I can't think of a PS2 game I've picked up more than Sega's Virtua Tennis 2. Whenever I had 10 to 15 minutes of time to kill, I'd boot up the game and play a quick match. The brilliance of the game, for me, was that no matter how good I got, the game would always offer a worthy and competitive opponent, even if that meant switching to 'very hard'. I still haven't grown tired of Virtua Tennis 2, but was very curious last year when I heard about a game called Top Spin being released on the Xbox that supposedly was the ultimate tennis game, so far. Now that there's a PC version, I can finally put this hit game to the test.
The first thing that caught my eye as I started playing was the game's incredible graphics. For a tennis game of course... don't expect this to blow your mind like the Doom 3 or Half-Life 2 trailers once did, but compare it to every other tennis game out there and prepare to be amazed. In the default camera mode, the players appear huge, but move gracefully and smoothly across the court. There is another camera mode that is much more like the conventional tennis game camera we've seen in (amongst others) Virtua Tennis, but the default mode in this game puts you pretty much right behind your player, not at an elevated angle further above the court.
Presentation-wise, Top Spin also offers a couple of well-known tennis players who have provided their likeness to the game. This is where Top Spin shows its age though, because now-retired Pete Sampras and haven't-seen-her-in-ages Anna Kournikova both have top rankings in this game. Not that I'm complaining, because I've been amazed by Sampras for over 10 years, and Kournikova, well.... guess. If I had to complain about the roster, I'd say that some new additions for the pc version would not have hurt... since many of today's biggest stars are missing now.
Other minor problems that have to do with licensing issues arise when we look at the tournament schedule in career mode. Some of the tournaments have real names, but at the same time you won't be playing Wimbledon or Roland Garros this year... or any year as long as you're playing Top Spin. Just like a soccer game with striker "Number 9" instead of "Ronaldo", this game will allow you to play Wimbledon, but won't ever call it that way, you'll play the grand slam tournaments though! A very nice touch to the game that I noticed had to do with the different surfaces you can play on. I noticed how players would move differently, just like in real life. If you're ever seen someone like Guillermo Coria play on clay, you'll have noticed how he tends to slide along the court a little just before hitting the ball. Top Spin makes players move the exact same way when playing on clay, very nice!
Sound-wise, this is pretty much just like any other recent tennis game. All the sounds are there, and they all sound just about right. I did get annoyed with the crowd at times though, when they started cheering and clapping loudly in the middle of a rally, a real crowd would get a little excited, but would then make a "hush hush"-hissing sound if the rally would keep on going. Just a minor detail, but enough for me to notice it.
On to the gameplay then... which is the really important part. There were a few differences from Virtua Tennis, mostly in the way you perform risk- and drop shots. A risk-shot is where you pretty much launch a rocket towards the other player's half, but requires very precise timing. This is done by pressing your risk-shot button, then watching a bar appear with a moving slider, and letting go at the right moment. Very often, the risk will not be worth it (if you miss-time, you'll hit the net or play it way out of bounds), so I hardly ever used risk-shots. It's an excellent addition though, making winning shots like these harder to perform! I had some issues with the same system being used for drop shots though. Sure, I understand that when I'm diving towards a ball in the back of the court, it's pretty darn hard to hit a drop-shot that will drop within 1 or 2 meters of the net on the other player's half, but come on they use the same system when I'm standing right there at the net with 2 seconds left before I have to hit the ball. It should have been near impossible to miss a shot like that, but although you have longer to time your shot, it's still very possible to mistime it and you often will.
Apart from my troubles with the drop shot, I have had nothing but fun with this game. It's relatively easy to control the player and pull off all the standard tennis moves, including lobs and, of course, a shot with some added topspin. As long as an over-use of (failed) risk shots doesn't frustrate you (which is really largely up to your own skill), this game plays like a dream. There's a career mode, but the exhibition matches are what will keep you coming back to this one. Multiplayer is absolutely great, and rivals the feel of console sports games. Definitely the best tennis game on the PC.
A word of warning about the career mode though. I found that I had to waste a lot of time playing mediocre opponents who couldn't even win a single game against me. The first interesting opponents were ranked 20 or above, which was when I started to enjoy the challenge that was given to me. But when you're playing the big stars, prepare to be frustrated. Remember how I was talking about hitting impossible risk-shots? Well, it's like every time you've got a big name like Kuerten cornered, he can hit an impossible winner past you at lightning speed, while struggling to even REACH the ball. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you manage to grab a set, but you can't help thinking that you're expected to climb a mountain even though they haven't even given you a decent hill to train on.
Still, don't let any of that scare you. If you're into tennis, or sports games in general, this game is a must have! It's addictive, easy to pick up yet hard to master and plays like a dream. Presentation-wise, it blows all the other Tennis games out of the water. All I ever did with Virtua Tennis was play exhibition games, and that's what I'll be doing with Top Spin as well, for a long, long time to come.