There is no better sport for creating great video games than tennis. From Pong at the dawn of virtual time through to the storm of excitement that Wii Sports Tennis served up for the Launch of Nintendo's newest console, there is something about hitting a ball backwards and forwards that just works.
Virtua Tennis has always been the undisputed champion of tennis games, and the latest release proves that the series just gets better with time. It's been almost six years since the release of Virtua Tennis 2 on the Dreamcast, and the wait has been well worth it.
The structure of one-player Virtua Tennis 3 is a cross between the progress model of Gran Turismo 4 and the stat-harvesting element of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games, with plenty of RPG elements thrown into the mix. Usually, if any game that isn't an RPG tries to dabble with levelling up and the like, it falls flat on its face, but somehow Virtua Tennis 3 pulls it off with panache.
As you begin the World Tour mode, after designing you avatar and choosing a home, you are presented with two main tools. The first is a world map that could be straight from Gran Turismo 4 and the second is a calendar that allows you to choose when to enter tournaments, when to recuperate and when to train.
Initially the map is peppered with icons that take you straight to what appear to be rather silly mini-games. In fact, these superb nuggets of nonsensical racket swinging are actually cunningly disguised training tools that hone your skills in various areas. As you complete them your skills level up in everything from backhand stroke to footwork. These mini-games continue to appear through the game and can be returned to again and again at higher levels to further improve your abilities. You'll find yourself dodging giant tennis balls to improve your dainty footwork, knocking down bowling pins with your serve and defeating advancing tennis ball cannons in a sly nod to space invaders.
As you improve, various tournaments appear on the map allowing you to up your world ranking, giving you access to more and more testing events. It is here that the game opens up into a brilliant combination of arcade sports sim and tennis RPG. All the time you play, whether training or competing, time passes. In your first year, you may not rank high enough to enter some of the available competitions, meaning your time is better spent in practice. Push yourself too hard and an injury might stop you from playing for 10 weeks, levelling you down and stopping you from entering any tournaments. To prevent this you can rest at home for a week or holiday for three, but time your breaks well or miss vital games. A simulated email system helps you stay on top of things, and though it may sound a little complex, in practice it works very well indeed.
But enough talk of the structure of the game. Virtua Tennis 3 is obviously about tennis, and thankfully the in-game action is fantastic. Foregoing complex controls and instead replacing them with simple gameplay that demands timing and accuracy, the tennis itself is instinctive and addictive. The two next-gen versions of the game look nigh-on identical, and the animation in both is extraordinary, giving the whole experience a wonderfully natural feel. The improved quality and detail in characters' movements also mean that more seasoned players will be able to distinguish every different stroke and volley, giving them a huge advantage when preparing to return the ball, and allowing them to hone and improve their skills by observing the subtle details their finger movements make to each racket swing.
It must be said that as you complete the initial tournaments it feels just a little too effortless, but just as you start to sense that you are just playing Pong dressed up for the next-generation, things start to heat up. The game starts to really push you, showing off what it can do as nail-biting rallies and ego-boosting skill shots begin to fill every game, set and match.
The AI in the game is among some of the best yet seen in any sports title and is particularly brilliant in the doubles matches, where your team-mate seems to know exactly what you want them to do. Often you even feel outplayed by the tennis star you select to join you in a doubles match, but rather than frustrating you this only serves to push you harder.
Sadly the Sixaxis function of the PS3 version is rather useless and, like the completely misguided replay function that does a terrible job of framing your greatest moments, the motion sensitive controls feel like a last minute thought, bolted on in haste. The only other truly shameful parts of the game are the cringe worthy and badly presented cut scenes where your competitors and doubles partners 'interact' with you in the loosest sense of the word. Unnecessary and a little disturbing, before and after matches the official stars of the game jabber at you with mouths that seem to have one frame for open and one frame for shut, and though there is no voice acting, the text and animation have so little in common they only serve as accidental parodies of the kind of cheap imported adverts that demonstrate how bad lip-synching can be.
Sadly, the PS3 version is also lacking the fantastic online elements that are so great on the Xbox 360. Just like real life, tennis is a lot more fun with a friend than alone, and though the PS3 and 360 mulitplayer and mini-game versus modes are great, if Sony has played the 360 version online, they must surely realise that their fledging online service is missing out on what could have been one of its greatest first releases. Playable with up to four players online, the Xbox 360 release should be your first choice if you've got your consoles online.
Virtua Tennis 3 does nothing to revolutionise tennis games, but it is evident that continuing refinement has paid off as the series has developed. The game is as close to Pong as the London Philharmonic Orchestra is to a caveman banging a rudimentary drum and, continuing that analogy, Virtua Tennis 3 is just as primal and instinctive as its most ancient of relatives.