Virtua Tennis Review
Europe may have had to wait a couple of extra months for the PSP, but one of the rewards they received for their patience is Virtua Tennis: World Tour. It's an updated version of the popular Dreamcast game, and it has lost nothing in its transition to the PSP. In fact, the game is so well suited for the handheld that this might be the most enjoyable version of the game yet.
Virtua Tennis is an arcade representation of the sport, and while its roster of players may not be huge, it's good enough for casual fans. The men's side has Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Tim Henman, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Tommy Haas, Sebastien Grosjean, and David Nalbandian. The available women are Daniela Hantuchova, Amelie Mauresmo, Nicole Vaidisova, Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport, Sarah Bailey, Carolina Relandini, and Venus Williams. Why there is Venus and no Serena is kind of odd. It's like having one Olsen twin and not the other - it just doesn't happen. There aren't a whole lot of recognizable names in tennis these days, but it would have been nice to include classic players like Sampras, Graf, Bjorg, Navritalova and other familiar players from the past.
If you want to hop right into a game, you can play exhibition mode, enter a tournament, or play one of four mini-games. Fruit Dash, Blocker, Blockbuster, and Balloon Smash are quick games that have you doing things like running down fruit while avoiding flying balls, defending a wall with volleys, smashing colored blocks, and smashing balloons. They're quite fun, and since they're short and simple they are great for when you've only got a few minutes to play.
The game's depth is found in the World Tour where you'll lead a male, female, or both through a career, hopefully ending up with the #1 ranking. As you would expect, your character is initially horrible, ranked 300th in the world with no skills to speak of. You can improve your player's attributes by playing mini-games (different from the exhibition ones) that focus on specific skills. Some of them improve footwork, like Stomper, which has you hit a ball and then collect cans that are all over the court, while keeping the ball aloft. Bulls Eye has you volley balls onto a target, Pin Crasher is basically bowling with your serve, Sniper involves hitting moving targets with your serve, and Tank Attack has you returning the shots of a mini tank in an effort to destroy it. When you reach a target score for one of these games, your level attributes will be increased; how much depends on how well you did in the drill. As you get better and better, the games become more difficult and the target scores become higher and higher. A few of the games, like Prize Sniper and Bulls Eye are incredibly addicting, while others, like the disc flipping game are very frustrating. The good thing is that there is some overlap as to what games improve what skills, so if you truly dislike a game, you can pretty much avoid it.
As the weeks pass, tournaments will open up and should your ranking be high enough you can enter them. At first, there aren't too many events you can enter, and when you do enter them, you'll probably have a difficult time, but after leveling up, things get much easier. As you win tournaments and earn cash, you can purchase better racquets, outfits, and even new courts. It would have been nice to see this mode fleshed out a little more, since the create a player isn't very deep, and the selection of clothing is somewhat limited as well.
The actual match play is where the game really shines - it's easy to pick up and play, but learning the nuances of the game takes a great while to master. The X button hits a normal forehand, circle performs a slice, and the square button lobs. To hit shots harder you simply get to the ball earlier and hold down the swing button for a longer period of time. Drop shots are tough to pull off, and require precise timing, but with practice, they can be mastered. Aiming shots is handled in an easy fashion as well; you just press the direction of where you want the shot to go as you charge the shot. Serving is done by pressing the X button, which brings up a power meter, and then pressing X and a direction to serve. There aren't a whole lot of aces, but that's ok, because a ton of aces in an arcade style game really isn't that much fun. Players will dive, lunge, or perform trick shots based on their position to the ball and court position. It almost seems too simple at first, but there's a surprising amount of depth to be found.
Since this is a portable game, most of the matches are quick, best out of two games (not sets) or best out of three. The first tournaments are only two rounds, but as they get more prestigious, they get longer. Unfortunately, there is no way to save your progress in the middle of a tournament, which is disappointing because it can take 15-20 minutes to win some of the more difficult ones. You can of course put the PSP to sleep and return where you left off, but you can't play another game or use the PSP in any other way until you finish your match, or you lose your progress in that tourney.
In addition to singles matches there are number of doubles tournaments available. Men's, Women's, and Doubles events pop up from time to time, and as long as you have a partner and meet the rank criteria, you can enter. Doubles play is solid, but there are some minor issues that make it less fun than singles. For starters, you can hire the best players right away, which is odd since the game forces you to be so patient about leveling up most of the time. The main problem, however, is that your CPU partner is either the best player in the universe or the worst, and you never know which. Sometimes the computer will return six shots in a row, running side to side and front court to back, and then suddenly it will just stop and let a ball go right past. As a result, you're constantly running behind it, trying to ensure this doesn't happen, which puts you out of position. It's frustrating, especially when in a deuce situation where you have to keep it together for two straight points; a feat that is very difficult with the erratic CPU.
Virtua Tennis: World Tour also supports wireless play for up to four players via Ad Hoc. You can play singles or doubles, but you can only use the real-life players and not your own. It would have been great fun to play with created players, even putting #1 rankings on the line against friends, but alas, it wasn't meant to be. For some reason, none of the mini-games are playable wirelessly, which is a glaring oversight. These are essentially little party games as it is, so their exclusion from multi-player is a big one. There are some issues with lag when playing wirelessly, and they really change the way the game is played. It's tough to max out serves, and players are slow to respond, which leads to lots of swinging and missing at shots. It's still fun to play, but it's frustrating enough that you won't spend hours and hours playing against friends like people did on the console versions.
At first glance, Virtua Tennis isn't a great looking game, but as you spend more time with the game you appreciate the visuals more and more. For starters, the framerate is very solid, never slowing or stuttering during play. It's also very easy to see the ball, which is important since the PSP's screen is so small. There is one exception, however. Playing at night can be troublesome because of the shadows cast by the players and the ball. Since the stadium is lit from four corners, everything casts four shadows, and it can make it very tough to see the ball at times. The players' looks and movements are lifelike, though the faces still have the "zombie" look to them - something that has plagued the series since the original. The courts all have a unique look and feel to them, which makes it really feel like a different event every week.
There are two different angles to view the action from. One is the traditional overhead view that gives a great view of the entire court, but there's also another camera which is lower and over the player's shoulder. This is an awesome looking angle, and it really highlights the speed of the game, but it's not terribly conducive to playing the game, at least if you want to play at a high level. For some reason you can't even select this second viewpoint when playing multi-player matches.
There's not a whole lot to talk about when discussing Virtua Tennis' audio. The same generic rock tracks that the series is known for plays in the menus, and there's some soft music that plays in the background during matches, but to be honest I had to go back and listen to find out if it was even there. An announcer will call out the score, players will grunt as they hit the ball, and the crowd will cheer after points, but other than that, there's not much else. Everything fits nicely, and there's nothing annoying or out of place.
The bottom line is Virtua Tennis: World Tour is the perfect game for the PSP. The mini-games make it a good option if you've only got three or four minutes, and the World Tour is deep enough that you can spend an hour with it - never feeling limited by the fact that you're playing a handheld game. As good as it is, there's still room for improvement: multi-player mini-games, more players, and more unlockables are must-haves for the eventual sequel. Also, the load times are reasonable, though there are occasional noticeable stutters here and there. If you've got even a passing interest in videogame tennis, then Virtua Tennis should be one of the next games you buy for your PSP.
9/20/2005 Aaron Thomas