Sunday, December 07, 2008

Tennis Elbow 2009 Review

Tennis Elbow 2009, developed and published by Mana Games.
The Good: Realistic game mechanics with unique shot positioning, challenging AI, online play, robust season mode with customizable characters and attribute progression, variable help with shot destination indicators
The Not So Good: Subpar graphics with poor animations that impact the gameplay, aiming re-centers which makes accurate shots difficult
What say you? It’s not the best looking game, but an enjoyable strategic take on tennis: 6/8

June 9, 2010 - Hello there! I played through the demo of Tennis Elbow 2011 and liked what I saw: more fluid animations (and improved graphics overall) make hitting the ball much less frustrating. Aiming accurately still takes some practice, but overall its a nice update to a good franchise. End transmission!

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Of all of the sports-related injuries, I would say that tennis elbow is a lot more preferable than some of the alternatives. Take some aspirin and stop lifting milk; I can deal with that. Unless, of course, the strain of tennis elbow you have contracted is Tennis Elbow 2009, an obviously more painful version (approximately 2009 times more so). Either that, or Tennis Elbow 2009 is the latest game in a series I had previously not heard of, boasting computerized trips to grass, clay, and magical blue surfaces to pound a green ball into submission. Hey, you’d be green too if somebody kept smacking your balls with a racquet. Aren’t organized sports wonderful?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Tennis Elbow 2009 screams “independent developer.” The graphics are decidedly out-of-date, featuring 3-D characters against an obviously 2-D background. While you can customize the look of your characters, the 3-D models are pretty basic and have very rough animations. Players will consistently slide across the court (especially when missing a shot) and the racquet and ball with not always interact correctly, resulting in a lot of shots with the ball in the middle of the players’ bodies. Usually I can resist the temptation of quality graphics when reviewing independent titles, but a visual overhaul is something that would greatly benefit Tennis Elbow 2009. Normally I don’t post screenshots of games, but the developer was so adamant, here you go:
clay tennis court

Everyone happy?
The sound effects are along the same lines: nothing coming close to a top-notch product, but they do not negatively impact the gameplay as the graphics do. I do like the announcer calling the scores in the native language of the tournament, but the crowd reactions are sporadic, either reacting way too much or not at all. Plus, Tennis Elbow 2009 has pretty terrible music that has to go. Sports games is one genre that can benefit from a realistic atmosphere, and Tennis Elbow 2009 comes up short. I’m not expecting super-realism when it comes to the game, but something on par with a Dreamcast game isn’t asking too much I think.

ET AL.
Despite the less-than-stellar graphics, Tennis Elbow 2009 has a comprehensive set of features. The menu system could be organized better: there are too many sub-menus accessed by extremely large icons that could have been consolidated onto one or two screens. There is a lot to choose from, however: practice games against passive AI opponents, single games (that can’t be played as a world tour character, strangely), a world tour, and online play. Single games can feature customized court surfaces, number of sets, and singles or doubles action. The world tour has a number of nice features: experience points from previous matches and practice can be added to your character’s abilities, a large number of opponents in a world ranking system, and a constant calendar of events for all difficulty levels. A career in the world tour lasts about fifteen years, and you can track not only your progression but also that of your competitors. In addition to playing against the computer, you can take your skills (or lack thereof, in my case) online and compete against human foes. Joining a game is easy using Tennis Elbow 2009’s browser and performance seems to be quite acceptable. I am quite satisfied with the amount of features contained in Tennis Elbow 2009.

The controls are, quite simply, different from any other tennis game, and it took me a while (meaning a lot of blowout losses) to figure that out. I guess it pays to read the manual. Most tennis games have you press the appropriate button and release it when the ball meets your racquet; holding the button longer results in a more powerful shot. However, Tennis Elbow 2009 wants you to hold the button down until after you have hit the ball. Pressing the button sooner results in a more accurate shot, and placement can be adjusted while the shot button is pressed. It took quite a while to adjust to this novel control scheme, but once I learned it, I found it preferable to “normal” controls found in other games. Tennis Elbow 2009 favors strategic positioning of your player over lightning-fast reflexes, resulting in a more tactical game and less of an arcade experience. If that is what you are looking for, then Tennis Elbow 2009 delivers. Players get a normal strike, a slice, and a faster shot; pressing up or down on the control pad will modify the arc of your shot. The speed of your shot is determined by your stats rather than user input.

Because of the control scheme, you have more time to plan your shots and the result is a more accurate tennis game, as opposed to the ping-pong effect seen in so many competitors. The game can show you proper positioning and where you should be for the best shot, in addition to where your current inputs will send the ball. The only difficulty with the controls is aiming: even after you give some guidance to your shot, the target will re-center, so you’ll have to adjust your shot again if you hold the button down for a longer period of time. Once I figured out that you keep the button pressed until after you hit the ball, the game got a lot easier. Tennis Elbow 2009 is less about reflexes and more about positioning, and there is no more randomness in getting a good shot. I had to fight the feeling I had from every other tennis game: holding down the button longer does not mean power and you don’t need to release at the correct split second. Here, holding down the button sooner means a more accurate shot, and you need to hold it past when you actually hit it. It’s a lot more strategic and, I feel, more enjoyable and less reliant on reflexes. The AI is also a very good opponent, supremely challenging at higher difficulty levels and reasonable beatable at lower ones. The AI does a fantastic job at accurately sending the ball to places where it would be very difficult for you to return it, increasing the replay value of Tennis Elbow 2009 as it would take quite some time to master the AI opponent.

IN CLOSING
The graphics could benefit from some improvement, but Tennis Elbow 2009 offers a pleasing amount of features and a unique control scheme that emphasizes strategy over reflexes. It took a while to get used to the “keep holding the button down” mechanics, but once I became accustomed to the controls (with help provided by the on-screen icons), it became quite intuitive and resulted in more accurate placement of shots and less unfair randomness impacting the gameplay. Re-centering the aiming during shots is a strange phenomenon (this may be adjustable in the game options), but you can deal with it. Tennis Elbow 2009 is chock full of features: single and practice games, a robust fifteen-season world tour mode with character progression (both yours and everyone else’s), and online play that’s easy to join. The character animations are poor and result in some wacky looking shots and slight influences on the outcome, but for $25, I am willing to forgive sub-par graphics and revel in the quality of the gameplay. As long as looks don’t matter, Tennis Elbow 2009 will appeal to anyone looking for a more realistic simulation of tennis.