Although being one of the smallest countries in the world, my home country Austria (no, there are no kangaroos in Austria) has given much back to the world: Mozart, Freud, “Governor” Schwarzenegger – to name only a chosen few of those that were born and raised in Austria and have achieved much in their life. When it comes to sports Austria doesn’t perform too bad either. Besides dominating almost every single skiing event for many years already, various other sports have seen successful Austrian sportsmen and –women perform. If you are interested in professional Tennis for example, you might recall by now retired tennis pro Thomas Muster.
And I’m happy to announce that thanks to my efforts Thomas Muster is back at the top. Well at least his computer generated avatar and on my Xbox that is...
To the top
As soon as you start your “career” in the career mode of the game you will notice that you have to care about more things than just winning your tennis matches in a game like Top Spin.
First of all you are in for character generation. Male or female is the simplest decision you have to make because you can modify almost everything about your player, be it size, stature or clothing and the face has so many tuning options that you can build a recognizable avatar of almost every person you want, be it a tennis star or yourself (something I would never do – shaving in the morning is bad enough). Unless you don’t chose a pre-generated character you will have to invest some serious time here if you don’t want to look all ugly. Once you are happy with your character, you can start right away.
The game offers pre-generated models of 16 players from the Mount Olympus of Tennis professionalism like Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake and Michael Chang or Anna Kournikova, Martina Hingis and Barbara Schett if you are into all female tennis. These players are NOT available in career mode since they are obviously already ranked in the Top 100 – the rest of the ranking is filled up with computer generated characters – and await to be challenged by you.
Depending on the nationality you have chosen beforehand you may – like me – start in Europe. You might have noticed that we didn’t choose any stats yet, and that’s for a reason, since you decide how to build up your character only during the game. Throughout the world there are various trainers that will teach you levels in the basic skills – forehand, backhand, volley and serve – but only if you can pay their fees AND are successful in the training lesson. If you fail you will not learn anything but will not loose a star either – although if you want to try again you have to pay again and professional trainers aren’t cheap. Beware although that you are limited to a maximum 14 “stars” that represent skill levels. This means that you can NOT learn every available skill! It is up to you to decide which skills you need and which not. The “common” way to raise the money needed to pay the trainers is of course winning tournaments, but there are other ways as well. As soon as you get more successful, more potent investors will be interested in you. They will not only provide you with free equipment – which you have to pay yourself in case you decide not to bind yourself to a sponsor – but various sponsor challenges and advertisement campaigns are the way to raise the “big” money. Besides shops, trainers and sponsors there is finally the saloon that allows you to modify your character even further. While the basic character you generated in the beginning can’t be changed, you can still change your hairstyle, eyecolor (contact lenses maybe?) and outfit. So if you feel a little like Dennis Rodman or David Beckham – here you go. Although the fact that all of these locations take several seconds to load every time is a little annoying.
So many things to do, so many things to see - and we haven’t been to the court yet.
So can we finally play Tennis for god’s sake?
Once you play your first match, you will notice that the developers spent a huge amount of time on making the experience as realistic as possible. The graphics are top of the notch. Every single movement of the characters is highly detailed and the stadiums look fantastic. Only the referee could have been made a little more lively and at certain camera angels the audience turns out to be a little blurry.
The phonetic presentation is also very close to “the real thing”. There is no background music at all and the audience is quite passive, although always kicking in at the right moment with the obligatory “Ahhhh”’s and “Ohhhhhhh”’s or a sharp breath when a player almost didn’t make it for that ball. Even the sound when you shoot the ball out of the field is not just a generic sound, but depends on what material you've hit!
The physics engine finally does a really good job at calculating the trajectory of the ball – even if you miss and hit the ball with the rim of your racket if will bounce off and likely out of the field in a frustrating, yet realistic way.
The controls are well balanced, every main button is assigned to one of four basic attacks: Flat, Topspin, Slice and Lob. As soon as the ball has crossed the net, you can prepare the shot by pressing your button of choice and your avatar will handle the rest. You of course have to be near the ball and at the right side of it too if you have a special attack in mind, but your player AI is really tolerant and your player will save many a ball for you, although you've “only” pressed a single button.
If the basic attacks get too simple for you – or maybe are just not enough any more to beat your enemy – you might want to learn how to use risk and drop shots that as the name already implies are hard to perform. Using the shoulder buttons you can launch one of your special attacks, but your timing has to be perfect! If successful the ball will go of with a nice FX effect and your opponent will have a hard time defending against is.
Other game modes and Multiplayer
If you don’t have time to continue your career or just want a quick game of tennis, exhibition mode is for you. Single and double matches (beware my mixed double with lovely Anna Kournikova) are fast fun and a good training, especially if you have a few friends with you. If more possible players are around you can even start your own custom tournament!
In Multiplayer Xbox’s Live! feature yet again unfolds its supremacy regarding online battles. If you think the offline Top100 aren’t enough why not compete against THOUSANDS of players in a worldwide ranking? Only this time the rankings are for real and you can even speak to your opponent.
Top Spin also makes use of Microsoft XSN Service. Even online you can create your own tournament, password it and play a large scale tournament against friends from all over the world, almost as if you had your very own Top Spin dedicated server.
Game, Set and Match
Top Spin is definitely the ultimate Tennis simulation at the moment. If you like tennis at all this is a must-have title for you. Everyone else should be aware that while this is a fantastic game for the right person, if you are looking for fast pace tennis-arcade-action you might be happier with a title from e.g. the Virtua Tennis series that, while offering less in every other aspect, is a little more suitable for arcade freaks.