In the ten years since Virtua Tennis was released in arcades, it's hardly changed. Sure, the graphics have improved a bit, and the player roster has kept up with the times, but for all intents and purposes it's exactly the same game now that it's always been. Virtua Tennis 2009 is yet another in the series that shows just how slowly SEGA's famed franchise is evolving.
Playing the game sparks mixed emotions. On the one hand, SEGA's stubborn refusal to tinker with VT's arcade-style tennis engine is great, because it's so much fun to play. But on the other hand it's frustratingly disappointing. 2009 is so much like VT3, and VT2, and even VT, that playing it induces deja vu.
This is the conundrum. Do we criticise the game for being more of the same, or do we shower it with praise for being more of the same? We'll get to that, but first, a comparison is in order. 2K Sports' Top Spin, that other tennis series, has always played second fiddle to Virtua Tennis, but with Top Spin 3, released in June last year, developer PAM raised the stakes. It superbly simulated the game of tennis with wonderful graphics and realistic gameplay. Virtua Tennis' focus has always been on less realistic, fast-paced arcade gameplay, but Top Spin 3 showed tennis enthusiasts just what was possible on “next-gen” systems. Some people, in fact, thought it VT3's superior.
So, all eyes are on SEGA. Just what would its response to the Top Spin threat be? Would it revolutionise the Virtua Tennis experience? Would it dump the arcade gameplay for sim gameplay? Well, it's not really done much at all. In fact, given that the only tangible change to the gameplay is the replacement of player dives with player stumbles, and the only meaningful new game feature is the implementation of proper online play, you half suspect that Top Spin hasn't even registered on SEGA's radar.
Don't misunderstand. Every change and addition has benefited the series. And for some hardcore VT players, the gameplay tweaks will be the stuff of megatons. Without the annoying shot diving, rallies are longer. Lobs and drop shots are more useful (not so much against the computer). The game altogether plays more fluidly, with better, more realistic animations contributing to a slightly less bonkers game of tennis. It's still firmly set in its arcade roots, (the classic VT ball trail, enthusiastic umpire voice and ridiculously cheesy SEGA music just won't go away), it’s just a better game.
Bar these changes, there's little new to get excited about. There are loads of new courts. There's a new roster, which includes Andy “laid back” Murray, Roger “not as good as he used to be” Federer, Rafael “veiny guns” Nadal and Maria “legs” Sharapova. The World Tour plays out like it did before, with created players (via a more robust player creation tool) rising up the ranks towards world number one by winning tournaments. As before money earned can be spent on new gear from the shop. And, as before, you can make your player look like one hell of a tit, which you'll probably do, just because you can. Abilities are raised by playing the 12 mini-games, a Virtua Tennis trademark. Five are completely new, the best of which is undoubtedly Pot Shot, a nine ball mini-game that sees you serve the cue ball from the bottom of the screen onto an American pool table, adding spin with the thumbstick. It's great fun, actually, especially in multiplayer. And because your scores are fed into online worldwide leaderboards, don't be surprised to find yourself serving more breaks than aces. Oh, and Zoo Keeper's great, too.