Review: Virtua Tennis 2009

VT2009.jpg I adore the Virtua Tennis franchise, but I must admit that the series has been in decline over recent years. Well, perhaps decline is too harsh a word. The series has fallen into a rut, I think that’s probably a more appropriate way to put it. I was hopeful that would change with the newest installment, Virtua Tennis 2009, but unfortunately it hasn’t. VT 2009 is another solid offering of accessible video game tennis, but like past seasons it fails to evolve the series forward in any significant way.

Virtua Tennis 2009 is very much a mixed bag of good, bad and a whole lot of “more of the same.” There are a number of subtly effective improvements throughout, but sadly there are just as many confusing downgrades.

Content-wise, VT 2009 is virtually identical to its predecessors. In addition to the usual assortment of exhibition, tournament, arcade and court game modes, the World Tour returns once again as the main career mode, and is laid out the same as always – create your up-and-coming tennis star, embark on a long career working through the amateur ranks and onto the pro tour towards the #1 ranking in the world, train in various mini-games and “Tennis Academy” challenges to build on-court skills, and win money to buy new outfits, rackets, and courts.

Despite the familiar layout, the World Tour mode has been tweaked around quite a bit, and as I’m sure you could have guessed, some of the tweaks are good, others not so much. The good news is the tour has been greatly expanded in length. It literally took me 12 hours and over 400 match wins spanning over 70 tournaments just to complete the amateur tour. That’s crazy! Also cool is the new online tour integration. At any time from the world map you can head online and face real competition against live players rather than AI opponents. There are even weekly online tour events you can compete in for medals. Davis Cup matches have been added as well, for those who enjoy playing for one’s country.

Sadly, these tour upgrades are overshadowed by a few glaring flaws. While the career mode is longer, it’s also much, much easier than any of the previous VT games. In all of those 12 hours and 400 matches of my amateur career, I didn’t lose a single match, nor was I ever under any threat of doing so. Only now as I work my way through the pro ranks is the CPU competition starting to put up some resistance, but I still haven’t found myself on the brink of losing a match. Because of this ease, the World Tour becomes a serious grind. I love a good grind so this doesn’t bother me so much, but I find it hard to believe that the majority of players will have the patience to stick with it like I have.

The online tour implementation could’ve balanced this out, but unfortunately the game’s online performance is pretty much broken at this point. Matches appear to play smoothly, but there is this odd lag glitch that seems to hinder your ability to score points, and it’s prevalent in every single match (at least it has been for me). You’ll smash a ball and it’ll appear to bounce twice or hover in place seemingly waiting for your opponent to catch up. For me, this glitch undermines the credibility of online competition. It’s infuriating to rip what appears to be an obvious winner, only for the game to seemingly cheat to help the opponent back in the point. And losing a point after you already should have won it only makes you want to curse at the game, slam your controller and rip out your hair. It’s that maddening!

My main disappointment with the World Tour mode, however, comes with the new player progression system. In past VT outings, you built your player much like an RPG. You’d win matches and mini-games and gain experience that would level-up all sorts of different attributes of your player’s game. This year, though, the progression system is relegated to a simple three-bar system, with training events increasing meters for Ground Strokes, Footwork & Technique, and Serve & Volley. Each time you fill up one of these bars, you unlock an appropriate play style to equip to your player, such as Rocket Server, Strong Forehand, Fast Runner, Great Returner and so on. And that’s it. A simple title next to your character’s name is the only representation you get of your player’s advancing skill, and worse yet, switching between styles seems to have very little impact on how your character plays on the court. The developer’s decision to dumb this down so much baffles me.

To the game’s credit, the actual on-the-court gameplay is better than it has ever been. VT 2009 retains the accessible, arcade-style gameplay the series has been known for since debuting on the Dreamcast (and in arcades before that), and now has an even smoother, more realistic feel to it thanks to improved animations, more natural player movement and momentum, and drop shot and lob shot mechanics that are actually useful! If you played Virtua Tennis 3 as much as I did, you too probably became annoyed with the absurdity of players diving for nearly every single passing shot. In VT 2009, diving has been completely removed and replaced by a more believable stumbling animation. It may not sound like a huge upgrade, but it really does make a world of difference. I pulled out my many-hours-used copy of VT3 to compare and found it difficult to enjoy the old gameplay pacing.

Court games continue to be a standout Virtua Tennis staple as well. VT 2009 features a good mix of old and new court games – 12 in all – some of which are now playable online (and thankfully the online lag glitch mentioned earlier doesn’t factor in much with these). Classics like Alien Attack and Pin Crusher return, and when coupled with all-new games like Pot Shot (tennis billiards) and Pirate Wars (return balls at a shooting gallery of sailing pirate ships) makes for a ridiculously addictive collection of mini-games.

Regarding graphics and audio, don’t expect to see or hear much improvement in VT 2009. In fact, you may want to brace yourself for some marginal downgrades compared to VT3. The game’s courts, crowds and players look pretty much the same at the standard playing view, but during replays when you get a clearer view of the players’ faces the facial details actually don’t look quite as sharp as the previous game. This year’s game has the strongest roster of star players the series has ever had – Federer, Nadal, Murray, Roddick, Djokovic, Ferrer, Ivanovic, Sharapova, and Williams (just Venus), to name but a few – but sadly the player likenesses aren’t as authentic as expected from a sports game in this generation.

I really don’t have much to say about the audio. The same cheesy house rock blares in the background during matches, but is easy enough to mute out if you hate it like I do. And the sound effects are generally good, though the “thwack” of the ball being hit back and forth doesn’t have the same punch as VT3.

Virtua Tennis 2009, like all previous games in the series, is a fun and often addictive game of virtual tennis, and if you have little or no previous experience with the series you’re really going to be in for a treat. But as someone who has been playing the series from the beginning, this game comes across as a bit of a lazy effort. With so few improvements, an abundance of samey content and even a few downgrades from the previous outing, I wouldn’t consider this game an upgrade over Virtua Tennis 3 in any way. As such, you’ll want to try first, see if the positive changes outweigh the bad to your tastes, and then consider whether or not it’s worth the price to switch.

TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Smoother, tighter player movement
+ Star-studded player roster
+ Addictive mini-games
+ World Tour online integration shows potential
+ No more diving!

Cons:
– World Tour player progression dumbed down significantly
– AI competition is way too easy, even on the hardest difficulty
– Laggy online play
– Graphics and audio seem slightly downgraded from last game

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also on PC, Wii and Xbox 360
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sumo Digital
Release Date: 6/9/09
Genre: Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!