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Virtua Tennis 2009
Graphics: 5.3
Gameplay: 4.7
Sound: 4.4
Control: 5.1
Replay Value: 4.9
Rating: 5

As some of you know, I’m a tennis fan. I played in high school and I still play today (and I’m actually quite good, despite my very un-tennis-like 6’3, 220lbs. frame), which is why I’m always looking for the next great virtual incarnation that will capture my attention during periods of bad weather. The best I’ve played to this point is Top Spin 3, which, while not quite climbing to the simulated levels of established sports franchises like Madden, is still very close in terms of authenticity and appropriate feel. I had hoped that this year’s Virtua Tennis 2009 would be the new-and-improved tennis title that I could play for the next month or so, but sadly, it’s nothing more than a mediocre production that makes very little effort to accurately portray the sport in question. In fact, last year’s Virtua Tennis entry is actually superior; this year’s is just a giant step backwards, and it actually annoyed me to play it. With every passing minute, I’m reminded of just how far off the mark it is, and just how silly it appears. Tennis fans, stay away.

The graphics aren’t anything special, but at least they’re somewhat passable. The courts are decently designed even if the surrounding fans have very little in the way of activity or animation, and the animations on court are mostly fluid. However, the character modeling is sub-par; the players really don’t look much like their real-life counterparts and honestly, if you can’t bring out Ana Ivanovic’s adorable quality that makes her just so darn cute, you fail. Depending on the camera view you prefer (one of which is borderline useless), you will notice a variety of minor drawbacks and shortcomings in the visual presentation, and let’s not forget about the major frame rate hitches. I always believe this falls more under the gameplay category, but whatever: the game will sometimes freeze up for about a half-second in the midst of a point, which is more than a “hitch;” it’s a nigh-on crippling flaw. The best that can be said of the graphics is that they’re mostly consistent and aren’t too jarring. Beyond that…I wanted something better.

The sound is worse, primarily because the on-court effects are both generic and limited in scope. For instance, the sound the ball makes upon striking the racket is the same it makes when hitting the backstop behind the court. Furthermore, the grunts of the players sound tacked-on and hardly realistic, and the announcer is more of a robot than a charismatic color man. The crowd is also restricted in terms of reactions to certain points, so we’re left with matches that make it very plain that we’re playing a video game. Granted, this sport is typically played in silence, but the players do get pumped up and so does the crowd; Sumo Digital tries to make this happen in Virtua Tennis 2009, but they come up well short of the desired goal. Everything just sounds…lax and mechanical. The soundtrack also suffers from the same lack of diversity and it really doesn’t fit the atmosphere at all. Again, there isn’t a set kind of music that would necessarily fit this sport, but just dropping in the same old rock ditty here and there screams of laziness. Really, don’t even bother if you’re going to do this.

It took all of 20 seconds for me to realize the gameplay was a far cry from “authentic.” However, I would be fine with this if the developers intended to produce a more arcade-style sports game; something along the lines of Mario Tennis. But I don’t believe that was their goal and even if it was, they still missed the target because the game ricochets back and forth between obscenely easy, outrageously repetitive, and unbelievably difficult. It’s so erratic; it’ll almost give you seasickness. On the surface, the controls are simple: move with the left analog stick, prepare your shot by holding down the necessary button, and just hit X for top spin, Triangle for a lob, and either Square or Circle for slice. Once again, we don’t have the flat shot, which I consider to be an immense oversight, but we’ll put that aside for now. In order to increase the level of movement this year, Sumo decided to stop all that crazy diving and simply have the players stretch out and go to one knee. Ordinarily, this would be fine…but man, talk about overdoing it. Believe it or not, your player will go to a knee about half the time in any given point.

Yeah, that’s screwed up. What’s even more screwed up is that if the two players are on a relatively even keel, winners become extraordinarily difficult to secure. The players are magical; they can literally come from ten feet off the court on the right or left to retrieve a ball that is hit in the other direction. This leads to insane rallies where both players are running back and forth, going to a knee and lobbing the ball back, over and over and over again. Sure, you can prepare your shot (hold down the button once you’ve got your position) so you can strike the ball harder, but unless your skill level is much higher than your opponent’s, you usually won’t have time. Nope, you’ll just be running back and forth. Points last far too long this way, and even going to the net doesn’t really speed things up. Then you’ve got the issue of the serve, which is far too easy to hit, but on the flip side, it doesn’t really give you any advantage at all. Breaking serve isn’t all that tough, and that’s wrong. Oh, and all surfaces (hard, grass, clay) play almost exactly the same. Another screw up.

You can play exhibition matches or head online, but the meat and potatoes of the game is the World Tour, where you create a player from scratch and build him up towards professional status. You start out with no training and a bottom rank of 100, but have no fear, because ex-tennis champion Tim Henman will be your coach. You can increase your base stats by either going to the Tennis Academy and passing the lessons and challenges there, or by participating in the variety of mini-games designed to increase your groundstrokes, serve and volley, and technique and footwork skills. These mini-games have been mainstays of the franchise for quite some time and although I’ve never liked them, they can be somewhat entertaining. The problem here is that it seems to be far more beneficial just to go to the Academy, and those other tennis-related mini-games are more of an annoyance or eccentricity than anything else. Some were just far too difficult, but avoiding balls while picking up shopping items, trying to sink pirate ships with groundstrokes and breaking LEGO-like blocks with serves can be fun. I guess. It just didn’t feel as if participating was worth my time.

The only positive aspect of the World Tour that I actually enjoyed was the balancing act any athlete would normally be forced to execute. You have to rest when your Stamina is low, you have to keep an eye on the calendar from week to week so you know what events will be available, and you need to keep the lines of communication open if you want to secure training partners. All of this makes perfect sense and it works quite well. I found it a little ridiculous that even resting for a solid week at Home would only refill about one-quarter of my lost stamina (damn, how exhausted can you be?), but other than that, this system of character advancement and living as a professional athlete functions just fine. I did have a problem with several of the lessons in the Tennis Academy, though; when it says “cross-court shot,” I know what that means. I did it a thousand times, but it never said I succeeded. Then there are completely obscure lessons like hitting three volleys in a row. …and what does that accomplish, exactly? The good news is you only have to succeed once in your mission in order to pass and gain some new ability; one success grants a Bronze medal, two gives you a Silver, and you need to do it right three times in the allotted time frame for the Gold.

Having a time limit for lessons really isn’t a fixture in tennis, or any sport, for that matter. I hate it. But I suppose it’s there to keep the more impatient happy, and to keep the game moving along. But no matter how you slice it, Virtua Tennis 2009 is a poor excuse for a simulator and even if it was trying to be more “arcade-y,” they failed in that respect, too. The points played on court are fast and appealing, but they’re far too repetitive and with characters going to their knees and stretching out constantly, it just gets boring and even laughable. The erratic difficulty on and off the court leaps all over the place, there seems little point to those mini-games with the Tennis Academy there, there’s still no flat shot in the game, the graphics and sound are definitely lacking in terms of flash and detail, and those frame-rate hitches are irritating. I suppose one could say the game has a distinct pick-up-and-play quality, and the multiplayer can be entertaining for a while, but that’s where the pluses end.

It’s disappointing from a tennis fan’s standpoint to inform you that this isn’t worthy of your time or money.

6/30/2009   Ben Dutka