It's been a long four years since we saw Virtua Tennis 3 and it appears that not a lot has changed. Behind the scenes, developers Sumo Digital have waddled out of the ring to make room for SEGA Japan. The recent trends of motion control and 3D TV have been included, but at a superficial level. Considering how polished Virtua Tennis already was, these subtle updates make sense. After all, tennis games are basically just glorified Pong - aren't they? Once the basic gameplay elements are in place, what else can we hope to see?
Despite this though, SEGA have managed to keep Virtua Tennis 4 from being just another rehash. But, contradictory to what the marketing department might have you believe, the highlight isn't the motion controls; especially with the Xbox 360 and Kinect Camera.
Overall their claim that it's "Better with Kinect" is a bit far fetched, compounded by the fact that the motion control option is only available in a special Exhibition mode. It makes you wonder if it was tacked on at the last minute. The main problem is that the Kinect camera fails to capture any subtle movements in your wrist, such as angle or twist. As any tennis player will know, this results in a complete lack of ability to put spin on the ball or even tweak the type of shot upon contact. Lobs are read as weak forehands and deft back-spins close to the net are registered as crude straight volleys.
The other downfall is, despite the Kinect camera registering your entire body, the only thing being tracked is your swinging arm. All of the on court player movement is automatic, just like Wii Sports, which is understandable considering most of us don’t have living rooms the size of tennis courts. Otherwise a game of doubles would almost certainly result in coffee table fatalities. But when combined with a lack of wrist finesse, it makes the whole experience more like practice in swatting at flies. Remember too that, with Kinect, you’ve also got empty hands so you look and feel even more idiotic.
As you’d expect, those looking for a proper motion control tennis game would have to go for the Wii or PS3 Move version. Being able to grip something that resembles a tennis racquet, as well as capture wrist movements will get far better experience than Kinect users flapping their empty palms about. To make matters worse, the camera angle changes drastically from third-person to an up-close first person view with every shot in the motion control mode. It looks stylish to those spectating, but for the player it soon becomes a distraction and feels disjointed between shots.
With a good old fashion controller in your hand however, Virtua Tennis 4 feels like a pair of woolly slippers; familiar and comfortable. The controls have been slightly tweaked from the last outing and respond exactly how you expect them to. In fact the only real change to the gameplay is the introduction of ‘Super Shots’. Virtua Tennis has its roots in the arcade side of things and the ‘Super Shot’, although ludicrious, fits the game like those warm slippers I was just talking about. During play, a power gauge fills along the top of the screen and when full, allows you execute a devastatatingly powerful, nigh-impossible to block shot.
Tennis purists will probably roll their eyes at the idea, but the ‘Super Shot’ mechanic is finely tuned and balanced. For starters, it usually takes a solid couple of games before the bar is near full so you can expect to see them sparingly. They are also backed up by an incredibly stylish slow-mo, John Woo-esque angled action cam as your player winds up their uber-shot.
The other main area Virtua Tennis has evolved lies in the World Tour mode, which is the campaign experience of singleplayer. It’s divided into four stages across different regions of the world, which is laid out with a grid like a board game. As you complete tennis tournaments in different cities, the tiles of the world map get filled until you progress in a semi-linear fashion to the final competition. In order to travel to the next city or region, players must spend ‘tickets’ that can be collected by completing activities in-between.
For example you could compete in a one of eight different mini-games, an exhibition match, or more leisurely activities such as resting to recuperate energy - or you could attend a publicity event such as a signing event or fancy-dress match. Unfortunately though, most of the time players have no choice in which of these activities will come up. Traversing the world map seems to be a matter of luck, with different cities offering random ticket-earning activities.
The mini-games are good fun, though, and they do help you practice your moves on court. As fans of the series will be pleased to hear, they are all completely mental and totally ridiculous, such as ‘Egg Collector’ in which you must hatch eggs by running over them (seems natural enough), as well as returning tennis balls that are getting fired down court towards you. But disturbingly every chick running to their mother hen after being hatched can be instantly killed by getting hit by said tennis balls. Accurate foot-work and quick reflexes are required to prevent you having a baby chicken massacre all around you.
The other mini-games aren’t quite so depressing. ‘Wind Match’ has you attempting to get the longest possible rally on a wind-swept court where the ball curve can be unpredictable. Other activities include a "hot potato" take on tennis where you don’t want to be near the ball when the timer is up, and one that combines tennis with bowling. They’re all insane, but a fun distraction from the otherwise serious tennis rallies you get in normal gameplay.
All these mini-games, fancy-dress matches and Super Shots will put plenty of tennis fans off. But Virtua Tennis started off as an arcade game and the fun aspects will equally appeal to gamers too. Despite all of this nonsense, Virtua Tennis 4 still packs in plenty of authentic traditional tennis - such as a roster of 16 of the world’s best players, including Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Fernado Gonzalez and more. But for those wanting a more serious approach, the recent Top Spin would probably be better suited. Overall this game is easy to pick up and play but difficult to master. With a heap of unlockables and customisation options, it is sure to please most tennis fans. But for those looking forward to the motion control gameplay, it would be wise to stick to the PS3 Move edition.