The king has had a long reign. SEGA's Virtua Tennis series has sat almost completely unchallenged as the premier tennis video game for years. Contenders have come and gone, yet few have been able to go a full five sets with the arcade master. Top Spin has been one of the better challengers, but after a few weeks with each of the previous two games we went straight back to VT. With Top Spin 3 we instantly felt like we were playing something with great potential. Like when a new wonder kid burst onto the scene, we were just praying it wouldn't slip off the rails.
Here's a tip: start with the game's training mode. You might well think that you've played VT so you'll be able to jump straight in to TS3, but you'd be wrong. We made that mistake and spent ten minutes wildly swinging and missing before admitting defeat and heading back to the main menu. TS3 doesn't play like VT. Instead of simply holding down the shot button and letting the game hit the ball, in TS3 you need to release the button (and swing) at the right moment - just about as the ball bounces on the court.
That's not all there is too it either. The more powerful the shot you're returning, the harder it is to time your swing. The position of your player is also vitally important. Stand too close to the ball and you'll just pop it back in the air, stretch for a return and you're likely to hit wide of the court or even hit into the net. In VT the court markings and net were more or less only there for show. In TS3 they play a part in the gameplay. Footwork and timing is essential, and your opening few games will make the differences between TS3 and VT extremely clear. This is no arcade game.
Serving too is a tricky skill to master. It works on the same hold and release principle and can see you miss the ball completely if you're not concentrating. Direction is handled by the length of time you hold the left analogue stick down, so this too also has to be factored in to your thinking. It's relatively easy to hit a fast serve, but much harder to smash one that forces your opponent wide or, better still, serve an ace. As in the real sport, a good serve makes all the difference, so you won't get far by simply dolling the ball over the net. More advanced players can even opt to use the right analogue stick to serve, which offers the ability to add spin to your serves.
The time you're able to hold the shot button down for (you've got standard, slice, top spin and lob/drop shot) plays a part in the shot's strength along with the timing of your release, but Top Spin 3 also brings back the risk shots from previous games. Holding the left trigger/L2 during a shot causes your player to go for the court markings, while holding right/R2 trigger results in a power shot. You can combine both for an extremely high risk shot. Timing and player placement is important during all shots, but when using the risk triggers you need to be spot on. Failure to time the ball correctly will see the ball flying wide or into the net.
Other buttons allow you to manipulate your position on the court. Holding left bumper/L1 during a shot will make your player return to a central baseline position after the swing, while holding right bumper/R1 forces him to move into the net - ideal after a well timed slice to the back of the court. From here you can control the net, volleying a winner if you're able to time your shot well enough. You can also use risk shot modifiers on volleys, if you're good enough.
You could spend hours playing TS3 with friends in the exhibition mode (choosing from the likes of Roger Federer, Andrew Murray and Maria Sharapova (Rafael Nadal is only in the PS3 game), but the core gameplay experience is found in the career mode. Here you'll work through the ranks, playing in small Amateur and Challenger events before breaking into the Junior and Pro tour. Here you'll take part in full seasons, playing in tournaments against real pros as you attempt to improve your world ranking. All the time you'll be earning XP for your created character (the included tools let you sculpt characters to your liking), allowing you to improve your service, return, forehand, stamina, backhand, volley, power and speed. Play well enough and you'll gain access to two additional Legend challenges.
TS3's career mode is as you'd expect, although lacking in anything above and beyond the norm. It's also quite unbalanced. Your opening matches during the Amateur and Challenger rounds are far too easy, and you'll likely breeze through without losing a single game, if a point. As soon as you enter the Junior stage things suddenly get a lot harder, with players severely overpowering your relatively weak player. It's not insurmountable, but far from a smooth transition.
Online play is included in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games, with both offering one-off matches and an online world tour. A world tour lasts fifteen days and sees players competing in tournaments for ranking position. Our games proved to be relatively lag-free on both consoles, although the timing of shots is slightly different to when playing offline. Thankfully it's not something that takes too long to get used too.
Top Spin 3 looks great. Player models are excellent and the animation is superb. Generally you'll see one animation blend seamlessly into another, putting it up there with the most impressive and life-like looking sports games ever made. The crowds let the game down somewhat, falling into the typical video game trap of looking completely out of place, but you won't be looking at them for the majority of your time on court. Differences between the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are minimal, although we did notice more stuttering in the PS3 game. Audio work features the usual background noise from the crowd and an array of grunting, but the soundtrack (which features The Stone Roses, Calvin Harris, Jamiroquai and Franz Ferdinand) simply doesn't fit.
Also of note is the lack of mini-games. Tennis games throughout the years have included a selection of light-hearted games to play when you need a break from pressured tournament play - often as part of your player's training. The included training/tutorial mode features exercises that could be seen as mini-games, but there's nothing here that equals what's seen in Virtua Tennis. It's not a huge loss, but worth noting if you're expecting something to be included.
Top Spin 3 is a great game of tennis. For years we've wanted a sim alternative to Virtua Tennis and now we have it. It's got depth to the gameplay that will take a fair amount of time to master and solid online play, but outside of the controls developer PAM hasn't tried to do anything unique. The career mode is a little too basic and the lack of mini-games is a disappointment. Top Spin 3 is by far the best tennis sim on the market, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.