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.
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.
The World Tour improves by a factor of about a billion when it's played online. Via the Online HQ, you're able to take your created character and enter fictional tournaments or play one off ranked matches. Win and you'll get points that feed into your overall singles and doubles rankings. Slight lag mean it's not as good as local play, but this is Virtua Tennis 2009 at its very best.
Some will bemoan the fact that online ranked games can only be played with your created character, and it's an understandable position. Players who put the time into the boring offline World Tour will theoretically have higher level characters, ruining the level playing field being able to play with pros would have created. But this is hardly new to online games. CoD 4 doesn't suffer newbies gladly. Neither does Killzone 2. The problem here isn't with forcing created characters into online ranked matches, but the way you need to level up through the dull World Tour.
The official blurb says the Virtua Tennis match engine has seen "extensive" updates, but to be honest the game doesn't look much better than it did in 2007. In the normal in-game view it looks great, with lovely, fluid player animations (the way players slide from side to side is brilliant, as is the way they chop back hard to reach shots then spin back to face the net). It's all complimented by some neat effects, including on court cloud shadows. Up close, however, the game often looks ugly. Player clothing suffers from that horrible waxwork plague that afflicts so many sports games, and the lighting appears garish. There's a good deal of clipping, too. My created character's racket would mysteriously float next to his hand, as if by magic, when held aloft in triumphant victory. And while the licensed player faces look great (Murray especially is unnervingly lifelike), they lack anything approaching human emotion, with expressions you'd expect from a face pumped full of silicon. It's not as if sports games can't do better. You just have to look at the standard bearer for sports game graphics, FIFA 09, to see what can be done.
Despite the fact that all the evidence suggests Virtua Tennis is a series stuck in a rut, Virtua Tennis 2009 is still great fun, especially in multiplayer. 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. It feels like a cop-out to let the game off for this, but it's unavoidable. Watching this series evolve is like watching the white-painted lines on Centre Court dry, but it's still impossible to put down. Virtua Tennis 2009 is the best in the series by virtue of iteration, but justifying forking out £45 for what feels like little more than a roster update is getting pretty hard, especially with Top Spin challenging for that coveted world number one tennis game ranking. Right now VT is holding it off. But for how long?