Tennis is not the type of game you will typically find me playing, either in real life or in a video game. Through 30 plus years of continually watching sports highlight shows like ESPN SportsCenter and TSN SportsCenter I have gained a working knowledge of the sport. I can understand terms like drop shots and lob shots. I can’t understand why anyone would willingly subject themselves to watching a sport where all one does is exercise their neck muscles, but I do get the basics of the sport. I know it’s a fast game, not as fast as its cousins badminton or racquetball, but still certainly faster than basketball or baseball. I have witnessed enough tennis highlights to know what the sport is supposed to look like when played by the pros.
And this isn’t it.
There are numerous gameplay modes found within the menus of Virtua Tennis 4. You have the season mode, the arcade mode, exhibition mode, the motion play mode, practice mode, and party mode. Each of these modes serves a purpose. Season mode, naturally, puts you in control of a user created tennis player fresh from preschool. No seriously, you can create a character who is 11 years old. Freakishly tall and gifted for an 11 year old, but I don’t judge. Arcade mode allows you to pick one of the professional tennis players who gave Sega the rights to their likenesses and play through the four major tournaments which aren’t actually the four major tournaments, since I’m guessing the competition got the rights to the actual names of Wimbledon, The French Open, the Australian Open, and the US Open, along with a bonus fifth match against a special opponent. Arcade mode can be played singles or doubles.
Exhibition mode is a one off match, allowing you to play against anyone you choose with anyone you choose, including your own creations. Motion play mode puts you in the skull of whichever tennis player you’ve chosen, and makes you play tennis in a first person perspective. The game uses the Kinect to let you control your character’s swings. More on this later. Then you get practice mode, which teaches you the basics of playing tennis, such as how to control various functions like serves. Finally you get Party Mode, which is a series of mini games that are designed to make you more comfortable with the game. Some of the modes include Egg collection, coin collection, wall matches, royal card matches and Ace Striker. Egg collection sadly does not result in Eggman becoming a selectable character upon completion.
There is also an Xbox Live online component to the game. And here I must give the developers credit for the best online waiting room in history. You connect to Xbox Live, tell the game that yes you want to play online, and then you play a match of tennis versus the AI while you wait for a suitable opponent to present themselves online. This is much like Street Fighter 4‘s online challenge mode without the trickery of making you “accept”Â challengers in Arcade mode.
The game looks terrific at first glance. The various courts all look almost photo realistic, with real world advertising appearing everywhere, and the different playing surfaces all looking just like they do in the real world. The players too look amazing when you first see them. I instantly recognized that chap from the shaving commercials where he pals around with the disgraced golfer and the aging baseball type. But then the developers tried to get fancy. They had the players sweat after a few balls had been swatted. And wow did the game go from looking nice to looking bizarre. I’m sorry, but nobody sweats milk. And that’s exactly what the players look like they are doing when they work up a lather.
Still, the rest of the game is quite fetching. The instant replays look especially nice, although they are artificially jazzed up. You can see a cloud of dust erupt when the ball hits the ground on a clay court, or the fuzz on a ball when watching the replays. You can even make out the outline of the corporate sponsor on a players racquet, and it all runs fairly smoothly.
Sega has a certain style when it comes to music. It’s jazzy. Always jazzy. I’m not a fan of jazzy. Anyway, Virtua Tennis 4 is loaded with it. It starts when the menu loads up and doesn’t stop until you turn off the 360. Or until you turn off the music in the options. It isn’t hideous, it’s competently done, it’s just there.
Sound effects are fairly solid, but nothing special. The most irritating thing about Tennis, especially women’s, is the grunting. That’s here, in full frontal grunty. Actually I think it’s rather tame compared to what I’ve heard on the networks. Still, expect to hear your fair share of it. The rest of the game sounds like it should, so I have no complaints there.
There is very little voice work. The stadium voice announcers, both male and female, are a little British sounding, and I had difficulty distinguishing between their 30 and their 40. Not a huge concern, but the similarity is so close I sometimes got a tiny bit confused. I suppose I could include the grunting in the sound effects, but I’ve already mentioned that so I’ll be on about my business.
The basic game is still an upgraded version of Pong, so this is a gameplay mechanic that has been around for a long long time. You get your player to the ball before it gets past you, then send it back at your opponent in a place where they aren’t. The controller gives you four shot types, all mapped to the basic four buttons. You can perform drop shots, lob shots, standard shots, and even supershots when your meter has been filled. Yes, this game has a win button. It’s not guaranteed, but it sure doesn’t hurt your chances. In practice mode you can learn how to manipulate your shots to do as you wish, but I found while playing the game itself it wasn’t that easy. I kept thinking I was missing a button that would let me smash the ball instead of gently lofting it, or one that would put more topspin on my drop shots than what I was getting. It turns out I was right about the topspin. You can apparently manipulate the amount of top spin by playing with the analog stick during a shot. I say apparently because I was never successful in my attempts to do it, but I saw it more that a few times while playing the game online.
Of course, the more you play a game the more you learn about how to play it. So even my complaints about softly lobbing my shots are eventually addressed once I began to understand it was all about how my character was positioned while taking the shot. But the return on investment just isn’t there for me. I don’t want to have to put hours and hours into a game to learn its eccentricities.
Whatever problems I have with the standard controls pale in comparison to the Kinect controls, though. To be blunt, they are not ready for prime time. I think Sega realized this and specifically did not include motion controls in the main game for that very reason. The game takes care of your movements around the court and you take care of swinging your arm when you think the ball should be struck. This is all done in the first person, so you must swing your arms when the ball gets to the edge of your screen. This will usually get you a successful return volley, but often it will result in you whiffing on the ball entirely, or hitting the ball but having it meekly bounce a few inches off of your racquet. And if the shot required is an overhand smash then you’re out of luck, as that motion never registered for me. When the controls do work you again run into the problem of only softly lobbing the ball back at your opponent, with no real way of directing your shots. They go where they go. Usually back at the opponent. I appreciate that the developers at least tried to incorporate the Kinect into their game, but had the sense to realize it wasn’t going to work this year. So maybe next year.
Now then, as I mentioned before one of the gameplay modes is a season mode which has you playing through various tournaments, including fake versions of the grand slam. Except that’s not quite the whole story, so I’m going to delve into it with a little more detail. The developers have tried to merge a season of Professional Tennis with a game of Monopoly. Yes, the board game. During the season you get tickets which govern how far you can move on an overworld map. You have a schedule to keep and you must earn stars to qualify for smaller tournaments and to skip the qualifying round of the big tournaments. Out on the road, which is what this conflagration is trying to imitate, you will find yourself playing in practice rounds against both up and comers as well as against established stars like Andy Murray and so forth, all the while trying to maintain your stamina. You will also find yourself making stops at charity functions and other things, all to earn stars. You can travel a maximum of four spots on the map, if you have a four spot ticket. You can stop at a management office to purchase tickets you suspect you’ll need, but basically it comes down to this. You are supposed to manage your character’s time and travel arrangements so that you can earn the maximum amount of stars. What actually winds up happening is you never have enough stars to enter the four halfway mark tournaments and only get into the majors because there is a qualifying tournament held before each to allow entry. These entry level tournaments are especially gruelling because they tax your stamina, though you don’t see it until the actual Grand Slam tournament, when you play your way through the quarters and semis, only to stagger into the finals with simulated sprained ankles and get killed. No matter how much I levelled my character’s stamina, I found the Grand Slams to be a complete drain.
I can’t help but feel that the entire season mode structure has been designed this way to flesh out a game that is basically eight or nine tournaments long. Perhaps it does accurately simulate the grind of a professional tennis season, I don’t know. I do know it doesn’t make for an enjoyable gameplay experience.
Well, there is the season mode, but it’s not a career mode. You can reuse a character but they will lose all stars. Thankfully they don’t lose the stats they gained while training, so in that respect it can be considered a career mode. Next, you have the various party game modes, which can be entertaining.
Lastly you have the Xbox Live online mode. I stated above the majesty of the waiting room function, but I didn’t talk to much about the rest of the game’s online functions. Well, let’s just say the game does not suffer lag very well, so if your connection is less than stellar you should probably look to play your multiplayer in person rather than online. The game is just too fast for any kind of reasonable back and forth if one of you is sitting there waiting on your packets. I found on more than a few occasions my character would not swing at the ball because it was still loading something else. Very much a rage inducing experience.
When it works though its not bad. Not bad at all. A lot depends on the quality of your opponent of course. If you run into someone who thinks he’s John McEnroe well you’re probably up a creek. And if you are at all competent and run into me, well, that won’t be much fun either. But if you manage to find someone who is roughly the same skill level as yourself, well, then it becomes a very entertaining experience, with lots of give and take. There is, I should point out, a ranking system but it is a bit convoluted.
There are three selectable difficulty levels, and the game does ratchet up the difficulty for Grand Slam tournaments, but for all other matches, it’s just not there. You can customize how long your matches will be too, if they will have tie breakers and so forth. The hardest part of the game is earning enough stars in Season Mode to compete in all of the tournaments.
The Kinect controls are obviously the most original thing about the game, and I’ve already said my piece about them. The create a tennis player option does present you with an abundance of choices clothing wise, and while not completely original did enable me to see one of the coolest looking created characters I’ve ever seen while online.
There really isn’t enough here to get addicted to. If you and a buddy have a burning desire to play against each other then this will certainly do the job, but there are other games out there better suited to giving you that rush. The season mode is underwhelming. The party games are OK. Motion controls are a work in progress. Not exactly addiction inducing.
Well, for tennis fans on the 360 you have this and you have Top Spin 4. I haven’t played the competition but it never hurts to check them both out and see which one you would prefer, now does it?
For non-tennis fans the big appeal would be the motion controls and the party games, but since the motion controls are not quite there I hope your party is hopping.
One last thing I feel I should mention, and this is as good a place as any. I should not be able to see the game trying to figure out which animation to use when I press a button to swing my racquet. It does not inspire confidence to see animation problems which I last saw on the Sega Saturn. The game moves too quickly for that.
Graphics: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Balance: Below Average
Originality: Below Average
Addictiveness: Pretty Poor
Appeal Factor: Bad
FINAL SCORE: Mediocre Game.
Short Attention Span Summary
There is nothing here that would make me scream run out and buy this game. It can provide some entertainment but is it really worth your effort when so many other great games are out there?