Top Spin 4

I’m still chugging away at Torchlight, but today I want to talk about Top Spin 4.  I’ve been playing it for most of the week, and I’m both in love with it and kinda embarrassed for it.

Let’s talk about the good stuff, though, because all the nitpicking in the world – and there’s plenty to nitpick here, and we’ll get to it – still doesn’t take away from the fact that the actual tennis in this game is probably the best tennis ever made.  It’s certainly easy enough to pick up and play, but there’s also a very subtle swing-timing mechanic that is incredibly difficult to master, and it makes for a huge difference in your play once you figure it out.

Let me put it this way – there’s a lengthy tutorial at the beginning of the game to better explain this swing-timing thing, and it’s pretty much required if you’re planning on being any good.  The fact that there’s a tutorial at the beginning of a tennis game seems somewhat ridiculous – virtual tennis shouldn’t be that difficult to pick up, we’ve been doing it since Pong – and I’ll come right out and say that the tutorial doesn’t do enough to really show you what you’re doing wrong.  Hell, I’m still not consistently getting my timing right, and I’ve been playing for several hours and am pretty far along in my solo career.

Essentially, the game works the way most of the late-era tennis games work – one button is for flat shots, one button is for topspin, one button is for slice, one button is for lob – but Top Spin 4 adds a new wrinkle – the length and release of your button press affects the quality of your shot.  A “good” shot is, generally a good shot; “too soon” usually results in somewhat of a softball return, and “too late” – the option I still get most of the time – can sometimes result in wide and long returns.  A “perfect” shot, though, is usually a thing of beauty – it’ll land in the corner or close to the line, and your opponent will most likely wind up out of position, and you’ll really feel like you’ve earned that point, and it’s tremendously satisfying.  I’m generally an offensive baseline kind of guy – both in real life and in games – and the game feels about as real as it can, short of swinging an actual racket.

It’s also the prettiest tennis game ever made – the animations are fluid and graceful and totally lifelike, and the stadiums and courts are flawless.  But it’s when you look at the player’s faces that the game starts to fall apart.  This isn’t a case of “uncanny valley”; this is more like “hideous robotic man-beasts wearing polo shirts.”  It’s clear that the development budget wasn’t spent on facial quality, and it’s a shame that the game spends so much time showing you closeups of your mutant virtual self.

Also, the announcers are just terrible.  There are only one or two announcers for score-keeping, for one thing, and they all speak English, whether or not you’re actually in an English-speaking country.  They also sound incredibly bored and disinterested, which is odd because it’s not like tennis scores require a lot of variety – the recording session, including multiple takes, should only have lasted about 20 minutes, really.

There are also no mini-games, which is a feature of the Virtua Tennis franchise that I really like.  In Top Spin, you’re either playing tennis or you’re switching between menu screens with interminably long loading times.

Still, though, if you’re into tennis games, Top Spin 4 is the best one on the market in terms of the actual quality of the tennis being played.  You can forgive the rest of it.

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