There used to be a time when everyone knew who would win the next Grand Slam tournament. It'd be Roger Federer and one of the Williams sisters. But, Venus and Serena dominance is long past and the Australian Open showed that Federer’s time at the top may be over too. But, not done is 2K Sport’s premiere tennis franchise Top Spin. Out now is number four in the well produced sports sim. Once again it looks fantastic and features a host of the world’s top professionals as well as a number of past legends. It has a ton of online and multiplayer options and also provides full support for your PlayStation Move controller so you can truly enjoy your tennis elbow, torn rotator cuff and getting beaten down by a grunting, sweaty Ana Ivanovic.
But, if Ana Ivanovic is not quite your thing then there are 25 professionals available to play against or as. The big three are there - Federer, Rafael Nadal and the scarily intense Serb assassin Novak Djokovic. While on the women’s side, as well as Ana, there’s Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. If they aren’t enough there are a number of past legends, like the original headband man Bjorn Borg and American legends Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. From the start you can play in exhibition matches using either the classic scoring system or first-to-ten tie breaker matches. However, while some players are presented perfectly (Federer is done brilliantly, from his effortless ground strokes down to his stabbing backhand), others, like Andy Murray, look a bit weird. Maybe, like his game, he just needs a couple of season’s worth of more work.
Getting the hang of playing if fairly straightforward. Once you’re on the court you can either play with just with your normal controller or the Move controller as well. If you decide to use both, the Move controller is for swinging the racquet and the analog stick on the regular controller is used to position your player. While it feels a bit awkward to begin with, after a game or two it feels natural enough for you to pick your targets and play your shots. Also, the game is very generous with getting you into position to hit the ball. If you are close enough, and if you swing a around the right time, the ball will usually end up over the net. However, as you play you find the subtleties of timing and positioning give you a nice feeling of control over your shots with power and top spin added by the way you swing the Move controller. Adding to this, the triggers on the Move and normal controller will let you play slices, drop shots and lobs. It all sounds complicated, but its not. It’s intuitive, responsive and adds greatly to the game’s enjoyment factor. Top Spin 4 has found that sweet spot where the game is fun right from the start, but still gives you plenty of room to learn and get better.
If you want to take a bit longer to get used to all the subtleties of Top Spin 4, you can grind your way through the game’s career mode. Once you have created your new pro you start playing small time tournaments in dinky little clubs and gyms. Each month you have a choice of training, promotional events and tournaments to choose from. You can play a quick match against a training partner to earn experience points, make an appearance at a night club to earn and few hundred new fans, or play in a charity fundraising tournament which will get you both experience points and fans. While you play the games, the other non-tennis events just award you the points – unfortunately there’s no Dance Dance Revolution-style excursions to Budapest night clubs in Top Spin 4.
Every month you get different choices but can only attend one event and play one tournament, so you need to keep that in mind when choosing what to do. Once you have played a few tournaments you can upgrade your player’s abilities. However, compared to other sports sims, Top Spin 4 has a rather restrictive upgrade system. When you earn enough experience to go up a level you have three choices. These choices are essentially what skill set you want to advance. You choose from serve and volley, baseline attacking, and baseline defensive sets. Each specialisation will increase different attributes. Serve and volley will increase your serve, of course, as well as your reflexes, while baseline players get better speed and endurance. Every time you go up a level you choose from the same three specialisations so you can either max out one or balance out your skills over all areas.
What also can help with your attributes are the coaches. Every time you select to use a new coach they have goals for you to accomplish. The goals may be as simple as serve fifty times or get 75,000 fans, or they may be more difficult like make fifteen sliced winners. Complete the coach's tasks and you get bonuses to you stats or special skills like Diesel serves or +10% to your earned experience points. While the career mode works, overall it is a bit disappointing. There is a lot of playing through little tournaments, the levelling up is light and automated, and with your player’s level capped at twenty it feels like you have done just about all you can do before you even qualify for the Grand Slam tournaments.
But, what you can do after you have reached level twenty is go and test your skills online. While finding an opponent and starting a game is easy, getting used to the lag takes a while (and a few losses). But if you can get the knack of that slightly different timing then your chosen professional, or your created player, can start winning and moving through those online tournaments and leader boards.
As 2K Sports has shown in the past, they are a serious player when it comes to sports games. Top Spin 4 matches up well against all their great sports sims, it also adds to that great line of video games stretching all the way back to Pong. After all these years, us gamers are still bouncing a little ball back and forth between two players. Except now the gamers are standing in living rooms on opposite sides of the world, wearing 3D glasses, and swinging motion sensitive controllers. But, even if you don’t have a 3D telly (and who does?) and despite the issues with the career mode, you still get a game that’s enjoyable looks fantastic and plays great. Just remember the ice for that tennis elbow.