Saturday, February 27, 2010

New Star Tennis Review

New Star Tennis, developed and published by New Star Games.
The Good: Challenging AI opponents, assorted activities other than tennis matches
The Not So Good: New players require a lot of initial training and aren’t competitive, no novice tournaments, difficult control scheme, lacks multiplayer, repetitive free time activities
What say you? Similar to other New Star offerings, the tennis version has tricky controls, artificially high difficulty, and limited side activities: 4/8

It seems like it’s always tennis season, the minor diversion that only grabs our attention during a major or a local event. Yes, the green ball has waned in popularity, likely due to the decrease in male talent. In fact, women’s tennis has been more interesting for quite a long time, ever since the druggies left the sport. The world of New Star has invaded the tennis scene, previously conquering soccer and racing with consistently good (6/8) scores. Those previous titles, as with most things, had room for improvement; has New Star Tennis delivered an improved experience?

For $15, New Star Tennis offers a decent presentation. The game seems to use a slightly improved version of the 3-D engine from the New Star Soccer series, rendering the tennis environment in all three dimensions. The characters could be animated better, but the models themselves look good enough and the animations never negatively impact the gameplay. The game certainly does not have any fancy special effects, but it holds its own and New Star Tennis is definitely playable. The interface remains the same as before, and most pertinent information is easily accessible. The sound design is acceptable, with the same background music from previous games plus appropriate tennis sounds: balls being smacked and crowds reacting. Overall, New Star Tennis looks and sounds exactly as I would have expected.

In New Star Tennis, you start out as a wimpy fifteen-year-old with thoughts of grand tennis victory. You get to customize your name, date of birth, nationality, skin and hair color, and height. Unfortunately, you can only start the game as a very bad novice player, and this has serious negative consequences that we will delve into shortly. The world of New Star Tennis has almost-real players, using the one-letter-off mechanic done in previous games; you can tell who they are if you are familiar with tennis. In a sexist move, New Star Tennis does not allow you play as or against women; this would not have necessarily added anything different to the game, but the option should have been present. Apart from the career mode, you can partake in quick matches using any of the real/fake tennis stars included with the game. New Star Tennis does not include multiplayer in any fashion, either on the same computer (with a keyboard and a gamepad, for example), over a LAN, or on the Internet. The game also lacks doubles competition, a staple of tennis simulations.

During your wondrous career, you must maintain your energy, skills, lifestyle, and happiness. Energy is expended by practicing and playing in tournaments and replenished with old-fashioned rest. Your lifestyle is improved by buying things with the money earned in tournaments, a simplification that has interesting philosophical ramifications. New Star Tennis lacks relationship and family options present in previous titles, so they only way to enhance your life is to buy stuff. If it were only that simple in real life. You can get happy by betting on horses or in a casino, playing darts, or kart racing. The betting mini-games are simplistic with the usual options from previous games, darts uses the mouse and some semi-random targeting to increase uncertainty, and the kart racing is a poor replica of New Star Racing. You can choose up to three activities to do per week, but almost all of your time will be spend training.

Training comes in two flavors: manual and automatic. You can participate in sessions against the ball machine to improve your serve, forehand, backhand, volley, or spin. You must land the ball on a target and reach a predetermined score before you run out of balls (there is an inappropriate joke in there somewhere…). If you purchase gym equipment, you can improve your speed and stamina simply by clicking on an icon: working out was never so easy! The training is very repetitive, or guaranteed, so it loses interest quickly.

Ready to take on the world? Tournaments are offered almost every week, offering different prizes and surfaces (clay, grass, hard). Problem is that even the cheapest tournaments (in terms of payouts) are against the best players in the world, giving you absolutely no chance of victory until you tediously (and slowly) improve your stats. New Star Tennis lacks lower level tournaments, and I honestly have no idea why. Get ready to be pitted against the top seeds in the world and suffer defeat early and often. Talk about discouraging. Adding to the frustration is the control scheme. Tennis is an admittedly difficult sport to develop a control scheme for, and New Star Tennis tries its best but still comes up short. You can given four shots (normal, lob, slice, top spin) to execute, and you must hold the appropriate shot button well before the ball arrives so that you can use the arrow keys to direct it to an appropriate part of the court. This method attempts to give the player control over where their shot will go, but it’s honestly too much to do in a short amount of time. I had a heck of a time getting the controls down, and I play a lot of computer games. It might have been better to sacrifice some control and just direct your shot roughly in the direction you are heading when the ball is hit, instead of stopping your movement when the swing begins and making the player determine placement. On top of this, low stats (the ones you are forces to start with) make pulling things off even more difficult. Sigh. Unfortunately, the main way to maintain your character’s happiness and lifestyle is to earn money, money you can’t earn in tournaments because your stats are so low. It’s a vicious cycle. The quality AI players don’t help, as they can place difficult, quality shots with ease. So what we’re left with is a difficult game made even more difficult because of the unnecessary hatred directed towards newly created characters in the form of slow development and vastly superior opponents. Boo/hiss.

New Star Tennis has the same general structures as the previous mostly successful New Star games, but falters because of a couple of reasons. First off, your starting character is totally incompetent, and only after lots of repetitive training do they become more capable of winning a tournament. Novice tournaments are not included in the game, which means you will waste your time entering any competitive event without comprehensive training first. This is an unintelligent design decision that really discourages new players. There are other things to do other than play tennis, like gamble or darts, but these are only minor diversions that become repetitive quickly. The controls take some getting used to, as you must start swinging well before the ball arrives and place the target in the appropriate location while not moving. I don’t remember seeing real tennis players stop once they begin to swing. While this makes it possible to use real tennis strategy in the game, it’s not the most intuitive method. New Star Tennis lacks any multiplayer competition, either on the same computer or online, further reducing its appeal. Adapting the New Star universe towards a tennis simulation is a good idea, but this game is too hard for beginners and too repetitive.