Top Spin 2
As you and your favoured pastime get older, it’s funny what changes and it’s equally funny what stays the same. Because of tennis’s familiarity and accessibility, and because you only ever control one player, and because all you ever do with that player is one thing – hit the ball – tennis is the perfect sport to transmit to the digital medium. In that respect, it’s no surprise that the first ever smash hit video game, and the game which kick started the arcade revolution, was Pong, the very first tennis video game. And that was released back in 1972 kids, yeah 1972, which would officially make that game older than me. Yes I know, that is saying something.
You can create any kind of player you like.
Do you remember those TV game things that you plugged in to your telly, had two paddles on the side and you could play pong, a squash like version of pong and a hockey game which was really just a fake pong with more bats in it? And you could control the speed of the game, size of bats, stuff like that? Well that was the first home console I can remember, pre-dating the Atari home kit by a good few years. And when Atari took the home console market into ‘console game with cartridge’ territory, is it any surprise that pong variants like Breakout and Combat played a large part in pushing the console forward?
Still, times move on and so do consoles, but like I said it’s amusing how many things have stayed the same. When I bought my 8-bit NES the first thing I did was buy an extra controller, a footy game, a racing game, a tennis game, a shooter and some kind of adventure type game to play on my own. The main difference in them days was simply that you often had much less to choose from; if you wanted a footy game you bought NES Soccer, the tennis game was NES Tennis, etc. A few years later when the SNES came out things had moved on but I pretty much bought exactly the same gaggle of games; a footy game (Super Soccer, although Striker soon replaced that), a shooter (R-Type, soon to be replaced by Star Fox), a racing game (Mario Kart, obviously), etc, etc, and a tennis game. Initially Super Tennis was the game of choice, but then came Jimmy Connors at roughly the same time as that fabled thing which changed the social aspect of gaming nights altogether, i.e. the multitap. Wow, 4-player tennis at the same time? Ouch. This trend carried on with the first Playstation and the all conquering Pete Sampras Tennis, followed by Virtua Tennis on the Dreamcast and PS2, along with Smash Court Tennis too on that latter console. Similarly Mario Tennis strutted its stuff on the Gamecube and Top Spin hit the Xbox and later the PS2 also.
State of the art shorts rendering.
So, as you can see, there have been a lot of tennis titles around over the years and we at Thunderbolt have played most of them. So the big question is: except for the obvious graphical improvements that each generation of consoles brings naturally to the table, what has changed in the world of video game tennis? Well, not a lot. Very little actually.
Let’s talk about the conventions of video game tennis, picking the trail up in the early 90s with the SNES. The advent of the four face button controller meant that each button could be assign to one of the four main types of shot; the simple safe ‘easy to hit back’ shot, the slice or drop shot, the faster top spin shot and the lob. The safe shot had always been vital, meaning anyone’s Granddad could pick up a pad and get a rally going, but the other three provided different shots for different situations, meaning you could actually get a game going that looked and played a lot like real life tennis. Players that hung back often fell to the drop shot, while players that rushed the net were often lobbed, and so on. Suddenly it was real tennis. Come on then.
And cool T-shirt effects.
The second convention was service; a tap to throw the ball in the air and a tap to hit it again, with the timing of the second hit indicating the power of the server, while the third was all about the role of the D-pad in the game. Traditionally the D-pad directed your player until you hit a shot button, at which point where you pushed the D-pad dictated where the ball was to land. Soon running the player in one direction, hitting a shot and pushing the other way on the pad was the norm, as your player sprints across court for that loose ball and smacks it back cross-court. In fact, it was how each successive game handled the look and feel of this type of stuff that indicated how good the tennis game was, not what original features it brings to the fore.
But how does this relate to Top Spin 2 on the Xbox 360? Well I would argue it’s very relevant as, not surprisingly, Top Spin 2 makes no effort to change any of these conventions in the slightest. But rather than detract from the game, it’s actually one of its strengths. Top Spin 2 takes almost the same approach as the almighty Virtua Tennis in the sense that it doesn’t try to rewrite the rule book and alienate every tennis game fan ever, rather it nurtures what skills are there and just teases a little bit extra out of the hardware. In the same sense that the graphics and player animation look amazing on Virtua Tennis, so they do on Top Spin. Similarly both games include a current roster of players that look just like their real life counterparts, and a ‘create your own player’ career mode that’s made up of a combination of training mini-games and actual court matches. So what’s the difference?
Serving is handled in a similar way to every other tennis game for the last decade.
Well, there are a few points to make clear about Top Spin 2. Firstly, the character edit screen is extensive, but that also makes it exhaustive and you can spend hours and hours tweaking noses and eyebrows and chin contours (much like in Oblivion) and still come up with a character that looks remarkably ugly and nothing like you or your intended victim. Secondly, the career mode is all inclusive but suffers from extreme loading times and much frustration and replay, especially at the early level where it’s easy to forget that pushing your thumb stick really hard is not going to make your player move faster, merely make your thumb hurt. On the upside though, this game does deal with the problem of the laborious ‘too many matches’ syndrome by allowing you to gamble your current form against your computer opponent’s and let the ghost in the machine predict the outcome of the match. This is a godsend going into major tournaments as you can skip the early rounds, although sometimes judging when to step back in is quite tricky so you do have to keep your own arrogance level in check here.
Thirdly, let’s discuss the shots. Compared to Virtua Tennis, Top Spin can be a more technical affair. The green button is this game’s safe shot and this always, always lands inside the line, but the other more specialised shots are much harder to control. The player’s momentum when he strikes the ball seems to make a bigger impact on the shot than in most titles and the button charge concept to gauge shot strength is a lot harder to judge, meaning you will have a few slam the pad down moments as you get used to the game. Whether or not this is plus or a minus though is completely up to you; this game is easy to pick up but remarkably hard to master and whether or not that’s a good thing depends entirely on your temperament, or whether or not you don’t mind forking out for a new pad on a regular basis. This is even more a case with an extra feature unique to Top Spin that’s called the risk shot. Hard to land high powered versions of the normal shots in the game are accessed by holding down the left trigger before a swing, but you have to be careful with these as they can be tricky to land. The risk shot however is accessed by holding down the right trigger before you hit the shot button, and these, like the name suggests, are very risky indeed. You have to keep your eye on your risk meter and let go at the top in order to land these babies which is tough considering you’ve also actually got to take the swing and keep your eye on the opponent too. Invariably you’ll screw this up (although no harm done on the first serve) and give the advantage back to your opponent, which is a shame as the whole concept is good in principal, but perhaps it could have been made a touch easier to execute.
You can even create players with only one arm, like this guy.
Of course, tennis games are ultimately judged on the quality of the multi-player games and these are excellent, including a few mini-games the likes of which you will have played while training. They’re a lot of fun too, but amazingly they are not transferred to the online arena. Here you can only play the basic types of matches and this sadly does detract from the online experience somewhat.
But apart from that, there’s not much wrong with Top Spin 2. It’s fun and accessible, yet quite hard to master. It obviously looks and sounds great being a 360 title, with subtle differences in audio over the different courts most obvious, but you’ll also notice that a little more effort has been made to make the courts more animated than in previous titles. In fact, this is in most ways an exceptional tennis title, but ultimately the lack of online options can only mean this game is lacking a certain something, and is likely to be knocked off the top spot when that all encompassing tennis game comes along that we’ve all been waiting for. Until that title arrives though, you can’t really go too far wrong with Top Spin 2. I might have one more go actually…