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First, you have to unlearn everything you know about tennis games. Not since Pro Evolution hit the PS2 and redefined videogame footy has a title so radically changed how we look at in-game sport. Top Spin 3’s arrival makes Virtua Tennis look like Pong. Where Sega’s title asks that you be in the right place and aim in the right direction in a timely manner, Top Spin 3 stresses technique and the most delicate touch. Holding a face button primes your shot and releasing it takes a swing; triggers apply power and risk with full analogue sensitivity. Every serve and volley you pull off is a constant balance between your choice of shot, timing, position, and careful power and risk management. Top Spin’s new control scheme adds complexity, depth and subtlety without sacrificing accessibility, and thanks to the perfectly pitched controls and sheer wealth of options available in any shot, the game is as big a step forward for tennis games as Skate was for skateboarding or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was for platformers.
Dumping the time-tested minigames in favour of something more credible, Top Spin’s Career mode feels a little more like a real career. Forty courts across the globe put you into the tour mindset, and a perfectly-pitched difficulty level which lets you pick tournaments appropriate to your skills makes leveling up challenging and fair. You’ll gain experience points whether playing Career, Exhibition or Online, so playing as yourself is viable in every mode, and will eventually lead to a player who can be marginally stronger than the best of the standard line-up.
Naturally, every modern major player makes it in, including the lovely Maria Sharapova and her lovely Russian legs. Maria, podge-faced Swiss tennis robot Roger Federer and dour Scot Andy Murray are essential inclusions in any modern tennis game, but only Borg, Becker and Monica Seles make it into the ‘legends’ bracket. No McEnroe, no Jimmy Connors, no Sampras or Agassi, no Graf and no Navratilova. Licensing issues have hurt Top Spin 3, but the player creator is as detailed as anything seen in an EA game, and creating the legends is an easy, if lengthy, task. Johnny Mac may not be in the game, but you can have a good shot at building him. But before you bother creating anything, you have to unlearn everything you know – forget Virtua Tennis, Top Spin 2, Smash Court and the rest. The controls are a hurdle some will be reluctant to jump, but the reward on the other side is a new and better way to play a game as old as gaming itself.
There’s a moment when the game clicks, and clicks so hard that it immediately ruins you for every other tennis game. The difference between Virtua Tennis and Top Spin 3 is so great you’ll never look back – the latter plays a game of tennis which feels so intuitive and grips you so hard that, in spite of the years we’ve poured into it, Virtua suddenly feels unnatural. The divide is more dramatic than the difference between PES and FIFA; it’s closer to the gulf between Tony Hawk and Skate – one a great videogame, the other a measured attempt at capturing the look, shape, and feel of the real thing.
Top Spin 3 is a real milestone, then. It redefines its genre and goes beyond the sport on which it’s based to deliver a one-on-one competition as strenuous and intense as any fighting game or shooter. The longer those rallies continue the tighter your grip on the pad and the harder it becomes to manage the subtleties of the risk and power triggers. Every shot is a calculation and every movement a chess game, and beyond all our clever-clever nonsense, it’s massive fun to just swat that ball like you’re sending it to the moon. The feedback is perfect – from the sound, the animations and the thud of the ball through your pad’s rumble – and it all comes together as the best game ever to feature a racquet and a fuzzy yellow ball. There’s no tennis game to match Top Spin 3 in any regard, and it’s such a leap forward, at least several steps ahead of the unambitious attempts at innovation by other sports games that it’ll take stiff competition for Top Spin 3 to be anything other than the best sports title of 2008.
Jun 23, 2008