget about trying to recreate your favourite tennis player. Fortunately, most of you may not have to worry about that because VT4’s player roster, while not expansive, includes pretty much every major star from both ATP and WTA circuits, plus an impressive set of past legends.
Career mode, while fun, is nowhere near as deep as that of Top Spin 4, nor is it as big a change from past games as it might initially seem. You still participate in the same activities as you did before; it’s just the structure that’s changed. Career aside, there’s an Arcade mode, which comprises of just a series of five matches against top players. The Exhibition mode rounds off VT4’s scarce game mode choices, allowing you to play singles and doubles matches with up to three other players. You can venture online as well, and while lag wasn’t much of an issue, there seems to be a significantly lower number of players playing it than there were for the last two VT games.
VT4 supports both Playstation Move and Kinect, and since I played it on PS3, I had the chance to test out the Move functionality. With Move, the camera perspective constantly switches from the standard back of the court view when the ball’s in the opponent’s court, to first-person when it’s your turn. This switching of views can get a little confusing and it becomes quite hard to time shots when the camera is still moving while you begin your swing. Movement is AI controlled, although you can approach the net by taking a few steps forward.
It’ll take you about 10 minutes to get used to the way the game plays with Move, and about 15 to realise that the Move functionality here hasn’t evolved beyond what was available on the Wii in 2006. You can flick your wrists to play strokes rather than having to swing your arms; you can’t control where you place your shots or how much power you put behind them; and no matter what difficulty level you select, you’ll defeat the AI with ease. Add to this the fact that Move functionality is only available in Exhibition mode and you can rest assured that you won’t be playing VT4 with Move for more than half an hour.
Visually, VT4 just about holds its own amongst other sports games without really standing out. The players’ character models themselves are instantly recognisable and well designed, but the bizarre facial animations during cutscenes between points undo the good work. The game also lacks the fluidity in movement that Top Spin possesses, so you’ll see the same set of shot animations over and over, and the transitions between animations aren’t very smooth either. Again, this is probably done to ensure that gameplay stays responsive, but games like FIFA have proven that you don’t have to sacrifice responsiveness to get fluid animations.
There have always been alternatives to Virtua Tennis, and some of those games have even been better, but never has the quality gap been as wide as it is today. There’s not much obviously wrong with Virtua Tennis 4, but there is nothing even remotely exciting about it. I can easily go back to playing Virtua Tennis 2009, or even Virtua Tennis 3, and I won’t miss a thing. The fact that 2K has raised the bar by taking risks and overhauling its game makes Sega’s effort seem all the more lackadaisical. There’s a tired cliche about how iterated sports games are nothing more than the same game with a new number slapped onto the title. This is why.