Sometimes in life, a couple of extra inches can make a big difference. Nintendo's new MotionPlus module is just a little plastic block that clicks into the end of your Wii remote, but its effect on the console is immediately evident: that floaty light control, the one that sometimes makes you feel utterly disconnected from what's happening on screen, is gone; in its place is something solid, responsive and natural.
My first encounter with MotionPlus took place last week, on a visit to check out some of the latest offerings from SEGA. The veteran publisher was keen to show off the partnership between Nintendo's new gadget and the forthcoming Virtua Tennis 2009, and it's not hard to see why: the two go together like fish and chips, like steak and fine red wine, like British sport stars and a disappointing failure to win big. In short, it's a great combo – but with EA's Grand Slam Tennis also warming up courtside, there's going to be a fierce battle before we know which game will rule the rackets.
While I've no doubt that the competition will be fierce between these two titles, Virtua Tennis may have a slight edge when it comes to controls. While Grand Slam uses the Wii remote's buttons to modify the type of shot you deliver, everything in VT 2009 is determined by the type of movement you make. Thanks to the presence of a gyroscope within the MotionPlus add-on, the remote is now capable of understanding and processing a lot more information about its direction and speed of movement. In practice, this means that the game is now far better at reading your movements – it'll even recognise backswing when you're winding-up for a shot. Forehand shots, backhanders, lobs... everything corresponds to the respective motion with the remote.
The upshot of this detail is that you actually begin to feel like you're playing a tennis match. As in most tennis games, timing is hugely important – but now you can actually control exactly where you want the ball to go. If you want to send Fuzzy Dunlop rocketing across to the opposite corner, you play an angled shot; if you want to hit it straight, try smacking the ball square-on. It's enormously satisfying to lure you opponent out of position before firing a shot that stretches far beyond their reach, and it seems closer to the real sport than anything I've seen before.
While VT 2009 on Wii gives you all but complete control of your racket, the actual movement of your character is fully handled by the console if you elect to play without a nunchuck. While I've yet to experience manual player control, I can certainly attest to the fact that the automated running seems pretty solid – leaving you free to concentrate on where you want to send your next shot. On a similar note, the game will also offer full support for gamers who decide not to invest in MotionPlus. Having rather fallen in love with the improved motion controls I was a tad worried about how the the “vanilla” version would compare, but as it turns out I needn't have worried. In standard play the game provides a small indicator over the player's head that assists you in timing your volleys: a small bar appears with a vertical line moving from left to right or vice versa, depending on the nature of the shot; hitting the ball when the line is near the centre will result in an accurate hit, while hitting it early or late will affect the angle of return. It's quite similar to Wii Sports Tennis, although the implementation feels a bit slicker. People playing with the standard setup should have an equal chance of beating a MotionPlus player, so you'll be able to humiliate your smug, deep-pocketed chums.
Regardless of how you're playing the game, you're bound to notice the effort SEGA has put into the visual side of things. The graphics are bright and sharp in typical Virtua style with a fairly impressive level of detail – particularly on the character models. SEGA also says that it's overhauled its player animations since the last Virtua Tennis, packing in a greater variety of stumble and lunging moves – apparently fans weren't too keen on the frequency with which people dived for shots in the last game. I've yet to see the game running on other platforms, but Wii owners should certainly be happy with the attention to presentation.
As far as series progression goes, SEGA has chosen to turn the career mode into more of an epic experience. While in the past you'd swiftly find yourself battling top-of-their-game tennis celebs, you'll now have to work a bit before you to get to take on the big names. Once you've built a character you'll to grind your way up through lesser leagues, developing your style and boosting your abilities as you go, so by the time you finally meet the likes of Nadal and Murray it should feel like a major confrontation. Interestingly, SEGA has chosen to blend online match-ups into standard tournament play, so you can be working towards the same goal regardless of whether you're playing the AI or a Mormon ski instructor on the other side of the world. Successful matches will reward you with cash that can be used to customise your player with clothes and accessories, and we're told that certain over-the-top items will only be accessible by the top-ranking players. Sombreros may not the best indicator of stature in real world tennis, but in VT a big hat may equal a big reputation.
On top of the proper tennis, we can also expect a range of tongue-in-cheek mini-games to help you practice your skills in less-than-realistic situations. One of these will apparently involve feeding zoo animals by hitting food at them – bamboo to pandas, chunks of meat to the lions and so forth. It sounds utterly daft, but also a lot of fun. These diversions will be present in all versions of the game, since SEGA is refusing to discriminate between platforms. It's a commendable approach that should please Wii owners who are used to getting the short end of the stick; indeed, if SEGA's claims are to be believed then this will be one of the biggest sports games to reach the console. Grand Slam Tennis is certainly going to put up a good fight, but Virtua Tennis is already looking to be a possible highlight of the Wii's 2009 calender.
Virtua Tennis 2009 is out on PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii later this month.