Publisher 2K Sports and developer Indie Built/PAM must have figured that giving Top Spin 2 more time before they fired it out the gates was a smart move. Much like Ubisoft's decision to delay Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, we concur. The preview builds we played at IGN, even in February, were early, and as such, difficult to appreciate. However, for those who love a tough, demanding game of videogame tennis, the final box copy of Top Spin 2 is solid, if uninspired.
Top Spin 2 picks up from the first Xbox game, Top Spin, which gleaned its magic from SEGA's Virtua Tennis series, and moves into well-known territory. Virtua Tennis showed the world how to intuitively control players around the court while making hitting the ball just as simple and intuitive. SEGA's game started in the arcades, and its tight gameplay and addictive nature helped spark numerous tennis games from Namco and Konami, each with far less success than SEGA's game. Indie Built/PAM understood the game's arcade nature and has captured its quick and easy feel, but it's turned the screw tighter than Virtua Tennis ever did. Though the basic controls are generally easy to come to grips with, mastering them goes beyond simple arcade mechanics and it's in the fine-tuning of some subtle mechanics that the game both achieves success and mingles with trouble.
Top Spin 2 is a one- to four-player tennis game that fashions a simulation sensibility onto an arcade design. It comes complete with 24 licensed men and women professionals, 19 courts from across the globe, and four modes of play, exhibition, career, party games, and Xbox Live online play. Offline, the game is good standard fare. You can play singles or doubles with one or three other humans or you can vie online with three others. And you can mix sexes in both doubles and singles matches on and offline.
The Exhibition mode is interesting from a difficulty standpoint. The pro players' skills are all maxed out, so they're instantly and incredibly good. Second, the list of deeper, hidden swings and attacks is large, so it's highly advisable to check the manual or play through Career mode before just jumping in. To be honest, if you just pick this game up for the first time, the exhibition is intimidating as hell. It's like Indie Built/PAM built this game strictly with veteran players in mind. It's fine with me, I like the challenge. But don't expect to find pick-up-and-play qualities here: Exhibition is not the open gateway it should be.
The Career mode is really the best place to start. Here gamers commence on a deep, long-lasting pro tennis career and follow it through several seasons as they switch coaches, enter a dozen or so mini-games for training, earn money, build their skills, and develop into a pro. Career will easily last you a good 15 to 20 hours for the first few seasons, and you'll genuinely develop your player from nobody to a highly skilled pro athlete. The launch pad for this potentially successful career begins with the create-a-player tool, which is deep yet troublesome. It's packed with software menus enabling players to create the most bland or hideous creatures this side of Frankenstein's laboratory. Try as you may, but creating a hot-looking female player or even a decent looking male player is a tough task. It's far easier to create alien creatures from the black lagoon clothed in prim tennis whites. I fashioned a man with no mouth and a flattened head. His jaw is physically impossible for Mother Nature to re-create, and each time I look at him it hurts. Yet, he's a pro player in the worldwide top 50, earning thousands of dollars a year to play. My little tennis monster. No doubt you'll have fun creating your own player, but don't count on them getting dates after a match.
Honestly, the create-a-player tool is extensive -- and a littler laborious and unrewarding -- if you want a decent looking player. But this tool is just a launching point. The career mode is a long, interesting process, mixing some great gameplay and real character-building stats with cumbersome menus, unrelenting load screens and load times, and a real current-gen design. The gameplay is there, however, and the game will become a great and satisfying one, once you get the hang of it. Progressing through a career takes a good three seasons before real things start shaping up. For instance, once you get into the third season, the nifty momentum meter (upper left-hand side of the screen), provides devastating left trigger attacks. The momentum meter elevates the game to a new level this way, adding to its already statistical benefits.
While you'll no doubt become frustrated with the load times in Career mode, there are both beneficial and superficial customizations worth making. Using a multi-tab menu, you can check emails, stylize your player with different clothes, sunglasses and other fashion items, check your profile, or switch coaches. You'll want to continually practice with different coaches to hone skills, and by adding bronze, silver and gold stars to your characteristics profile, you'll see distinct upgrades in performance. The worst part about the coaches is that the leave really stupid messages on your "email." The kind of stupid messages that are almost as funny as they are bad. You'll also nab sponsorships and get a fan club. All of these little things are simple fun.
Overall, the Career system works well, even if its design isn't terribly innovative. You'll spend an equal amount of time training as you will playing, resulting in a very powerful final player, who you can then take and play with online. But it takes quite a while before any major results take place. First example: Obtaining better skills takes several seasons. Second example: You'll have to skip a whole lot of tournaments due to a lack of balance between the tournaments and training. You're likely to run out of money, too, potentially forcing you to skip If the load times were fewer and less lengthy, and the balance was a little tighter, I would have loved this mode, as opposed to liking it.tourneys and even switch to a cheaper coach for a spell.
The game proper, the actual game of videogame tennis, is very interestingly handled. It's basically a deeper, less arcade-style Virtua Tennis, with specialty swings, hard-hitting professionals, and a few techniques whose rewards aren't usually worth the risks. It's also got a much steeper learning curve than its predecessor or Virtua Tennis, so it's harder to get into unless you're totally dedicated and patient. If you're a noob, you may not have the patience. It's almost like Indie Built/PAM make Top Spin 2 exclusively for those who bought the first Top Spin, with little consideration to newcomers.
There are two kinds of specialty attacks, which distinguish this game from its competition and predecessor. Once you earn the right to use left-trigger attacks and build up the momentum meter, unleashing sharp angle slices, top spins, and lobs becomes easier and more devastating to the opponent. These enhance the game and reward dedicated players with better skills. Using the right-trigger attacks requires a different kind of technique. Just like the power serve -- in which you press the right trigger to pull up a mini-meter to pull off an overwhelming power serve -- a handful of specialty moves enable similar attacks. By pressing the right trigger just before making contact with the tennis ball, a mini-meter pops up, indicating a risk/reward specialty shot. The idea is an excellent one. But the implementation goes counter to the flow, rhythm, and nature of the game. You're likelier to skip these right-trigger moves because, first, they're distracting. They're also really hard to nail on a regular basis. You'll be lucky to nail them 15-25% of the time. Getting good with these is tough, but it's also intuitively counter the flow of the game. During the heat of a competitive match, at deuce, in the final point of a game, you're almost assuredly not going to use them.
Then there are the basic controls. They're good, responsive controls with solid mechanics to back them up. The A button is your friend, and the longer you press it once you find a set position, the harder and better you'll hit the ball. Indie Built/PAM nailed the controls with great technique, gleaning some of the best mechanics from SEGA's masterpiece. Unlike the Namco and Konami attempts, these guys really get it right and competitive play against three others in a doubles match off line, or in a mono-a-mono match online can be incredibly rewarding. The B button is top spin and the X button is slice, while Y is lob. Using these successfully is really the key to Top Spin 2, especially X and B, which won't always go in when you want them too.
The most annoying, almost broken move in the game is the overhead lob. It works fine from the perspective of an offensive player. As a defending player covering the net, however, you're rarely able to successfully react to a slow lob. You have to be perfectly within the ball's narrow recognition circle to enact with it. If not, your pro usually just walks away, even if he can anticipate the attack and is somewhat close. To successfully counter it, you can't play too close to the net, instead hovering around mid-court to ensure the game recognizes your proximity to the ball. This interaction clearly needed more tuning and better balancing.
I'm also in a love/hate relationship with the B and X buttons. Top Spin 2 is the kind of game that makes you talk smack to the computer or opponent. If you walked over to my desk in the past five days you will have heard these things: "Aw! come on!" "WHAT???! That's B******T!!! What the F****??? That didn't go in???" You've got to be kidding me???!!!!" Is this game f*** broken????!!!!" The fact is, using and mastering the slice and the top spin attacks can be infuriating. I usually go with the belief that if the game seems too hard, then I just haven't grown accustomed to the controls yet. With Top Spin 2, X and B attacks don't drop as often as they should, especially when using professional players. They take a light touch as opposed to A button's heavy touch. Seems pretty logical that the longer you hold them the better the shot would be. Still, both are generally balanced and well worth regularly risking.
The online addition really makes Top Spin 2 an addictive piece of software. It's not terribly deep, but the full game functions really well online. You can enter into a quickmatch or a custom match, and you can play singles, doubles, or mixed doubles match -- and you can bring your customized character online. (At least that's what 2K Sports says. We were unable to import our custom character into an online game.) And you can pick a ranked or unranked game. I played on a bunch of different surfaces against a few different players and found the online game to be technically sound and incredibly fun. The online portion is far more fun than the trite mini-games, which, to me, just felt like a waste of time. The mini-games include Time Bomb, Wall Breaker, and Splash Court, and each one is playable for up to two players.
A few extra notes: In general, I have found myself experiencing incredibly long volleys and playing long after I should stop, so I know that this game has some deep, hefty stuff at its core. Second, I loved playing on the clay surfaces. They're tough and slidey, and that's what makes them to remarkable. Last, while this looks good in 480 and 720, the general state of the graphics is bland and generic. The crowds are really mediocre, the pro players hardly look their real-life counter parts, and the game lacks any kind of graphic style or charm of its own. On the flip side, the motion capture work and most of the animations are well done.
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