EA hit first with its MotionPlus enabled Grand Slam tennis, but SEGA hasn't been resting on its laurels. Hot on the heels of Grand Slam is Virtua Tennis 2009, released just in time for Wimbledon and also packing in full MotionPlus support for the early adopters of Nintendo's new tech. So, can SEGA's long-running series steal the strawberries and cream from under EA's nose?
The key detail here is how the MotionPlus support is implemented. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we think EA's game offers a more tennis-like experience. While the addition of MotionPlus to Virtua Tennis 2009 makes it easier to play shots by feel, we didn't find it a huge improvement over plain Wii Remote use. Use it for some time and it'll be impossible to switch back, but if you want the sensation of real tennis EA's game edges it.
On the other side of the coin, without MotionPlus Virtua Tennis 2009 still plays a pretty good game, and here comes out on top of EA's game. The use of an on-screen timing meter helps you place shots with a pretty good degree of accuracy and the game feels considerably more arcade-like when played like this. Something to note is that the game fails to auto-detect what control set-up you're using, so get used to having to choose MotionPlus from the pre-game menu.
For those wondering what SEGA has been doing to the Virtua Tennis gameplay since it first hit the Arcades all those years ago, the list of changes isn't massive. Other than the feel of the game thanks to motion controls, it's essentially the game we've been playing for years. 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 - which is thankfully included and works well in the Wii version, shaming developers that cut such features from Wii ports.
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 (and can be performed here without pressing other buttons if you're using MotionPlus, unlike in Grand Slam Tennis). 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 a dash of variety to the World Tour is middle-class darling and ex-British number one Tim Henman, who pops up as your personal trainer, setting you loads of challenges that can be completed to help improve your player's abilities. Stuff like hit three backhand winners, or three drop shots, that sort of thing.
Still, Tiger Tim can't help save the World Tour from being a monotonous, dreary affair when played against the AI. Experienced VT players won't encounter anything remotely like a challenge until they break into the top ten. To get to that point, though, it's sports game grinding at its most mind-numbing. Play a tournament, win every game to love, raise a couple of places in the rankings, rinse and repeat. Snore. The computer really is so easy you'd have to be a comatose, armless baboon not to win.
While Virtua Tennis 2009 on Wii looks a little rough compared to the next-gen versions, many will prefer it to the cartoony appearance of Grand Slam Tennis. The players are all recognisable and the courts are nicely detailed, with the only big letdown being the occasionally jumpy frame rate. The Wii might be able to do better, but we're just glad that SEGA has managed to make a Wii version of a multi-format game that doesn't look like it was created in an afternoon.
Despite the fact that all the evidence suggests Virtua Tennis is a series stuck in a rut, Virtua Tennis 2009 is still great fun and this Wii version feels different enough that it'll be worth a shot for many. The original 1999 Virtua Tennis engine is so good that it provides, even a decade later, one of the most compelling multiplayer experiences not just in sports games, but in all games. If you want a more realistic tennis experience, and better MotionPlus controls, go for Grand Slam Tennis, but SEGA's game is unlikely to disappoint the majority.