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Virtua Tennis 4 creates a realistic tennis experience with its new PS3 Move controls. Even without being integrated into the main game and a lacklustre application of spin, the joy of real tennis is convincingly recreated for those with a genuine interest in the sport.
If you follow tennis videogames as closely as I do you will no doubt have realised that the last few instalments of Virtua Tennis (Virtua Tennis 3 and Virtua Tennis 2011) have been less than convincing. The heady days of the power and importance of the Virtua Tennis arcade experience are long gone, as competitors like Topspin steal ground.
Anyone who plays tennis in the real world knows that success is as much about touch, clear thinking and consistency as it is about power. Although there is no denying that there will always be space for the likes of Sampras in the history books, the modern game demands a more rounded approach as Federer and after have shown.
This is a broadly helpful analogy for the recent form of Virtua Tennis which, like the misguided focus of young players on developing a blistering serve, became distracted with novelties instead of sticking to the simplicity of its core experience. Virtua Tennis felt the need to add a range of gimmicks and minigames that really added very little to the overall game. Indeed, if these were intended to draw in a more casual audience they also seem to have failed and in fact driven away those who used to enjoy the more accessible original.
Thankfully for all involved, Virtua Tennis 4 is a new chapter for the franchise. The game has been returned to the original developers, something that is instantly telling in each version -- the game is available on Wii, 360 and PS3, each with their own platform specific control scheme.
If you have not read many of my sporting reviews you may be surprised to hear me sidestepping the central game-pad based gameplay. Granted, this is where many hardcore gamers will find the most value and the traditional controls are precise and easy to use while at the same time offering a genuine challenge.
I am more interested in how Virtua Tennis 4 replicates the feel of playing tennis.
However, I am actually more interested in how well Virtua Tennis 4 replicates the feel of playing tennis in the real world with its motion controls. So far I have only had a cursory glance at Virtua Tennis 4 (MotionPlus) and Virtua Tennis 4 (Kinect) implementations, so I will reserve judgment on them for a later date. I have however had plenty of time to work with the PlayStation 3 Move controls, and it is here that I want to focus my critique.
My initial reaction to the Virtua Tennis Move offering was disappointment. Rather than include the controls as part of the main game they are found in an adjunct section called Motion Tennis. Here, you can play one-off games against a computer or human opponent (provided you have the requisite Move controllers to hand).
The Move controls themselves turn out to be much more exciting though. Rather than remain in a third-person perspective, as we are used to in other motion controlled sports games (and really, Grand Slam Tennis and Wii-Sports Tennis are my only points of reference here) the additional graphical horsepower is put to impressive use. As the ball approaches your player the camera flies down to a first person perspective.
This not only adds a sense of geographic placement on the court but also provides sight of the racket in your hands. The sense of connection is impressive and touches on Wii-Sports Resort table tennis and Sports Champions one-to-one relationship between the controller and the on-screen character. As you twist and adjust the Move wand in your hand the racket matches you perfectly on the screen.
I was soon returning shots almost without thinking about it.
It takes a bit of getting used to, but works well for one reason: it recreates a real sense of hitting the ball from a real game of tennis. Seeing the ball come flying in and timing your shot becomes one fluid motion rather than the usual haphazard grappling to press buttons early enough. I was soon returning shots with a high degree of precision almost without thinking about it.
It's really very impressive, in fact almost too impressive. You see, the realism means that you expect the ball and racket to behave as they would in real life, much more than you do when using a game-pad. And here I found Virtua Tennis a little lacking.
Although the direction and timing of your swing has the appropriate affect on the ball, the angle of the racket and slice or top spin motion seemed to be almost nonexistent. I struggled to consistently achieve either a topspin or backspin shot and drop shots were almost impossible.
It made me realise how good Grand Slam Tennis was at reading the motion of the controller and applying the relating spin to the ball. It also made good sense of having a button to trigger a drop shot than rely purely on angle and weight of movement -- although on this last point Sports Champions table tennis actually managed to implement an excellent drop shot without resorting to triggers.
It is here that real world tennis enthusiasts will have the most to enjoy.
The Move controls in Virtua Tennis 4 are something of a mixed bag. In some ways they feel like an afterthought, and perhaps give away some of the problems of developing motion controls on three different platforms for a single release. However, apart from the niggles I'm very happy they have been included. It is here, rather than in the more technical aspects of the game, that real world tennis enthusiasts will have the most to enjoy.
If other sports videogames can follow the lead offered by Virtua Tennis and focus their attention on recreating the experience of playing rather than simulating the technicalities, this will be very good news for everyone. Except maybe those hardcore videogame players who seem to want to turn every experience into a variation of shooting, running and jumping.
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