This will make you love tennis. No, really. Even if you loathe the sport and grit your teeth when Wimbledon distorts the TV schedules, Virtua Tennis 3 is so realistic that it forces you to appreciate the sport’s intricacies - in a stealthy education dressed as addiction. And while the latest game in the much-loved series is no massive departure - it’s still a tennis game, for instance - there’s enough new gameplay tweaks and content to tempt veterans as well as newcomers.
It looks like an absolute gem, with stunning dynamic lighting and some of the most impressive player models yet seen on 360. There’re over 20 real competitors, including Federer, Nadal and Roddick, plus the likes of Sharapova, Hingis and Hantuchova for those who prefer their tennis lady-shaped. Up close in replays, these pros look almost photo-realistic - expertly capturing everything from Henman’s snaggled-toothed grimace to the flirty wiggle of Sharapova in her prude-baiting mini.
But to accurately simulate a quick-fire sport like tennis, the animation has to be ultra-responsive and VT3 delivers. Everything from a topspin lob to a desperate baseline lunge looks spot-on and even if you change your mind mid-stroke - switching from a backhand down the line to a cross-court volley - the animation is rapid enough to keep up with you, making for incredibly fluid gameplay.
The 360 version has a huge advantage over the identically gorgeous and fun PS3 version - well-implemented online play. Whether you're into singles or doubles, the game performs just fine, and the consistently advantageous view (you're always on the lower court, since each player is looking at his or her own screen) makes it a pleasure. There are ranked and unranked matches, and VT.TV mode, which lets you peek in on the matches of top-ranked players. All in all, it's robust and enjoyable, and noses the 360 version solidly ahead of the PS3 offering.
The speed of the action is aided by the control system, a leftover from the original Virtua Tennis on Dreamcast. You don’t mess with perfection, and the beautiful simplicity of topspin, slice and lobbing, holding the button down to get the desired power and directing the shot via the analog stick still works amazingly well.
Out on court, the only real change is the improved opposition - just when you think you’ve dispatched a winner, your rival will launch into a full-length lunge, somehow keeping the rally going. With points lasting that bit longer, more tactics come into play as you spray shots around to try and move your competitor out of position - which only adds to the satisfaction when you finally unleash a thunderous winner.
Another improvement is the increased focus on the way different surfaces play. Grass courts have an accurate low bounce, making serve and volley tactics a much better bet than strokes from the baseline. In contrast, the clay courts are bouncy like a castle, producing longer rallies.
Options-wise, it’s a game of two courts. The good news is that World Tour has been expanded into a gargantuan Career mode that sees you creating a player (determining everything from appearance to playing style) and improving his skills until he’s ready to compete in the top tournaments. The way you increase stats is the big draw - besides match practice, there’s a series of challenges focused on footwork, ground strokes, volleys and serves. These are brilliant fun and range from running about collecting fruit while dodging giant tennis balls to smacking balls at a moving scoreboard to try and get all your Bingo numbers.
If you have both next gen systems, you must pick this game up on 360. If you want a casual, enjoyable game you can play with your Live friends in between Crackdown and Gears sessions, it's also a must-buy. And if you have friends who'll actually deign to show up at your house in the digital age... again, grab it.