Sunday, July 17, 2011

Virtua Tennis 4 Review

Virtua Tennis 4, developed and published by SEGA.
The Good: Enjoyable and approachable position-based gameplay, board game career mode with varied mini-games that earn experience, real-life players with many balanced play styles, competent AI opponents
The Not So Good: Simple controls lack depth and lead to few errant shots, online lag can significantly affect games, low replay value in career mode, can’t create a leveled-up custom player for exhibition or multiplayer matches
What say you? This arcade tennis sequel serves up satisfying content and gameplay for fans of the sport: 6/8

Summer! And that can mean only one sport: NFL lockout! Wait, no, I mean: baseball! Well, yeah, but baseball is boring and the season is excruciatingly long. So it must be: NASCAR! Yeah, but NASCAR only comes in the form of subscription-based iRacing on the PC, so that’s out. How about: women’s world cup soccer! Well, I don’t think there’s a dedicated game for that (surprisingly). So, finally we arrive at: tennis (or, as the Europeans call it, “rugby”). Yes, the gentlemen’s (and ladies’) sport ripe with enough grunting to compliment a good adult movie makes for solid computer gaming. Arguably the most renowned tennis series, Virtua Tennis, makes its third appearance on the PC (the second iteration skipped our valiant platform, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and when has it ever lead us wrong?)) in Virtua Tennis 4, featuring top players in digital form, a revamped career mode, and enhanced online play. Despite the fact that Word’s spell checker clearly does not think “virtua” is a real word, does Virtua Tennis 4 provide compelling tennis action, or drop the ball in straight sets?

The graphics and sound of Virtua Tennis 4 are good, but fall short of being great. The players look like their real-life counterparts, and the animations are generally done quite well, as you are never stuck in a movement. However, there are some noticeable transitions that lack fluidity when moving quickly across the court and lunging for the ball. The occasional slow motion effects are a little silly (bright green particles flying off the ball and lots of blurriness), but aren’t over the top. The courts and scoreboards are reasonable detailed, placing you in legal facsimiles (“London”, “New York”) of the world’s greatest stadiums. The camera allows you to choose the classic TV view or be perched over the shoulder of your player for a third-person playing perspective that’s quite immersive, if more difficult to use. The sound package is decent enough, with player-specific grunts and appropriate hitting sounds. Crowd reactions are also apt, and get your fired up for match point. The music is entirely generic and instantly forgettable. Overall, while Virtua Tennis 4 isn’t a graphical powerhouse, it gets the job done.

Virtua Tennis 4 is virtual tennis 4 you (see how that works?). You can start in practice mode, which offers bare tutorial instructions but less pressure than playing against the AI in a traditional match. Virtua Tennis 4 also includes an arcade mode where you encounter four professionals consecutively on four different courts (modeled after the major tennis events), and an exhibition mode where you can customize game length settings. Virtual Tennis 4 has pretty much all of the current tennis players you’ve heard of: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Venus Williams (but not Serena), and Maria Sharapova, so no complaints here. Online play support is just OK: it starts with the evil that is Games for Windows Live, which offers both ranked and custom matches against human opponents. While you are waiting for the system to find you a challenger, you can play through the arcade mode: a nice feature that eliminates the boredom of waiting for others. Unfortunately, I had terrible problems with serious in-game lag, most likely caused by high ping between players (a consequence of a low player count, I would assume); it resulted in slow, 5 FPS games that made the matches unplayable. On top of this, you can’t quit a match to get away from a bad connection, so you simply have to suffer through it. Finally, any of the career mode’s mini-games are available to play against others on the same computer in party mode, but not online.

A big draw of Virtua Tennis 4 is the revamped world tour career mode. You create a young tennis novice, customize their appearance, and then make your way across a game board towards the region’s major event. You are given a set of tickets for each turn, like rolls of the dice, and choose one of them to dictate how many tiles to move across the board. This method is kind of cool and unique, and it’s much better than simply picking items from a menu. There is also a tiny bit of strategy planning your moves to land on the best tiles. What are on these tiles? Events (singles, doubles, special, tournament, and “fancy dress” that requires specific items of apparel to be worn) and eight training mini-games, mostly. The mini-games are varied and interesting, at least the first ten times you play them: you can shoot clay targets, score soccer goals, collect eggs, flip cards for poker hands, play in heavy wind, explode bombs, place walls, and collect coins. The mini-games do get a bit repetitive after a while, but it’s more entertaining than simply playing a long string of traditional tennis matches. Other tile options include resting to recuperate your condition (fatigue will negatively impact in-game performance) and a shop where you can buy tickets of a specific value or other special items. Over time, you’ll gain experience in five areas (condition, stroke, defending, tactical, and net play), earn money, gain ranking and publicity, and unlock new clothing options. I found the career mode to have appropriate rising difficulty that is paced well, though there is little reason to play again, as the progression is generally the same (although you’d land on different events the next time around). You also can’t start out with a good player to use in the other modes or online play. This limitation is disappointing since there are many play styles to choose from that the included real-world players do not use. Still, the world tour proved to be entertaining for a while, until the repetitive eight mini-games started duplicating themselves too much.

Like in most tennis games, the controls for Virtua Tennis 4 aren’t exactly complicated. This is a position-based game where you simply have to press-and-release the corresponding shot button before the ball arrives; the sooner you press it, the more powerful the shot will be. This method is much easier to learn but obviously lacks some of the depth found in other tennis simulations; shots rarely land out of bounds, so you usually have to rely on your opponent moving in the wrong direction to score a point. There are three basic shots to choose from: the high lob (used to go over your opponent), medium topspin (used most of the time), and low slice (used to buy some time to recover). You can also use a super shot, unlocked when you accumulate enough match momentum. Each player has a specific play style (there are twenty, such as strong forehand, solid defense, great return, or fast runner), and if you play in this style, you’ll unlock a super shot every couple of games. The play styles are balanced well and rewards you for playing the “right” way for your character; this also seems to be the only distinction between different players anyway. I found the AI opponents to be adjusted well at each difficulty level: “easy” opponents will flub on shots and create a lot of powerful return opportunities, while “hard” players will commonly land shots in hard-to-reach places. The AI serves as a good substitute for the iffy online play.

Virtua Tennis 4 delivers exactly what you’d want to see in a mass-market tennis game. While not the most technically challenging simulation on the market, the gameplay emphasizes being in the appropriate position rather than releasing the shot button at the right time, which makes the game very easy to grasp for newcomers. Of course, this also means that Virtua Tennis 4 lacks some depth, and it’s far too easy to land a majority of your shots between the lines even if you were out of position; those looking for a more sophisticated control scheme will be disappointed. Each player has a particular style that makes them perform differently, and playing in that style will earn momentum that will allow you to unleash powerful shots to win at critical moments. The AI and overall difficulty is balanced quite well: “easy” is “easy” while “hard” is “hard”: the computer will not hesitate capitalizing on your mistakes. The world tour career mode uses a board game mechanic of semi-random movement through tournaments and diverse mini-games; it’s a neat idea that works well while being much more interesting than choosing events yourself with no limitations. Even with the random elements, multiple career modes will still play out similarly, and you can’t start out as a high-level star and skip the trivially simply beginner’s events. Online play is typical fare, though a low player population means high ping lag will become a huge problem in a game that relies on quick inputs. Reasonably priced for a sports sequel at $30, Virtua Tennis 4 is recommended for fans of more casual tennis games.