Top Spin 3 Review - 23/06/2008

PAM Development's Top Spin Tennis series - the original was firstly a Microsoft funded Xbox exclusive, but which has been at 2K since then - is known as the only real contender to the Virtua Tennis series. But if you're of the opinion that tennis games are all the same, be prepared for a shock.

Reviewing the Xbox 360 version, I decided to take part in the 'Tennis School' part of the game as my first foray into Top Spin 3 - I wanted the inevitable achievement (of which there was one). Little did I know how valuable this tutelage was to be for me. Having reviewed Top Spin 2, and playing it regularly in multiplayer, it's incredible just how much things have changed. This is a tennis simulator, in the same way you get racing sims and big gaps between arcade and realistic boxing or golf games.

To hit the ball, you can no longer just hold A on 360 or X on PS3 as soon as the ball leaves the opponent's racquet and smash it safely regardless of your position. No, you have to time your swing perfectly. You have to be positioned in exactly the right spot. And you have to choose the accuracy of the shot relatively intelligently. It's an incredible leap forward for tennis games, but also an incredibly frustrating one initially. I spent the best part of an hour in the tutorial mode, and still got hammered in certain stages of the career.

The big courts are really special.

This career mode begins with a series of amateur challenges, more like token gestures really, which are a breeze and just ease your into the game. I lost about one point a game in these, and began to think I had the same problem as with virtually every other tennis game career mode - it's too easy for too long and I lose interest. After about half an hour of this however, you progress to the Junior rank and go on tour for a few seasons, until you're ranked number 3 or higher on the tour at the end of a season, after which point your turn Pro. Here, a particularly intelligent piece of game design comes into play. Each month of the season you can enter one event, and there is always a choice of two: one easy, one hard.

I first attempted a hard one, knowing that I'd breezed the previous challenges, only to be trounced 3-0 in the first round. After each match you're awarded XP, which you can spend on upgrading your character's abilities. You get to sculpt your player from models on offer, though no PS Eye or Vision Cam support is disappointing. So the idea is to begin on the easy tournaments, gradually improving your player, maybe trying some of the harder, bigger events (the easy ones take place in small-club surroundings) and progressing to the semis (each has three stages) or even the final and getting more XP in return, before finally having a strong enough character to win one. It's this intricacy that perfectly captures the struggle of many young tennis players to even win a minor tournament. While you don't have to qualify for these, the idea is pretty much the same.

There's a good few professionals to play as.

Following the realistic theme, the controls PAM have chosen for the game really exert the feeling that you're on court, playing tennis. You can in fact hold A or X as soon as the ball crosses the net, but release it at the wrong time and you'll be left looking the fool. You feel as though you have to keep the button mashed down to get the required power (rated in stars in the school mode), and to get full strength you have to really be alert and get on the desired button as early as possible. It's so easy to think you're going to smash it down the line, take your eye off the ball and then hit it into the net or just balloon it over for an easy shot by your opponent. Timing is everything, and risk shots make another welcome appearance, but are brutally hard to pull off, require perfect positioning, timing and power. Hours of practice and I still can't do them regularly. These are probably just too hard unfortunately.

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