Sitting on a sofa made entirely of grass, I sat and watched Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer engage in a fearsome court battle. Tennis balls rolled around my feet, and a nearby table was furnished with bowls of strawberries and cream. If it wasn't for the fact it was mid-January and I was sat in a trendy sports bar in London, I would have been forgiven for thinking I was on Henman Hill in July watching the Wimbledon final. In actuality, it was Remi Ercolani and Stephane Dupas, game designer and studio head of 2K Czech, displaying Top Spin 4 on a rather large projector screen; the 2K doubles team talking me through the next iteration of the Top Spin series.
The pair weren't afraid to admit previous mistakes. The biggest problem facing Top Spin 3, they explained, was how daunting the experience was for new players. For a sport that is essentially hitting a ball back and forth across a net (although I'm aware there's slightly more to it than just this), the control set-up was incredibly intricate. The fourth iteration of the series is being designed with accessibility in mind, but the developers are well aware of the fact that they can't skimp on depth. Top Spin 4 is easy to pick up and play, yet deep and strategic at the same time. Paradoxical comments such as these are thrown around a lot in press releases and such, but I get the impression it's true with Top Spin 4.
The new control scheme focuses around the balance of speed and power. The longer you hold down a button - A for a normal shot, Y for a lob, B for top-spin - the more power you'll get out of it. Winding up the strength in your arms to do this, however, takes time. If you're legging it across the breadth of the court to return a shot, be prepared to sacrifice all your power for speed. If, on the other hand, you're giving your opponent the run around, you can give yourself enough time to power up your next shot. The controls might be simplified somewhat, but the game is still rife with positioning strategies and ball placement tactics. Once you've grown accustomed to the controls (which takes all of five minutes), you'll learn the key to success is targeting your opponent's weaknesses and learning to exploit them, just as you might in a fighting game.
This is no mere coincidence; the development team has taken precious time out of creating volley animations and messing with the physics of different surfaces to play a host of fighting games. The notion of attack, defence, combos and counters was something that 2K realised translated well to tennis. It's not just the fighting genre that has influenced Top Spin 4, however; Dupas also referenced driving games as a point of inspiration. This becomes apparent when you consider the new assist system, which compliments the game's emphasis on accessibility. Depending on your toggle in the menu screens, you can have every serve, shot and return paired up with on-screen notifications of how well you did. Cock up a volley and you'll be told that you did it wrong, with an early or late indicator letting you know how to improve your next attempt.
2K Czech recognises the fact that it's not just tennis fans that play Top Spin. It's simple enough for anybody to pick up and play, but those without in-depth tennis knowledge might miss out on certain tricks. The Academy is for these less informed players; an elaborate tutorial that teaches you how to think like actual tennis players. It tells you how to move after you've returned a ball, where to position yourself, when to loiter about the net, when to use a lob - all the things that might escape the comprehension of gamers who don't play tennis in the real world.
As well as all the biggest names in tennis (an impressive roster was revealed recently, in fact), Top Spin 4 allows players to create a custom character to put through their paces in a championship mode. As you rise through levels 1 to 20, you'll tailor your character according to how you want to play the game. You might choose to improve your speed and volleys, or go all out for power. Your character's style of play and overall level is determined by two fundamental attributes: offence and defence. So, you might have a four in offence and a six in defence, with your overall level being 10. You'll never have a character with 'max stats', but you can create tennis players who are exceptional at a certain style of play. Complimenting player development is a new coaching system. By choosing a teacher and assigning him (or her) to your character, you can add bonuses to your stats and activate skills. Coaches specialise in certain areas, so you'll want the right trainer for the style of play you're hoping to nurture.
Dupas confirmed the PS3 version of the game would support PlayStation Move, but I was unable to see this in action. He admitted a Kinect version would be more difficult, hence why the game won't support it. "You need to move your character around, do your shots. To simplify that would off-balance the game," he said. It seems there's a necessity for bat, club and racket games to support these new motion technologies, but with the refinements seen in Top Spin 4, 2K Czech has proven that the pad is still the most precise control method available.
I went hands-on after the presentation, taking on Remi at his own game. Given my lack of experience with tennis games, I was impressed how quickly I picked up the basics, and, more importantly, just how much I enjoyed it. It was as Stephane had said: this is not something that just tennis buffs are likely to enjoy. The responsiveness of the controls and general rhythm of a match are something gamers of all walks of life are likely to enjoy. It's similar to NBA Jam, in that respect.
Top Spin 4 is gearing up to be the most accessible tennis game yet. The word seems to carry a certain stigma with it these days(a point we discuss in Episode 60 of Back On Topic, but that really shouldn't put hardcore fans of Top Spin and Virtua Tennis off. It simply means that Top Spin 4 is better in the control department than its predecessors, and much easier for first-time players to acquaint themselves. The comprehensive character development tools and sheer scope for strategy on the court make Top Spin 4 as deep and rewarding as any previous game in the series. It should go without saying, but tennis fans might want to pop March 18 in their diaries.
Top Spin 4 is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii on March 18, 2011.