Replay Value: 8.7
Tennis games are fun. In fact, the actual sport of tennis is fun; it's a constantly moving sport where the players never stop, not for one second. Plus, there's just something extremely satisfying about pummeling a tennis ball back and forth. With games like Pong and Breakout being as popular as they were back in the days (after all, they are essentially ultra-simple games of tennis), it's no wonder that Top Spin and Sega's Virtua Tennis are so addictive.
Earlier last year Sega released their third Virtua Tennis game, but 2K Games would soon announce the third iteration of their sim Top Spin. While both games share the same sport in common, there's no question that Top Spin is the realistic game between the two, where as Virtua Tennis is largely arcade. We've got the final build of Top Spin 3 in our hands, and from what we gather with our playtime, thus far, this is good stuff.
Upon beginning a match in Top Spin 3, my biggest mistake was thinking that I was playing Virtua Tennis 3. I promptly ended the match and entered the Top Spin School mode for the training bits to get a feel for the game and understand its mechanics. Admittedly, this is the first time I'm playing a Top Spin game, so I was a bit foreign to its gameplay. Regardless, the training sessions taught me how to put to use the game's timing and work it in as a rhythm; the key is to tap one of the action buttons just as the ball hits your side. Once you begin to work with that rhythm, you'll then begin to get a feel for pre-loading shots for harder returns.
Pre-loading is done by holding down one of the three swing buttons as the ball approaches you. To hit the ball, the same concept applies, release the pre-loaded button as soon as the ball bounces on your side of the court. Of course, aiming the hit by pointing the left-analog stick a certain direction is a must if you want to keep your opponent running all around the court.
The pace of the action is noticeably slower in Top Spin 3 than Virtua Tennis 3, but chalk that up to the game's realism. Players won't dive at every nearby shot like they do in Virtua Tennis, so the game won't compensate for any of your downfalls - if you miss a shot, it's gone. If you'd like to further increase the challenge, you've got five difficulty choices to pick from. Moreover, to make the action feel even more realistic, the game displays a fatigue monitor for your player. Pay attention to it, when your heart-rate goes up and the monitor turns red, your performance will be affected. It's a very clever feature.
A full fledged Player Creator has been put together for Top Spin 3, as well. At the creation screen, you'll first choose a template model to work; these templates range in body size, skin tone, gender, and ethnicity. Between this sentence and the last, I spent about 45 minutes toying around and creating my own player, that should give you an idea of just how deep the system is.
I will mention that the game does perform a mandatory install onto your PlayStation 3's HDD, but it's definitely better off for it. Load times during the player creation process are very responsive, much faster than other sports games that exhibit notable delays when you're scrolling through customizable selections such as faces, hair, eyes, and so forth. Besides the Player Creator, load times for matches are also pretty good.
One of my favorite parts of Top Spin is an iteration of 2K's Swing Stick that's been implemented to the controls, which is purely optional to use. When serving, pull back on the right analog stick, time it right, and then push forward to make contact, sending the ball to your opponent's side. The mechanics get a bit tricky, but timing is the most crucial aspect to succeeding; you'll want to push forward just as the ball reaches its peak point, before coming down. In addition to serves, you can use the analog stick for special shots such as slicing and lobbing, as well.
With a full fledged Career mode that'll allow you take your created player through the ranks, there's ever more to like about Top Spin 3. Here's where you'll take your created player through the ranks, and compete against not only the 39 professional athletes of Top Spin 3, but other amateurs just like you. The gameplay is a mixture of objective-based and full game sessions. As is with any sports game, your accomplishments are rewarded with the ability to further enhance your player.
For those of you who just want to get down to it with the all-stars, the Tournament Mode will suit your needs. You'll be able to engage a variety of different tournaments, anything from the US Open in Flushing Meadow Park, to the Australian Open in Melbourne, to the Moscow Open Tour. In total, there are 24 tournaments to partake in, which should offer the gamer additional value.
Of course, to further expand the experience, you can go online and play gamers from all over. You can either play matches with the professional athletes, or use your created player. The online games are good for a maximum of four players. There are no real frills online besides straightforward tennis, so don't expect any crazy gameplay modes or anything of that sort. I suspect that the online World Tour mode is what many will also spend their time with, as it allows for online tournaments and exhibition matches.
Visually, Top Spin 3 doesn't disappoint. It does a good job of rendering each of the stadiums accurately, but more importantly nearly all of the players look good on the screen. Player models are fairly true to their real-life counterparts, but they all still exhibit the zombie-eye look, which I find annoying to this day. The animations are pretty solid, and collision detection seems to be spot-on, as well. While not mind-blowing, the texture detail for each character is commendable, as well. But I must address another complaint; considering how simplistic a game of tennis is (small environment, limited number of players on screen, etc.), it wouldn't have hurt for PAM to hustle a bit and give us a game that runs at 60 frames per second. Having said that, Top Spin 3 is still a solid looking game.
Now in all honesty, Top Spin 3's audio falls completely apart. It's not that the audio is bad, it's just that it's non-existent. A ball getting hit, a few boring claps, and a stadium announcer is all that you're going to hear while playing the game. The players don't grunt, don't yell when celebrating, the audience sounds absurdly bored, there is not the slightest hint of music in the background, there is no play-by-play commentary...there is no audio. Playing the game on mute would make no difference at all, to be honest. The lack of audio actually takes away a bit from the gameplay, as it hurts the immersion. There is a soundtrack in the game, but you only hear it during the menus.
All in all, if you can get around the learning curve of Top Spin 3 and give it some time, you'll find a solid experience out of this tennis sim. If you're looking for a game that properly represents the sport of tennis, Top Spin 3 fulfills that criteria. There's a plethora of athletes, a solid Career mode, a lengthy Tournament mode, a deep player creation system, enjoyable online gameplay, and a Top Spin School mode that shows you the ropes. Even though the game is a mixed bag on the technical side, boasting good visuals but terrible audio, it doesn't hurt the experience enough to not recommend it. Top Spin 3 is certainly a package that's worth the price of admission. Tennis fans, look no further.