|System: X360, PS3||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: PAM Development||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: 2K Sports||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: June 23, 2008||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-4||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Everyone||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Jason Lauritzen
Tennis tends to get a bad video game rap. It's a shame it often carries the tag of "nothing more than a glorified version of Pong" because it's really so much more than that. Sure, there is the constant back-and-forth of play, but there are subtleties beneath the surface - the ability to add different kinds of spin affects the bounce of the ball; the texture of the court (whether it be grass, clay, or hard) can lessen or speed up the pace of racquet exchanges; and then there's the human element - each player has their own quirks, whether it be speed, stamina, or preferred shots. Translating all those elements into actual video game components that feel right is not an easy task.
For years, gamers have flocked in the direction of SEGA's Virtua Tennis series, simply because it disregards actual tennis conventions. Instead of rewarding proper footwork, flawless racquet motion, and a keen awareness of the court conditions, SEGA went in the arcade direction. It was almost a way of saying, "Forget the proper tennis stuff; just get near the ball and mash a button." That development mentality makes for an immediately gratifying experience, but sacrifices depth in the process. With Top Spin 3, 2K Sports has run headfirst in a simulation direction, leaving arcade-like concepts in passing. What this does is splinter the potential audience: gamers who want depth and a more lifelike experience will appreciate what Top Spin 3 offers, but those looking for a quick tennis fix will be completely turned off.
Before venturing into any of the game's modes, you'll spend some time in Top Spin School. The game doesn't force players to pass all the classes available, but it might as well - the skills you learn in this mode are absolutely necessary. Starting nice and slow, these tutorials introduce you to controller basics such as hitting the ball flat, adding topspin, and chopping with slice. Nailing those kinds of shots is much easier in theory than in practice. Each type of shot is tied to one of three buttons, and the key is proper footwork and solid timing. If you get too close to a ball or aren't lined up properly, your player will completely miss the shot - twitch gaming tactics are not rewarded. The shot process almost comes off as counter-intuitive at first: the longer you hold the shot button down before taking a swing, the more power and accuracy you get.
Getting the hang of swinging your racquet requires a sizable time investment. The key is holding down the shot button almost before the ball heads in your direction and then timing your release at just the right moment. It takes a while to get to the point where this all clicks in a comfortable manner, but when it does it feels like a much more solid tennis experience than Virtua Tennis. The only problem is exactly when it does click. Case in point, during many of the online matches played for this review, it was obvious players split into two groups: those who had a grip on the controls (and in turn played like pros) and those who whiffed every other shot.
Now, those are just the basic controls. Baseline rallying - with a decent opponent - can go on almost indefinitely if you don't learn how to use special shots. These include powerful put-aways, drop shots, lobs, and specialty serves. Put-away shots require holding down one more button, but the results (when timed right) are worth it: the ball rockets across the court, making your opponent scramble. With time, they are easy to pickup, but your first batch of attempts will likely result in shots that are slightly out and balls clipping the top of the net. Drop shots and lobs are a trickier affair because they rely on holding down a specific button combined with a touch of finesse on the right thumbstick. Serving can be done with a simple button press corresponding to a spin type or can be accomplished with just the right thumbstick. The former results in a serve that's almost always in, but the latter produces more speed and spin; the only problem is the execution. You start the serve with the thumbstick, then snap it forward (the faster you do this, the more speed you get). However, timing it is a pain; more often than not the ball will just hit you in the head.