Virtua Tennis 3 Review
The sport of tennis is slowly becoming more popular in the U.S., and some developers have attempted to make faithful recreations of the real-life game in the past. To this point, the two Top Spin titles have come the closest, but a new contender has arisen in the form of Sega's Virtua Tennis 3. Of course, we probably shouldn't be expecting a straight simulation out of this one, but then again, those who play the sport don't have as many games to select from. There's no Madden franchise in the world of tennis video games, for example. Therefore, we were all hoping for a semi-realistic yet still wildly entertaining title...we figured it was a realistic expectation, considering the promising previews the game has enjoyed in the past.
Right off the bat, it's clear this is the prettiest tennis game ever. Its closest competitor is Top Spin 2 on the Xbox 360, but Virtua Tennis 3 distinguishes itself with beautiful character animations and detailed court backdrops. Sega made a point of showing off their intricate character models over the past few months, and thankfully, it's very clear they weren't exaggerating. The high point of the visuals certainly centers on the players themselves, and while the rest is darn solid, it's not quite as refined or crisp as we would've liked. However, the graphics shine in glorious 1080p HD resolution - we at least got a chance to see it in 720p HD - so if you have the capability, the game looks that much better. The courts and stadiums aren't as spectacular as those absurdly detailed players, but it's still a nice effort.
The sound is where things start to get annoying. Sega has provided us with an outrageously repetitive set of tracks - or rather, "track" - that begin to grate almost immediately. It's cool to have a rockin' soundtrack with a game, but first of all, this is tennis, not basketball. Secondly, if they wanted music to play a major role in the game's presentation, perhaps they could've included at least one new track here and there. The voice-over announcers are fine and not too intrusive during the practice sessions, and while the music is well orchestrated, it's just far too invasive. Turning it off is a better option, and that's never good news for any game. The sound effects are better, but again, not as diverse as we anticipated. All in all, the sound is the worst part of Virtua Tennis 3, which means the game doesn't suffer too badly.
It doesn't suffer because, as a sports title (and just like most video games), the gameplay remains paramount. And above all else, this game is both accessible and fun, as anyone can sit down and have an enjoyable experience. It doesn't take much time to get the hang of the relatively simple controls, and if you're at all familiar with the Top Spin games, you're already a step ahead of the game. Sega institutes a similar philosophy in Virtua Tennis 3: hold down the button - whichever one you've chosen for your groundstroke - a little longer, and before the ball gets there, to help you prepare for the shot. The result will be a much harder and more effective return, and herein lies the key to success in the game. The only problem is, once you've mastered that, there isn't much left to even learn...let alone master.
As we said in the intro, we probably shouldn't expect a tennis simulation from the game, and after playing for a mere hour, it became painfully obvious this wasn't a simulator; not by any stretch of the imagination. While your character "levels up" in multiple tennis disciplines via plenty of practice sessions, you're not exactly practicing the same way the pros do. No, you'll be defending the court from attacking aliens, popping balloons, knocking down barrels, playing "court curling," assaulting bowling pins with your serve, and even playing groundstroke bingo. These little mini-games serve as your training, and while they're a little childish and certainly arcade-style, they do force you to hone your skills.
Furthermore, Top Spin 2, which actually is a simulator, did very much the same thing. This is a good news-bad news situation, and thankfully, the good outweighs the bad. The bad? You've got to spend way too much time early on in your World Tour (the career mode, essentially) bouncing back and forth between these bizarre training sessions. The difficulty is also extremely erratic; ranging from so simple a monkey could succeed to so horribly challenging; you want to slit your own wrists. And it spikes all over the map, too. But the good news is that you're appropriately rewarded for your efforts, as your character's abilities increase quickly, which directly impacts your effectiveness on the court. The growth of your player might not be quite as visible or dramatic as it is in Top Spin 2, but it's there, and nicely implemented.
Unfortunately, the higher-level training challenges represent the peak of the game's difficulty. Provided you take the time to enhance your player, none of the tournaments will give you much trouble, even after playing for many hours and facing down the toughest competitors on the highest levels. The Exhibition and Tournament modes are even easier; we put the difficulty to "Very Hard" and still won an Exhibition match without losing a single point. Granted, we had access to the best of the best, but then again, we were supposed to be playing against the best of the best, too. In fact, you'll ultimately spend more time - especially early on - struggling with particularly tricky training challenges than playing in any real tournaments. Once you get past the first two or three hours, things open up a bit more, but even then, the challenge rarely gets very high.
Still, the control you have over your player is great, and that control gets significantly better the more you train. There's a minor issue you may frequently experience when getting used to the game, where the player dives for a ball you didn't want him to dive for. This happens when you're preparing for the stroke, as you should be, but if you begin your preparation too far away from the ball, the player wants to dive. The other issue - which is also minor - is that your preparation sometimes isn't even acknowledged by your player, and you just stand there dumbly. Again, it has something to do with your timing, but it happens a bit too frequently. Other than that, though, the control you have throughout the game, from movement to groundstrokes to volleying to serving, is mostly excellent. You'll never feel like you're at a disadvantage because you don't have a grasp on the controls; in fact, you'll generally feel as if you've got a firm handle on the gameplay no matter what you're doing.
While the game is far too easy, that also means it's very accessible, as we mentioned before. You don't have to be a hardcore tennis fan who wants to learn every tiny minutia of the game to succeed, and while the real-life player in this reviewer hates that, it's not a problem for everyone. At the very least, it makes Virtua Tennis 3 a great party game, despite the lack of online play. Up to four players can sit down and have some round-robin singles fun or a doubles entertainment, and regardless of each player's skill, you'll all be having a blast within a few short minutes. But we just can't give the game props for offering a very deep single-player career mode, which is usually the bread and butter of any sports game. You won't be losing much, which is probably good news for some people, but you might grow bored before hitting the elite #1 position.
In the end, Virtua Tennis 3 falls a little shy of what we had expected, but it still delivers a solid tennis experience. It remains far too easy on just about every level, and that's not helped by the erratic difficulty in those silly challenges, which are over-emphasized throughout the first few hours of play. You just don't spend enough time in tournament mode, and when you do, you feel like some sort of court God. But on the flip side, the control is about as good as it can be, the graphics are great, your hard work in the training pays off at every turn, and there's nothing better for multiplayer offline tennis fun. But for tennis fans looking for a realistic video game experience, they're going to have to stick with Top Spin 2, despite some of its flaws. For the more casual who don't mind a lack of challenge and a less-than-engrossing schedule in the career mode, they might want to give Virtua Tennis 3 a try.
But seriously, Sega, what's with trying to beat that one rock track into our skulls? That was uncalled for.
3/28/2007 Ben Dutka