Virtua Tennis and I have a long standing history. There used to be an arcade in the Vancouver area called Playdium which featured the original Virtua Tennis set on a projection screen. That 15x15 screen was my introduction to Sega's long standing series, and though I could never beat the tournament mode myself, I still had lots of fun.
We met very briefly on the Dreamcast for Virtua Tennis 2, and again more in-depth for the 360's releases of Virtua Tennis 3 and Virtua Tennis 2009. Basic gameplay still remained the same, but a home release meant a robust experience of mini-games and career modes. I remained a huge fan, though I was a bit put off by the fact that the 2009 edition was a couple small graphical tweaks and less impressive mini-games. That one sits on the back of my gaming shelf while Virtua Tennis 3 still logs a few hours every couple months. Needless to say, I was excited about the release of Virtua Tennis 4, and curious to see how it translated with the Kinect.
Something about Virtua Tennis that has always stood out is its layout. The Japanese developers have always retained a very Japanese identity to the Virtua Tennis series. It feels like I'm stepping into a Japanese anime every time I come to play, and the intro video here does nothing to dispel that notion, playing a cheesy sounding song of determination and victory over a video that can only be described as Jackson Pollock meets a 1st year graphic designer and a bad back room lounge singer and cranks out the student's art project final. Then we go into the usual mix of brightly colored futuristic menus, uncharacteristic music and arcade-inspired sounds. It's a homecoming of sorts. Welcome back to Virtua Tennis. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.
Let's first start by dealing with the elephant in the room that has waited for its turn every since it was announced - The Kinect Mode. Every Virtua Tennis gamer with a Kinect is wondering how it turned out, and whether this is going to be a series defining moment for the franchise. I hope it isn't, because the Kinect mode is very awkward. At no point did I, nor anybody I was playing the Kinect mode with ever get used to the awkward state of the Kinect mode. It's creative yes. You and your opponent (or doubles partner) stand next to each other in a vertical split screen and use yours hands as tennis racks mimicking every facet of the game of tennis. The downfall here is it is fairly unclear whether you have to run from one end to another to chase the ball, and you will find yourself whiffing at many corners trying to do backhands. In fact, it's best to just cheat the Kinect and use your opposite hand forehand to do a backhand. With the limited space many people have in their living rooms, it will be difficult to properly play up what this mode is expecting you to do. Fortunately, there's also a party mode with tennis based mini games you can play which is slightly better, but not by much. Again, it's a bit unclear how you should be moving, where you should be standing and what the ideal positioning is in this game. I'd treat Virtua Tennis 4's Kinect mode as a freebie or bonus, and nothing but. It's nothing to write home about, and won't be the reason you should be buying this game. Let's call it a work in progress and leave it at that.
First up with controller-based play is Arcade mode. Much like before, the exhibition mode consists of 4 stages - representing each "tennis major." I quotate the previous because much like previous games, they aren't ATP/WTA licensed, so Sega does not have naming rights to the major tournaments. In the exhibition mode, you have the opportunity to control any of the regular roster players, or your created player (which happens in world tour mode, which we will cover later.) Sega's promise to keep the rosters current, is, well, somewhat true I suppose. Every player represented IS currently playing tennis, however, the representation has a bit left to be desired. Basically, what Sega's done here is ported over all the players from Virtua Tennis 3 and 2009 that are technically still playing tennis (or let me rephrase - not retired since I don't think Tommy Haas has played in a couple years now) and added a few additional new characters, the only unquestionable one being Caroline Wozniacki. Perhaps the other names included (like Juan Martin Del Potro) are indicative of how long this game has been in development, as Del Potro WAS a top 5 player at one point, and a couple of the other new players were in the top 20 as well, but no longer are. Fernando Gonzalez, for example, is a new addition, but after rising to #5 in 2007, he's nowhere to be found in the top 300 players. We've also lost David Nalbandian and his herculean in-game grunts.
Anyway, while I continue grasping at straws, you should know the controls here are exactly the same, as is the basic layout and many of the graphics. However, many of the gameplay similarities stop there. As I mentioned before, Virtua Tennis 2009 was criticized for the fact that it was basically a glorified Virtua Tennis 3 skin pack. If you have played the series enough, you'll quickly see the beneficial gameplay tweaks. You have better control of the ball's flight path and the game recognizes better how and where you hit the ball, making your preparation for a shot that much more crucial. No longer can you get away with gimme shots from bad angles that would have no realistic chance of working on a real tennis court. If your player has a special skill (ie. hard hitter,) you'll also notice a purple meter filling up as you use whatever the player's skill is. When filled, it will flash and ripple from the middle out. What this means is you can set up a power shot if done from the right angle. For example, a hard hitter must set themselves up to hit a decent return, and then you hit the B button and the direction in which you want to hit it (the direction can be changed any time leading into when the ball is finally hit.) It will cut to a quick on-the-fly slow motion scene where your player will wire the ball at top speed into the area you asked for it to go. You can do this once per meter, but as many times in the match as you fill your meter up. You should get at least one per standard 2 game set. Once you have completed the 4 tournaments, you play a legend in an exhibition boss battle. After you play the world's best, such as Federer and Nadal, and you beat them down, who could possibly be standing in your pathway to supremacy? None other than...JIM COURIER. Courier's hardly a name that strikes fear in tennis hearts, especially once you've played 2 grand slam winners beforehand, but he was a 4 time major winner, and I admit, one of my favorite tennis players as a kid. Courier's somehow at least 10 times better than your previous opponents, but easily beatable if you can hammer baseline shots at him and position him to offer you smash winners as you approach the net. You then complete arcade mode after beating him. It should be noted that Courier is the only legend on the 360 version, though hopefully this changes with DLC.
Exhibition mode is just as it was before as well, only you play just the one match. There's no need to describe this
further, as it is what it is - a pick up and play type of style. Your court choices are limited in exhibition mode, but will increase as you play different courts and tournaments in World Tour Mode. This is the game's single player bread and butter, and what we will cover next.
In past years, World Tour was simply a globe with a "week at a time" calendar with activities and a stamina meter where you played mini tournaments to bolster your ranking. The World Tour here has been completely revamped. It's now a 4 season (one per major) board game style where you decide whether you want to bolster your skills, or focus on your ranking. Rather than ranking numbers, it is now done through a star system. As you compete in tournaments, or tend to publicity events for fans, you will gain more stars which will propel you toward high rankings, and qualifications for tournaments (you will need to have a certain number of stars to qualify for each tournament. You don't have to have a max number to qualify for majors, as you can simply go through a qualifying tournament beforehand.) I can't stress enough how much fun this mode is, though there are a few little annoyances. Like before, you must balance your stamina and your activities and entering tournaments, but this time, your stamina plays a bigger factor. If your stamina is in the red as you go into a match, you will have a nagging injury cramp up and annoy you in your ensuing matches, however, Sega's way of portraying this injury is having your character move at the speed of a turtle for the first couple steps and then regular speed. You never know when the character will break through that turtle speed, and the game will never give you an indication so you will either watch the ball fly by you helplessly, or you will be jamming the control stick so hard you will run past somehow. This stamina feature is the biggest hindrance to the entire career mode. There will be times where you will go into a tournament with full stamina, and end with none simply because of the way the game does its in-tourney stamina drain. This then injures your player going into the next tournament and takes a certain amount of "days" (turns at progressing on the map) away from them, only the game seemingly has no concept of time. I've lost 7 days before due to something I couldn't help, and in a 56 turn season, losing 1/8th of it is unacceptable. To get your stamina meter up to avoid this ridiculousness, you have to play training exercises and pass them frequently. However, with the fact that you must balance getting stars with training, I will say that it might take you 2, maybe even 3 plays at the World Tour mode before your character is capable of winning all the majors. The World Tour mode itself is approximately an hour per season if you play it through and don't just rush from point A to point B, and the mini games are fun enough that you probably won't mind. World Tour mode outside of the inexplicable crazy that is stamina hindrance is a huge win, and a massive step in the right direction. In fact, I dare say this mode alone makes the game worth purchasing, and we haven't even talked mini games yet.
The new mini games in Virtua Tennis 2009 were so bad that I held out little hope for this year's edition, however, they've started to make a believer out of me again. Every mini game this time around is pretty fun with the exception of the annoying soccer serving game where you have to serve a soccer ball into a net past a goalie and later defenders (unless you have a perfect serve every time, expect to have difficulties with this past level 1.) They dropped the infinitely enjoyable avalanche, however, and replaced it with...nothing. They kept a form of the shopping cart game from VT2009 and replaced it with you delivering hatched eggs back to mother hens. In exchange for dropping avalanche, however, they did also get rid of all the other unenjoyable mini games too, like the pirate ship, and that bizarre game where you had to volley hams at the alligators.
The effectiveness of XBox Live was too hard to gauge. None of my opponents did anything but stand still and send back easy lobs, and I couldn't tell if this was some sort of online boosting tactic, or if the system was broken and unresponsive. The connections, for what its worth, seemed to be very fast, and the loading time was great with no hanging, slowdown or freezing. This has never been a problem with any of the Virtua Tennis series, however, and I don't see why it would be here either.
That about ties it up for this review. Let's take a look at the individual ratings.
Graphics: 7.5/10. The graphics here have neither improved nor worsened from the previous games. They aren't bad, but they aren't great. While nothing ever glitches, flashes or crashes, they're still unspectacular at best. It wouldn't be much of a stretch here to say that these were the same graphics I saw as the first time I played Virtua Tennis 1, but I'd be exaggerating as they are somewhat improved. Somewhat. They are good enough for this game, however, since if you've played the series before, you know it's a cartoony arcade-style experience.
Sound: 8/10. Once again, sound effects, grunts, and music are perfectly serviceable for this game. They've redone all the music, and they all sit in the background better, as well it should be. Hitting the ball doesn't seem to have the same punishing effect as it did before, however, the noises are well within reason and they don't overpower the whole experience, which is a problem I've had in the past with some of the earlier Top Spin games. I would like to hear a bit more realism in the grunting in the future though, and perhaps a bit more with footwork and running, especially on clay courts. I understand this isn't a simulation game, but I don't think it's too much to ask.
Controls: 9.5/10. Stamina based problems are really a gameplay mechanic flaw, so I can't detract it from the control score. What Sega has done here is bought into the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, and left the basic controls as is, however, tweaked everything that needed fixing. As mentioned before, you can steer your shots better, and are expected to prepare and anticipate the angles of your shots better. As a result, you get a much better and much more accurate tennis playing experience. Balls don't fly out of bounds with such relative ease anymore, and you can aim your shots in corners perfectly. You can no longer win with impossible to return/realistically do drop shots, however, it's now harder to do those great slices and drop shots too. In exchange for these great control tweaks, serving within the boundaries are a bit harder, but considering
Gameplay: 8.5/10. Virtua Tennis is a game where you probably know what you're getting into at this point, outside of that awful Kinect mode and the hard to swallow questionable stamina draining during tournaments in World Tour (I should add it isn't a problem anywhere else.) While I can't penalize much for the Kinect mode (since again, I treat it as nothing but a freebie at best,) it's a huge problem in your first few play throughs in World Tour, to the point where it will keep you from winning major tournaments. You can breeze through all the matches until the end, only to find you can barely move in the finals, and can't take the low road and retire early from the match. If I could provide Sega with one development point for any future patches, it would be to heavily re-assess this mode because in trying to provide a somewhat realistic player career pathing experience, this is far too unrealistic. Nobody in their right mind is going to cruise through a tournament at 100% and suddenly pull up so lame in the finals that they can't even win a return point, let alone a game, a set or a match. Outside of this? No other gameplay flaws I can think of that are worth mentioning, and if you have read my reviews, you know I dwell on the small things a lot.
Overall, Sega's put a lot of effort into this game in the 4 years since they released the last big one (Seriously, Virtua Tennis 2009 needs to be stricken from the record as never having happened.) I just wish they would have put a tad more effort into signing bigger tennis names to it because this really isn't an accurate representation of some of the constant big names in tennis from week to week. There's no sign of tennis' breakout stars of the last couple years like Robin Soderling, Mardy Fish, Li Na or Francesca Schiavone. In fact, Justin Henin, one of Tennis' biggest names of the last 10 years has never been in a Virtua Tennis game while she was in Top Spin 3, so you know it's possible to acquire her name. Once again, it's my hope that Sega will in fact pull some DLC magic with this game and release a more expansive roster for the 360. Losing Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pat Rafter to another platform was bad enough, but in a day and age when a more graphic and resource heavy game like UFC Undisputed can support a roster of 70 unique fighters, there's no excuses for Virtua Tennis.
For what it's worth, however, this is a fantastic game by every stretch of the imagination. Those who have waited 4 years for another installment will not be disappointed. The truest of true hardcore fans that continue to regard Virtua Tennis 2 as the greatest thing since sliced bread might want to give this one a try because this game is closer to that than 3 and 2009 were. If you're looking for a higher level simulation, Virtua Tennis is not, and has never been for you, however, if you're looking for the best tennis game for your buck, and something you can sit and play for hours and hours by yourself, or with your friends who just want a fun tennis experience overall, Virtua Tennis 4 is the game to get. Just pray Sega gives you a bigger roster as time goes by.
Suggestions: Please fix that crazy stamina drain in career mode. You can't be serious that an opening round match against a low seed takes away as much stamina as a semi-final and leaves you with nothing for the final.
Also, DLC roster expansion that's fairly inexpensive? Something that turns me off of buying more DLC characters in other sports games is the cash grab of $2 or $3 per character. Something a bit more cost effective (realistically, 40-80 MSP max?) would be a great strategy. I'd only buy 2 or 3 characters if they were $3 each, but I'd be happy to maybe buy everybody if you made it pretty cheap. Things like packs of 10 ATP or WTA players for 400 MSP.