It's nighttime in Flushing Meadows, New York. It's early-September and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are making their way into Arthur Ashe Stadium to do battle at the US Open. Over 22,000 fans pile in to be part of one of the greatest rivalries in sports. Tennis fans and non-tennis fans alike hold their breath during every stroke as the two giants battle it out. Flags are waving, bodies are painted and shouts of jubilation and frustration emanate off the court behind fist pumps and racket tosses as two of the most acclaimed athletes on the planet wage war.
This is what the very best tennis can bring to the table and it's the one thing constantly missing from virtual iterations of the sport.
I am a tennis player. I know the sport inside and out. I watch the athletes that I try and emulate every chance I get, and if I had the option to play against Roger Federer or never have to work another day in my life, I would have to ponder the situation before arriving at a decision. Now that you've been warned about my love for the sport, let's move on to my review of Top Spin 3.
First things first, TS3 is one of the most inaccessible sports game I've come across. 2K Sports, moving in the opposite direction as EA Sports and its "everyone should be able to play all of our games" motto, has switched the control mechanics from the first two games to bring the virtual incarnation of tennis closer to the genuine article. Instead of running up to a shot with the proper face button held and watching the stroke animation carry out as you would in the past, Top Spin 3 forces a more realistic approach.
Now you'll not only have to worry about getting your athlete, who now moves with increased inertia, to the ball but you'll also need to time the release of the shot button with the swing. The game lets you know when you've completed a solid hit with a small vibration, and while it may sound simple enough, the many Top Spin veterans who have stepped up to the plate to try the new mechanic have had serious growing pains.
But there's more to striking the furry greenish-yellow ball than simply timing the release of a button. Risk shots are once again back, but they take a more realistic approach. Rather than having to time the release of a button with an on-screen meter, successfully completing a risk shot is now about the difficulty of the incoming ball. Meaning, if you're streaking across the baseline for a cross-court backhand that your opponent hit, the chances of you successfully blasting a backhand of your own down the line are slim. However, if you get a floater on your service line, just begging to be stuffed up the line for an aggressive approach shot, then you'll likely have more success.
The one thing I'd add to the power risk shot mechanic is the ability to hit a few fluke shots. These guys are world-class professionals who can take a 140 mph serve and slap it back for an awe-inspiring winner every once in awhile. That never happens in Top Spin 3.
Of course, there's more than one risk shot that you can utilize. The one I just detailed puts a bit more power into the ball, and the other is about getting the ball close to the lines while taking some "pop" off of it (these are governed by the right and left trigger respectively). The different kinds of risk shots adds a needed layer of strategy to any match and actually likens Top Spin 3's gameplay to the mental struggle that tennis players have on almost every point. Top Spin 3 now brings that method of thinking to the videogame tennis arena for the first time.
There are also two new features that are related to movement, but hinge on the use of shoulder buttons rather than triggers in conjunction with shots. First, there's the ability to charge the net after any shot or serve. While you could just complete your stroke and then press up on the analog to bring your player to the net, now hitting the right shoulder button starts a charging animation that begins your player's move to volley land with much more fluidity and speed than was available prior. Then there's the left shoulder button which is used to quickly maneuver from shot-to-shot (not too dissimilar from a turbo boost) by pressing it when your racquet makes contact with the ball. Of course the faster you move on the court, the more fatigued your player will become.
That's another new aspect of Top Spin 3; fatigue and excitement. Both after long points during a match and at important moments in any given game your player's heart rate will pick up. The faster the heart beats, the more nervous they get, thus the more shots they'll spray out of bounds. Sweat builds over time and your players even get sunburned as they stay out in the sun for hours on end. Movement then becomes sluggish and if you couple that with a big moment in the match, you won't hit a single shot in bounds.
The way your players glide around the court has also been altered a bit from past games and now factors in momentum. This is the one addition to gameplay that I had a problem with in Top Spin 3. Occasionally you'll accidentally bump the stick, just for a half-second, in the wrong direction, but it's that split-second and the inability of your player to quickly change directions that lets the incoming ball fly by. It feels borderline unrealistic. I'm certainly not suggesting that 2K make Top Spin's movement as arcadey as Virtua Tennis, but some sort of forgiveness beyond being forced to use the left shoulder button would be appreciated.
The right analog stick, which was originally going to be used as an option for every shot in Top Spin 3, is now relegated to only serves and dropshots. Serving with the right stick is a timing exercise where you pull back on the stick and push it forward at the right instant. You're encouraged to use the right stick on serves by being able to get a bit more pop than with the standard face buttons. The same exercise is used to hit drop shots, but it doesn't feel quite as natural as it does while serving.
All in all the gameplay additions that they've made to the Top Spin formula are great for simulating tennis. There are some gamers out there who will undoubtedly give up before mastering the new hitting mechanic, but tennis diehards will definitely appreciate how much better the hitting feels in Top Spin 3.
It's the trimmings that are built around the core gameplay where it falters. One day people will realize that the sport of tennis has changed significantly from the days of white collars, hushed crowds and subdued players. Tennis is now about challenging calls, crowds doing the wave and brandishing the name of their favorite player on flags, and athletes egging them on with fist pumps while getting hidden signals from their coach in the stands. None of this is touched on in Top Spin 3. You can't hire coaches, you can't train off the court during a career and the crowds and environments, though decent looking, are about as exciting as restringing a racquet.
Luckily there is a career mode that allows you to mold your own created tennis player and launch him from the amateur circuit up through the ranks. The player creator is solid and most should be able to create their virtual likeness without toomuch time struggling with the details. Once you get into the career mode things are a bit vacant -- no home screen or globe to speak of, no training, no off-court activities of any kind -- but you'll still get to earn XP and unlock points with each match win. XP is used to upgrade your attributes while unlocked points can be taken to the mall and used to buy new equipment. It's just too bad that you start with tennis that looks like it's being played by five-year-olds. Once you build your character you do start playing like a professional, but even real life small-time pro players can bang the ball with some authority.
After you've built up your pro you can then take him or her online to the World Tour mode. Players can join up in any tournament in the game and play it out. There's a timer that's constantly counting down from 14 days (the length of a grand slam tourney in reality). When it hits zero, the slate on all tournaments is wiped clean. Every match you win allots you a certain amount of XP and you can divvy that up amongst your attributes just like playing offline. Lag wasn't much of an issue for me, though it's obvious that there is a slight disparity in the timing when playing online. Good players shouldn't take long to adjust.
Visually Top Spin 3 is impressive in most areas. Mainly in the animation system that drives the action. Player models look somewhat accurate, though doing a side-by-side comparison of reality against their virtual mockups certainly shows blemishes in design. It's the movement that's most impressive with a wide array of possible shots. A top spin stroke looks different than a slice which looks different than a lob, just as they should. Given the importance of positioning your player before the shot, Top Spin 3 does a good job of pulling off animations that fit for a missed shot. If you see that your player's feet weren't positioned quite right or their body weight was just a bit off, then chances are you're going to miss it wide, long or in the net. It's that connection between the animations and the quality of your tennis game that ratchet up the realism even further.
Moving in the opposite direction is the textures that adorn the crowd. They're flat and lifeless and can be just plain nasty to look at if you catch them at the wrong angle. There are also some odd framerate hitches that occur when the match first starts, but that's likely due to the loading finishing in the background.
Aurally Top Spin 3 is pretty vacant. While the soundtrack pumps with tracks from Jamiroquai, Boys Like Girls and Franz Ferdinand, the sounds on the court are seriously lacking. The popping sound of the ball hitting the strings isn't quite as forceful as I'd like, especially when serving or slamming a put-away. Emotional outbursts were also left out of Top Spin 3. I have no idea why. Oh, and the crowd sounds like it's made up of geriatrics.
PS3 owners get the added bonus of having Rafael Nadal playable in their version. He looks the part and plays just as he should, even if his forehand animation isn't quite on the money. The fact that the PS3 version is the only place to recreate the Federer vs. Nadal matchup is a huge point of contention for tennis fans. Having the second-best player in the world on Sony's system makes that version the one to buy of the current-gen crop.
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