Editorial: Top Spin 3 Strokes A Winner
Being a tennis fan and a tennis player, I'm always looking for a decent tennis game. As it's not the most popular sport in the world - especially in this country - we don't get many video game efforts, but I was happy to see Top Spin back on the Xbox. It was a breath of fresh air because they were attempting to put an actual tennis simulator on the market. Now, they came up well short, but the sequel took another step towards true authenticity and Top Spin 3 thankfully takes another big step. We've already posted the review, which I agree with for the most part; these are just a few added comments.
First of all, it's good to see the three different surfaces are more significantly different than ever before. Those who know the sport understand the relatively drastic differences between hard, grass, and clay courts. All three surfaces were included in the previous Top Spin titles, but this is the first one where it actually felt as if I was playing on those three distinct surfaces. They ramped up the skidding of the ball on the grass, the correct lower speed of the clay, and the higher bounces of the hard. They've still got a little ways to go, though, as the ball doesn't react quite realistically enough on the different surfaces, but that's okay. Like I said, it's another step in the right direction.
Secondly, I really like the fact that players can actually miss shots. You could miss shots in the other games, of course, but only if you tried the more advanced strokes. If you just used a basic stroke, provided you got your racket on the ball, you'd always get it back. In Top Spin 3, if you're out of position, you could very well miss, even with a basic shot. If you've overrun the ball or are too far away, or if your timing is really bad, you'll dump the ball in the net, knock it wide, or belt it long. This seems to happen more often for you than it does for your opponent, but...well, I suppose I can live with that. First-serve percentages for the computer are still way too high, though; they'll run at like 80 or 90% for an entire professional match, and that's just humanly impossible.
Now, it took me a while to get used to the new mechanics, which are mostly similar to the game's predecessor's with one major change: you have to release the shot button to actually swing. It took me a good hour to drill this into my head, but now that I've finally got it, it comes fairly easily. I still find it hard to move the player and aim my shot with the left analog, especially when the pace picks up, though. Why couldn't we just use the right analog to aim? We don't have a camera to fiddle with. Anyway, the controls are just fine; tight and responsive, and the momentum physics are better than ever. Your character can't just hit top speed in the blink of an eye, so if you're wrong-footed on a shot and have to reverse direction, you'll be in definite trouble (as you should be). In addition, the position of the player and the ball is more important than ever, which means you have to keep an eye on both speed and depth.
I do have a slight issue when it comes to the computer player getting way too many balls back, though. I understand it should be challenging to hit a winner, but when you're drawn that far wide and literally have to flail at the ball, getting it back should be extremely difficult. And the computer does it all the time. Furthermore, they're almost fault-free at the net, which is just an AI problem that can grow quite bothersome after a while. Oh, and the return of serve is no longer a foregone conclusion; it was one of the biggest problems with the other two games. In this one, a hard server can give you all sorts of trouble, and correctly so. But one last thing I have to mention- I haven't yet figured out the Advanced shots by using the right analog stick; these were the Risk shots in the previous two Top Spins. It could just be that my character isn't anywhere near skilled enough yet to make these reliable, though.
In the end, I'm definitely having a lot of fun with Top Spin 3. The next step they need to take is simple- the rackets need to have an impact - a significant impact - on the game. The racket you select, depending on head size, weight, and string type and tensity has an immense effect on how a ball is struck, and a true simulator can't be without this. But other than that, this series really has come a long way since the original title, and I'm happy to see a lot of the little tweaks and enhancements they've made in the interest of realism. It feels more than ever like I'm actually playing tennis, despite the drawbacks, and that's a good thing. They're still a ways from embracing the entire sport as they do in simulators for the more popular sports, but hey, I've got time. I can wait. For now, I'm pretty happy with what I have.
6/27/2008 Ben Dutka