Review: Top Spin (XB)

Platform: Xbox
Category: Tennis
Developer: PAM
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release: Nov. 2003
The Down-Lo: Tennis lovin’ for the Xbox. Surprisingly good?

Let it be known now that there’s a bar to live up to with tennis titles. It was set by Sega in 1998, is still in effect, and is known as Virtua Tennis (or, as the latest installment of the series is known, Sega Sports Tennis). Spanning across the arcade to Dreamcast to the PS2, the only ones to have topped Virtua Tennis games in quality have been subsequent titles within the series, with it remaining essentially unchallenged for nearly over half a decade. That’s not to say that some efforts weren’t put forth to knock VT off its high hill. Other tennis games were released. They just all sucked. ALL OF THEM.

So along comes Top Spin. Microsoft’s Top Spin. Bleh. Honestly, it’s hard for me not to be cynical. Jaded, biased Sega gamer that I am. Yes, you read me right. I said I’m biased. Other reviewers might not admit that to you, but they all are. We’re all biased in one way or another. It’s why Lucard hates reviewing most platformers and Squaresoft titles, or why Pankonin gets confused when I mention any game that doesn’t contain people hitting each other with padded gear on.

But even though I’m right up front about my gaming tendencies, let it be known that I’m objective. If a game is technically “better” than those before it, you can count on me to tell you, regardless of my personal tastes. That’s what I’m going to do with Top Spin. You’re going to find out if Microsoft’s heavily hyped tennis debut is enough to topple the King.

So…



LET’S REVIEW

1. STORY:

It’s a sports game. You create the story. YOU ARE the story. Thus we’re all going to have drastically different experiences here, at least if done right. What matters is how well the game allows you to create YOUR story. And that’s what’s commonly referred to here as the Career mode.

The point of Career mode in Top Spin is simple. Simple as concept that is, not in said task’s execution. Because your goal is to become the best tennis player in the world; a legend in your own right. And that entails a lot of work.

First, you’ll need to create your player. The Player Creator setup is very in-depth, allowing you to come pretty close to making a digital replication of yourself if you put the time and energy into it. Hairstyles, height, muscle volume, face length, nose and ear shaping… it’s all here. Well, almost. Sorry pervs, women’s bust size’s ARE NOT customizable. I know because I tried. :p Trying to make a perfect digital version of my beloved Bella complete with F cups runneth over was near impossible. Eh. Close enough I suppose. We’re not playing DOA: Extreme Gameplayless Volleyball after all, thus eye candy in excess of the incredibly overrated Anna K. is not needed. After a quick stop at the sports shop to put on some generic clothing, you’re all ready to begin your Career.

Immediately you’ll be shot straight to the World Map amongst a sea of glowing icons. From here you can visit any number of places to help in your quest for legendom. Some are necessary; some are strictly for personal enjoyment. Among the enjoyment areas are a Sports Shop (where you can use your “coin” to purchase phatter clothing and gear), Salons (where you can change your eye color, facial hair, and other cosmetic desires, again for a fee), and Sponsors. Sponsors are pretty darn cool, in idea and implementation. They include heavy hitters such as Addias and Nike among others and they’ll hook you up with branded gear and coin if you complete their challenges to see if you’re worth sponsoring. The challenges are fun and the rewards are great, as the sponsor’s clothing easily outclass what you start out in the game with and they’re free. Besides, which would you rather step out on the court with… some blank white Charlie Brown looking T-shirt with a stripe down the middle, or a Nike blazer with logo intact? In any case, the inclusion of these side distractions greatly increases your enjoyment. It’s surprising how much time I spent and how much fun I had simply getting my player to look just right. Way more than any straight man should admit to, that’s for sure. None of these luxuries is necessary in the least. But all fits and adds to the game well.

One of the actual necessary stops on your World Map excursions are Coach Houses. It’s here that you hire coaches to help train your character’s technical masteries. Masteries are basic skills that every pro tennis player needs to master: Forehand. Backhand. Serve. And Volley. When you complete the coaches’ training exercise, you’ll gain a Career Star toward improving one of your characters four masteries depending on the specialty of the coach you went to. Choose your strengths carefully however, because you only have 14 stars to spread amongst your masteries. Once you get enough mastery stars, you can select from an even more specific assortment of Skills that help to improve your game even further. If it sounds involved, it is. Player customization is ridiculous in this game, and the odds of two individuals having the exact same playing style, attributes, and strengths are rare simply because of the wealth of options. It’s never too daunting, though, and after a while you’ll pick up on how to improve your game with a little help from the instruction manual.

Of course, the most important part of Career mode is Tournaments. This is where it all goes down, kids. Spread across the World Map are stadiums where you and your peers throw down on the courts for the advancement of your careers. And challengers are all over the place. Done beating all the tournaments you can in the country you’re in? Hop on a plane at the local Airport icon and seek out challenges in Africa, Italy, and Japan. This is how you increase your playing status (you’ll start out ranked on the bottom at #100), and where you’ll get the majority of your coin. As you win and your status increases you’ll unlock more and more prestigious tournaments to play in all over the world, including ones put on by your Sponsor, further increasing your rank until you become #1 and the legend you so desire to become.

Player stats and your Scrapbook help keep track of what tournaments you’ve won and what things you need to do next so that you’ll never get lost in the shuffle. The interface is a little clunky and slow (due mostly to load times), but adequate enough to keep you on track without TOO much frustration. Only one calorie; not frustrating enough.

Seriously, this is the most in-depth Career mode ever crafted for a tennis game. From player creation to customization to the sheer number of different tournament types there are to enter, Top Spin has raised the bar. True, the bar was set pretty low in this department in the first place for Tennis titles, but nonetheless, this is the best Career mode of its kind.

Career mode rating: 9/10

2. GRAPHICS:

Wow. This impressed me, even for the Xbox. Especially the tennis arenas. Detailed to beyond belief. Dozens of different locales from around the globe. And the crowds look less generic than your standard gaming bunch of stiffs, all in 3D, even getting up and showing applause when they like a particular volley.

Character models are very detailed, and look eerily real. Blinking of eyes, moving of the mouth and all that. Right down to the individual strands of hair on their heads.

Not one ounce of slowdown either. The framerate never stutters off course. And player animation is very fluid and believable. Not just during gameplay when they’re swinging like madmen, but also in between volleys. How they show player emotion during these cut scenes is excellent, especially as the game allows you to make your character jump around like a giddy school girl when he or she wins a hard earned point, or to even throw their racket down in disgust if things don’t go your way. They really do LOOK how a person would react in those situations. Only quibble would be to have more variety in that department as the cycle of animations gets worn out quickly.


Top Spin: Prettier Than Non-Fatty Goth Chicks

Overall? Animation, ambiance, framerate… It’s all leaps and bounds above any other tennis title’s graphics up till now. So they get a gold star there.

Graphics rating (for a Xbox game): 9/10

3. SOUND:

Sparse. That’s what comes to mind when I think of the sound here. Watching Top Spin’s opening intro and marveling over the game’s graphics was even more a treat to watch while listening to “Get Free” by The Vines. After going through a delight like that, I expected music to be an intricate part of the game. It wasn’t. Beyond the opening, you’ll only hear music during the menus, options, and World Map. The music in these areas is generic, yet adequate. But when the tennis actually starts, things get quiet on the tunes front real quick.

Granted, that DOES make way for the sounds of the actual game. The announcer and the crowd both sound suitable. The crowd particularly shows their audible excitement when a heated volley goes down. They’ll gasp when you make that diving save. They’ll politely clap when you take someone out with ease. And even give the aforementioned standing ovation with apposite sound cue when you really give someone a run for their money. The tennis players themselves have no trouble letting you know they’re putting their all into the game either, grunting and groaning like two monkeys in the jungle making love with each powerful swing. The ball’s contact with the rackets sound realistic as well.

At best, the lack of music during gameplay can be seen as a minor complaint. Perhaps even a taste issue. But a little background noise can go a long way towards pumping you up and bringing you into the game, and that may have been an opportunity missed here. Can’t dock it too much because what IS there is above average.

Sound rating: 6/10

4. CONTROL:

Simple enough. Move around using the analog control stick. “A” for a Flat Shot. “B” for a Topspin Shot. “X” for a Slice Shot. And “Y” for the Lob Shot. Self-explanatory. The longer you hold down the button of choice when you’re set up for the hit, the more powerful it’ll be. Each of these shots also has serving variants. These are the basics. The basics work well.

But then come the Profanity-Inducing Futile Total Pieces Of Crap Shots. Or as the game likes to call them, the Drop Shots “L” and the Risk Shots “R”. Innovative, but ultimately flawed methods of pulling off more “expert-like” serves and hits. Drop Shots are used to perform delicate hits that fall just over your opponents net to surprise them if they’re playing too far back on their court. And Risk Shots are powerful hits that are difficult for your opponent to return. Nice benefits for both in theory, but the problem is THEY’RE BLASTED IMPOSSIBLE TO PERFORM. They’re used by holding down the “L” or “R” Triggers respectively and releasing it when the bar is in the middle of the risk meter that appears above your players’ head. In execution during a heated match, these shots are almost impossible to pull off outside of serving. But sometimes, even when you DO get the meter 100% perfect on the money, your shot will still go careening off the court in a spasm display that will make your player look mentally and physically handicapped for even attempting the shot. Granted, the Risk Shot is one powerful tool when serving. Nothing satisfies like Acing some poor sucker with a 125MPH serve. But even then, for some cosmically unexplained reason, the ball will go out of bounds despite perfect execution.

Other than that minor complaint however, the game controls nice and smooth. Albeit, a bit slower than Sega Sports Tennis. This game felt a little laggy. But still good and mostly responsive nonetheless.

Control Rating: 7/10

5. REPLAYABILITY:

Ok. Modes. What modes does this baby have? PLENTY.

First, there’s the standard Exhibition, and the previously mentioned Career options. Exhibition is your normal, quick pick up and play mode that allows Singles or Doubles and jumps you right into the game against some friends or the computer without the player having to do much thought. Kid stuff. The Career mode however, greatly extends the life of Top Spin by leaps and bounds. If you set your sites on being the top player in the world, then believe you me, you’ll be busier than the crack dealer around the corner from Bobby Brown’s residence on Whitney’s birthday. So many tournaments to play in. So many Sponsors to switch between. So many ways to accessorize and customize your character. They could have just included these two modes and that alone would have taken up ample game time and made for a complete gaming experience.

But there’s more. You’ve got Custom Tournaments, in which you can set up brackets for up to 16 players. A cool albeit, novelty at best. But then comes the XSN Sports and Xbox Live options. This is obvious. Adding any kind of online mode to a video game vastly increases the replayability. With Live, you go online and play against friends or chance acquaintances for fun. Or you can even get into official tournaments sponsored by Microsoft, where you’ll get your butts kicked by the Kliq. And with XSN Sports, you get the option to create your own online tennis tour, inviting your friends (provided you have any; but how big a loser do you have to be to not at least have some “online friends”) to join for some tailor-regulated competition.

Whew. Lots of ways to play Top Spin. They sure didn’t skimp on the options to keep you coming back, that’s for sure.

Replayability rating: 10/10

6. BALANCE:

Balance is… well. The Career mode gets progressively harder. I guess. It all just seems so easy to begin with. Should I really be able to jump right into Career mode and beat three tournaments back to back without taking one loss? Without even glancing at the control scheme? Can I really be THAT good, or is this game just a tad on the tranquil side? Games are getting too easy in general nowadays (Geez, that sentence made me feel old). But, yeah. Later tournaments DO pick up the pace a bit and give you a harder challenge so that it’s not a complete cakewalk all the way through. Thus no, it’s not bad. But it might be a bit too easy for some players.


And suddenly, the A.I. died…

Annoyances abound however when you play Doubles with the computer as your teammate. For some reason the two computer controlled adversaries you play against have their acts together, but syncing up with your supposedly equally skilled partner is a nightmare. It looks like a Goofy Wild World of Sports highlight reel, I kid not. At random your partner will just let the ball go past them in hopes that you’ll pick up the hit. Only problem being is that you’re on the OTHER side of the court. It makes the non-human cooperative doubles play much harder than necessary, and unbalances that aspect of the game as a whole. Better have a friend handy if you want to do some co-op.

Balance rating: 6/10

7. ORIGINALITY:

Honesty time, people. This type of game has been around for a loooong time. No matter how much we try to dress it up, tennis games come down to a glorified version of Pong. Ultimately, this is still hitting a ball back and forth across a net several times over until someone misses.

But that’s not to say there aren’t original elements here. The game’s extensive Career mode, while standard for other genres, is unique amongst tennis titles. XSN Sports and Live make this the first online console tennis game ever. And the additions of Drop Shots and Risk Shots into the player’s arsenal, while frustrating, add to the uniqueness of gameplay.

While the core concept of gameplay is primordial, Microsoft Game Studios and PAM jammed as much as they could to make what’s normally a tired, tried and true formula, seem somewhat fresh and new. And granted, that’s not easy to do.

Originality rating: 6/10

8. ADDICTIVENESS:

Do I drool all over my pillow and have wet dreams at night about playing this game? No. But whenever I can find the time, I certainly wouldn’t mind dropping in for some volleying action. In Career mode, tournaments take quite a bit of time. Games can go on for a good 10 to 15 minutes apiece if the competition is heated. Add up that tournaments take a good 3 to 4 solid games to win, and you’ve amassed quite the amount of time. But all of that time passes by without a thought. And that says something about the gameplay and quality of this title. So yes, you’ll be coming back. But you will also be able to have some semblance of a social life so don’t worry.

Well… don’t worry unless you have Xbox Live. If you have Live, then there’s a good chance you may never want to put this thing down.

Addictiveness rating: 7/10

9. APPEAL FACTOR:

Ahh, tennis. Not exactly the most popular pop culture sport, but moderately so. It’s not like football; appealing to both the steroid juiced-up meatheads and butt-slapping closet homosexuals in denial alike. It’s not like basketball; where the youths of America aspiring to be rapists, gansta rappers, or contract the AIDS have yet another group of role models to look up to that encompasses all of these. Or even the time honored, family friendly tradition of baseball. Baseball’s always been the secret to father-son bonding. It even worked for Rosie O’ Donnel and his father in A League Of Their Own. But tennis? Other than looking up the Women’s Division’s delightfully short skirts as they bend over waiting for a volley, where’s the appeal? Where’s the intrigue? It’s there somewhere I suppose, as those arenas aren’t filled with cardboard cut outs and Venus, Serena, and Kournikova are near household names. Yes, despite the lack of physical player on player contact that this country seems to so desperately crave, tennis does float quite a few boats and fills out a nice little sporting niche. It’s the same with the video games. People won’t be running out like slobbering lunatics to get this like the Maddens and ESPN NBAs of our time, but there’s a niche to fill on the Xbox. Top Spin stands out because it’s the only notable tennis game on the system. Sega Sports Tennis is ONLY available on the now defunct Dreamcast, Arcade and the PlayStation 2. So that automatically makes this the best tennis game for the system. No competition. That carries a lot of weight.

And it’s getting the mega-push too. Microsoft’s marketing muscle is making sure you see this game in both print publications and TV commercials. And the commercials particularly make Top Spin look like the greatest thing since pull-n’-peel fruit roll-ups, showing off a modified version of the game’s heart pumping visually pleasing introduction. Those that would like a good game of tennis know this is out there for the taking.

Plus, Top Spin is the only game to sport the tennis slut equivalent of Christina Aguliera in that of Anna Kournikova, bringing in the pathetic, pimply faced, horny, teen virgin demographic. One that accounts for quite the amount of the gameplaying community. Sadly. But honestly, having a “name” like that on the roster and the box cover helps to boost appeal.


Look! Digital Booty! This game just sold another 100,000 copies!

Then there’s Xbox Live. The XSN Sports network is taking off, and online players will want to scoop this up as part of their online sports gaming collection- adding to the game’s appeal among the quickly growing Xbox Live fanbase.

So the marketing, the Xbox Live draw-in, “celebrity factor” and the fact that it looks drop dead gorgeous more than balance out the somewhat niche appeal of the sport.

Appeal Factor rating: 8/10

10. MISCELLANEOUS:

And because I want you to have the most accurate view of the game possible, I’m bringing in our resident Xbox Live expert, Bryan Berg, to graze over the game’s Live capabilities. Take it away, bro…

Courtesy of 411 Official Xbox Live Correspondent – Bryan Berg:

Top Spin’s Career mode is awesome. But the ultimate culmination of Career mode is taking your created player online. That’s where you’ll find your toughest competition, and that’s where you’ll see if your created player can cut the mustard. Take your player to the court of your choosing to take on your opponent’s created player, but make sure you’ve got some skills before you take him (or her) online – you’ll get smoked if your guy isn’t at least good.

And isn’t this what games should be about? Gamers competing against gamers for the rights to supremacy. If you’ve been beating the computer just a little too badly, check out the competition on Live. You might be humbled a little bit.

Miscellaneous rating: 9/10



The Ratings:
Career mode rating: 9/10
Graphics rating: 9/10
Sound rating: 6/10
Control Rating: 7/10
Replayability rating: 10/10
Balance rating: 6/10
Originality rating: 6/10
Addictiveness rating: 7/10
Appeal Factor rating: 8/10
Miscellaneous rating: 9/10

Short Attention Span Summary
Sports games should almost never get a score of 8.0 (GREAT) or higher due to their disposable nature. With most football or basketball titles, EA can put out basically the same thing every year with an updated roster and a tweak here or there and everyone will laud them as the greatest games ever. Well, that’s GARBAGE. If a game is so good so as to make you not even consider picking up next year’s version, then you have a classic. Then you have a something that you can truly call ‘great’. And that is what we have here. Who knows if there’ll be a Top Spin 2Kwhatever next year, but I hope not because it’s not needed. This is debatably the new high water mark, boys and girls. While the balance, control, and speed aren’t quite up to the standards of Sega Sports Tennis, the wealth of options, stunning graphics, and grade A Career mode more than create a compelling digital tennis title. Is it better than SST? To be honest, it depends on what you’re looking for. SST is still the place to be for some arcadey super fast tennis action, but no one beats Top Spin when it comes to an accurate and complete tennis sim experience. Top Spin is at the pinnacle with the very best this genre has to offer. Easily the best tennis game on the system. Especially recommended for the Xbox Live enabled. If you’re into the genre at all, you’ll want to pick this up. Wooo. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… Great?