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There’s more chance of Andy Murray cracking a smile and sorting out his big hair than there is of spotting what’s new about Virtua Tennis 2009 when you first start playing. For the past ten years the series has consistently played an excellent game of tennis, and while the player likenesses get better and sharper, everything else has an air of ‘if it ain’t broke…’ about it.
So the World Tour mode is still all about rising through the rankings over the course of many seasons, initially slumming it with shockingly poor British players in Challenger events before eventually mixing it with the big boys and the big-name pros in money-spinning tournaments and Grand Slams. The money system is reintroduced after being inexplicably dropped from Virtua Tennis 3, allowing you to waste your earnings on stuff like sunglasses, Santa hats and boots, although that off-putting Japanese sense of humor crops up from time to time to bar you from some tournaments unless your character is wearing a fancy dress. $3,000 on a false nose, glasses and moustache? I’ll take it!
The ease with which veteran Virtua Tennis players will breeze through the first few seasons is actually a bit of a problem. The gameplay is so familiar it’s like riding a bike – the old instincts take over and you fly through it. Unless you enter both the singles and doubles competitions in every tournament, it takes a painstakingly long time to reach the top 75 and be given the right to enter the slightly more difficult and prestigious events. Even then, the game only puts up a challenge a few seasons in once you hit the top 50. We managed to get through the first season without dropping a single point in any match, and we were seriously bored of winning each point in two or three shots.
Of course, you still have plenty of other things to do. There are playing styles to unlock and mini-challenges to complete such as winning a point within four shots of the serve at the Academy, all of which test your groundstrokes, footwork and technique, serve and volley game. Twelve minigames, five of which are new, are great fun and absolute nails on the higher difficulty levels, so no change there then. Playing a practice match lets you add your opponent as a friend so you can partner him in a doubles match. Not only that, but you have to keep an eye on your stamina throughout a season, occasionally taking a break from doing anything in that week of the calendar to avoid picking up an injury.
What’s truly remarkable is the way such a simple three-button control system for playing top-spin shots, slices and lobs could produce such a complex and highly tactical game that’s oh-so easy to pick up, yet ever so difficult to master. The speed at which the top players smack the ball back at you leaves little thinking time and room for error, yet with lots of practice and an understanding of angles you can have them scampering around the court.
It’s so satisfying keeping an opponent running along the baseline with some fierce groundstrokes or pulling him out of position with hard-to-reach low slice shots to the corners, then totally duping him with a delicate drop shot. It’s also the only tennis game where you need to adapt your playing style depending on the type of opponent you’re up against and what surface you’re playing on, with the often neglected serve and volley game actually coming out on top on grass.
If you prefer staying at the back of the court then you’ll do well on clay, while all-rounders have a better time of it on the hard courts. The only hangovers from previous versions are the weak lob, which often lets your opponent in for an easy smash or a passing shot, and the erratic volley, which no matter how early you line up the shot seems to switch out of your control between a soft pat straight back at your opponent leaving you exposed at the net, or a wild smash giving him no chance. In doubles matches, our advice is to instruct your AI partner to be at the net since they don’t seem to have any trouble with dispatching volleys.
Developing a comfortable playing style and disguising your shots really come into their own when you’re playing against a human player. The lack of new features is pretty much forgiven now that Sega has finally included online play. Not only can you play one-off singles and doubles matches, the whole online setup is incorporated into the World Tour mode. You can play either ranking matches or participate in an online tour where one-off matches are worth 100 points and tournaments 250.
If you’re looking for one thing to justify upgrading to Virtua Tennis 2009 then online play is it. It’s long overdue and it makes such a difference switching from the rather predictable AI to more fallible humans who are much harder to second-guess.
June 6, 2009