Virtua Tennis 4 is a technological hussy; a game that jumps into bed with just about every bit of tech on the market. It snuggles up with Move, Kinect, Wii MotionPlus and still lavishes attention on your bog standard control pads, too. It loves a bit of 3D on your HDTV (PS3 version, only), and flirts with your friends (and indeed strangers) over Xbox LIVE and PSN. To ditch the rather strange metaphor: it ticks all the boxes. For Virtua Tennis fans (and I didn't realise what a hearty bunch they were until a recent preview event), VT4 is even more alluring because it sees the reigns of development returned to the capable hands of Mie Kumagai and the original Virtua Tennis team in Japan. Virtua Tennis 2009 was handled by UK-based Sumo Digital, you see, and while it wasn't a bad game, the general response from this event suggests the fourth iteration of the series has much more of a buzz about it.
Let's start by talking about how Virtua Tennis 4 incorporates the myriad of motion technologies. Interestingly, rival tennis series Top Spin has opted to eschew Kinect (as apparently this limits the tennis experience too much) but SEGA is firmly adopting the opposite stance. The first thing you'll notice - and this applies to the Move version, too - is that there's no method of player control. All of your footwork and positioning strategies are handled automatically, leaving you to worry about the angle and timing of your swing. The perspective shifts from third to first-person as your opponent sends the ball your way, with a ghostly hand and racket mimicking your movement on the screen. But Kinect can't distinguish between anything more complex than backhands, forehands and smashes. This essentially boils the whole experience down to a matter of timing, with even that being ruined thanks to a slight lag.
The Move version is less frustrating, primarily because it doesn't make you look like a madman engaged in a frenzied slapping competition with the air in front of the TV. Technically speaking it's more competent, too. With what feels like a slightly chunkier tennis racket in your hand, your movements are mapped one-to-one with no perceivable lag. As Move controllers can also detect the angle of your swing, you can be more technical with your shots and ball placement, too. If you want to play a tennis game in your living room, playing on PS3 with Move is the best way to forget the sofa and bookshelves and imagine you're on a real court.
You don't have to use motion controllers if you don't want to, of course, and core Virtua Tennis fans won't even consider the choice between a pad and motion controller to begin with. After playing Top Spin 4 the week before, however, I don't think SEGA's controller input felt quite as fluid, for lack of a better word. That to-and-fro, back-and-forth nature of tennis seems to come through a lot stronger in 2K's take on the sport. Virtua Tennis 4, as you might well expect from the series' roots, is the more arcadey option of the two. Perhaps the fancy dress mode that allows players to dress their tennis stars up in garish one-suits and silly hats gave me that impression. Please don't misinterpret my tone: this is a good thing.
Somehow I've managed to rattle off over 600 words without mentioning what is arguably the biggest change to VT4: the improved World Tour mode. Here, you create yourself a player and send them off around the world to rise through the ranks to tennis stardom. This four-season career mode stitches together matches with training, resting, giving interviews, signing autographs and attending charity events. While Virtua Tennis' previous career modes have been little more than a linear series of matches, VT4 hopes to add more depth to the formula with its variety of activities. A ticketing system governs how far you're able to move about a world map, meaning you must plot a path based on how you want to spend your time. You can spend up to 3 tickets at once, with certain stops on the circuit offering opportunities to purchase more.
There's also the Match Momentum feature, which allows players to execute certain abilities on the court by maintaining rallies. Once a gauge is filled with enough juice, you'll bank a special ability which can be used whenever you see fit. This skill changes from player to player, so while one player might unleash a killer volley, another might benefit from increased speed.
Virtua Tennis 4 also welcomes ten brand new mini-games, each masking a particular training regime. The wind match, for example, tasks you with maintaining a rally as blusterous gales attempt to drag your shots from their intended direction - compensating for wind speed is obviously the key to a high score. Other games have you timing your shots to knock clay pigeons out the sky, matching coins in a tennis themed take on Pairs and trying not to make a poker hand as you're forced to relentlessly fire off balls at a deck of cards. All of these games can be played in party mode, too.
Clearly a lot effort has gone into the motion side of Virtua Tennis 4, and while the existing VT fan base isn't likely to give two monkeys about it, many casual gamers/Wimbledon-inspired tennis fans are going to pick the game up for the novelty factor alone. It won't be fighting for that market by itself, however. Top Spin 4 will be on the court around the same time, and boasts the better control scheme out of the two. This is just one facet of the experience, however, and VT4 seems to play host to the bigger range of features. We'll find out which pulls in the bigger numbers in the coming months.
Virtua Tennis 4 will be released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii this spring.