“Mind if I watch you play that for a minute?”
More than once, strangers would stop, do a double-take, then ask a variation of that question when we were playing Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition. We were happy to oblige, too. It simply looks that good, with colors fairly bursting off the beautiful Vita screen. It ain’t the launch goggles talking, either; even 20-plus hours in, we’re still smiling at how beautiful it is. From every angle, the action is smooth, crisp and clear.
What’s more, the tennis court is simply alive, bursting with activity. Ball boys charge after their prey the second a point is over while judges move to their assigned spots during the action. As big matches play to large audiences, the crowd can be seen and heard reacting appropriately. It may sound trivial, but when you add that onto the already-gorgeous visuals and strong gameplay, Virtua Tennis’ appeal skyrockets.
Speaking of gameplay, it’s solid and deep. Unlike other tennis titles, timing and good positioning aren’t the only thing; although that’s very important, there’s much more going on. When you hit strong shots based around your particular player’s strengths, you build up a Super Shot that can prove deadly. Choosing to use your ultimate weapon is a key strategy that, when successful, can help you in big situations. It’s not necessarily a “win” button - we had plenty of them returned - but more often than not it can secure a key moment in your favor.
As in real tennis, the court types play a significant role. If you’re a big hitter, you need to play back a bit on hard courts to crank up power forehands, but on grass the same positioning will cause you problems. Being steady on your feet also gives you the best chance at a winner, which is easier to do on flat tops than clay. The constant need to change up the approach always kept us on our toes.
Virtua Tennis’ biggest strength, though, is its Career mode. Easily the best of any current tennis franchise, it’s executed beautifully on the Vita. Your created player is sent on a multi-year journey with the goal of reaching the top of the tennis rankings, and doing so involves a combination of choices and execution. Your short-term goals are making it to prestigious competitions, which you can only qualify for with a particular status. You can choose to enter events to boost that status, or train in mini-games that improve your attributes (which, naturally, is pretty important too). All the while, you have to be sure to move quickly enough through the calendar to make it to the major tournaments that cap each season.
Not only is the strategy of picking and choosing how to navigate the career brilliant, but each step along the way is engaging, varied, and perfectly bite-sized. The training exercises are less than two minutes, while matches can usually take under five. Even so, a full career will easily stretch ten or more hours, but it doesn’t come close to dragging. In fact, by the time we realized late in our first career we’d made some poor choices, it simply served as motivation to start another one and take a different approach.
As your career winds its way across the world, the difficulty increases incrementally and never feels cheap. Virtua Tennis also never takes itself too seriously, as evidenced by occasional events featuring players in costumes or tournaments taking place on cruise ships and futuristic arenas. The only real drawback of Career mode are the pointless doubles matches, a holdover from past Virtua Tennis games that are diminished this go-round but still present. It’s just not fun to play with and against 3 CPU-controlled players; the matches become interminable. Let’s be clear too – if you’ve played a ton of the console version of Virtua Tennis 4, most of this is very familiar.
A nice roster of male and female current players is offset by a lack of licensed tournaments, the only real missing link of Virtua Tennis. The juxtaposition of all the real-life players in fake events is strange. Online play is available over wi-fi, and works fairly well. Getting a ranked match against a random player is pretty easy, and you actually play the Arcade mode while you wait. Our only complaint about online is the lag on serves; there’s a delay at the button press, and it threw us off. Otherwise, online performed admirably.
Virtua Tennis 4 is a gorgeous, deep title that makes us happy to have our Vita – even if we have to deal with strangers watching us over our shoulders. It’s a small price to play for a heck of a game.