Virtua Tennis is one of those video game franchises that no matter how many new iterations it spawns, it will never deviate a whole lot from the core gameplay it established years ago. Sega got it right the first time, and over the years, they’ve been smart not to try and fix what wasn’t broken. Some might consider this stagnation, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but there is an addictive charm to VT’s arcade gameplay that shines through today even though it hasn’t changed a whole lot since Virtua Tennis 3 in 2007. So why even make another one, you ask? VT’s gameplay may not have changed a whole lot, but the industry sure has, and Virtua Tennis 4 seems like Sega’s attempt to fit the old formula into what’s expected of games today, namely 3D and motion controls.
But just throwing in motion controls and 3D support isn’t going to be enough to challenge 2K’s Top Spin series, which quite contrary to VT has been quite willing to shake things up, as we saw from the brilliant and far more accessible Top Spin 4. So Virtua Tennis 4 features a completely overhauled career mode that’s broken up into four seasons. It plays out a bit like a board game, moving through various countries. Each tile on the board represents a different city, either containing a tournament, one of the many mini-games the series is known for, promotional events, exhibition matches, or rest spots, where you can rebuild lost stamina. The game allots you tickets, and each ticket represents a fixed number of moves you can make forward, and each time you use a ticket, a new one is added. It’s a bit of a lottery and takes some planned use of tickets to get to where you’d like to go. It’s surely a refreshing change and after some initial apprehensions, I started to enjoy the new career format.
As I said, the gameplay hasn’t changed much over the years, but one new addition is the super shot, which utilizes an on-screen power meter. When full, the camera will zoom into your player in slow motion as you unleash a thundering stroke that is nearly impossible to return. The zooming in can get a little distracting for the opponent but these super shots are only seen once in a while, so it doesn’t get too annoying. But while VT4’s style of gameplay is still a lot of fun especially for short, pick-up-and-play sessions, the advancements in Top Spin 4 do make it look a bit dated. Shots feel a little scripted at times, and the game often determines the exact direction of your strokes for you in the interest of creating long tense rallies. It takes skill out of the equation a little bit in favor of fun and accessibility.
In a bid to make VT4 even more accessible, the developers have included motion control support. Since I was playing the PS3 version, I had the opportunity to try it out with Playstation Move. The responsiveness and accuracy was quite good, but the biggest flaw is in the design. The camera sticks to the standard back-of-the-court TV camera when your opponent is playing, but when it’s your turn, it switches to a first-person view, and this constant switching of camera angles gets quite disorienting and can even throw you off your game. On the plus side, it is possible to apply spin on your strokes, so you can play slices and top spins by turning your wrists accordingly. Still VT4 with Move is nowhere near as fun as Table Tennis from Sports Champions, which remains the gold standard when it comes to racket sports with Move.
One area where VT4 scores over Top Spin 4 is the player roster. It’s expansive and features nearly every major star from both the ATP and WTA circuits, and some former stars, including my childhood favorite Stefan Edberg, who is only featured on the PS3 version. Visually too, VT4 holds up quite well. The player models are quite accurate, but the bizarre facial animations don’t do justice to them. The player customization is also quite disappointing, with very few options and nowhere near the kind of depth found in Top Spin 4.
Top Spin 4 threw down the challenge earlier this year, and while Sega’s reply is a fairly decent one, it doesn’t quite match up. It’s still a great pick-up-and-play game, but if you’re looking for something deeper, go with 2K.
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Oct 28, 2016