Platform: Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Sumo, AM3
Release Date: 3/20/07
Genre: Sports – Tennis
Players: 1-4, 2-16 online
I’ve been a stout Virtua Tennis admirer ever since first playing the original on my friend’s Dreamcast years back. Sure my adoration for the series is helped by the fact that I’m a follower of the real-life sport (and love practically any tennis game I can get my hands on), but the beauty of the Virtua Tennis games has always been their accessibility to fans and non-fans of the sport, and both hardcore and casual gamers all alike. Continuing that winning formula, Sega has just served up the series’ next-gen debut in Virtua Tennis 3 for the Xbox 360 and PS3 (there’s a PSP version now as well), brining together stunning HD graphics and tight gameplay for one of the most worthwhile next-gen releases of the year so far.
Upon inserting Virtua Tennis 3 into your 360 or PS3 and hopping into a match, you’ll notice that not much has changed since the series last left off in 2005 with Virtua Tennis: World Tour on the PSP. The mode lineup is identical in many ways, featuring instant singles and doubles exhibitions and tournaments and the return of the World Tour career mode, however a new Court Games multiplayer mini-game mode and online play do add on one more level of replay value, as do the many milestone-based achievements found in the 360 version. Inexplicably, PS3 owners got hosed here as online play was left out in favor of a gimmicky and completely broken and unplayable Sixaxis motion-sensing control scheme (thank goodness its optional!). What makes this matter worse is the fact that the 360’s online support is one of the game’s best assets, offering intense tennis competition in ranked and unranked matches and online tournaments, and a cool VT.TV spectator mode to kick back and watch. Why no love for PS3 online Sega?
Getting past the disappointing lack of PS3 online play, the main attraction for both versions is the moderately improved World Tour mode, in which you create a player (sadly, the character creation is still pretty shallow though) and embark on a long career to become the #1 player in the world. To achieve this goal you’ll need to train your tennis star prospect and build up his/her stroke, serve, volley and footwork skills however you like by participating in a variety of fun mini-games, playing practice matches and visiting the Tennis Academy to take on more specific skill-based challenges. Once your player’s skills are up to snuff, you can then decide to participate in tournaments available to your current tour ranking, and as you win matches and tournaments your ranking increases and more competitions open up until you’re able to compete in the four coveted major tournaments. Winning tournaments and reaching certain milestones also rewards you with new tennis gear to outfit with, including new rackets that provide extra stat boosts. The career flow hasn’t changed a bit over past Virtua Tennis games, but the training methods are a little more in-depth at least, and with 10-15 hours of investment needed to obtain the top ranking and complete all of the mini-games and academy missions it’s substantially longer than what I remember from the previous games.
As always, Virtua Tennis 3 puts forth a champion’s effort in the mini-game department as well, even more so this outing thanks to its 10 all-new mini-games (with two returning favorites for a total of 12). Mini-games come in a wide variety of skill-testing activities, from the Space Invaders-esque Alien Attack game in which you must destroy approaching rows of aliens before they reach the net, to Avalanche, an event that challenges your movement skills in dodging giant rolling tennis balls to collect fruit. Then there is the always-enjoyable tennis version of bowling known as Pin Crusher, and others like Drum Topple where you use ground strokes to knock over stacks of oil drums and the self-explanatory Court Curling. Focusing exclusively on the mini-games, a new multiplayer-only Court Games mode has been introduced to let 2-4 players compete locally in games like Pin Crusher, Court Curling, Alien Attack and Super Bingo.
Whichever mode you’re playing, Virtua Tennis 3’s tight gameplay straddles the line between realism and arcade-like to make certain you have a smile-inducing experience. Requiring the use of only the analog stick to move around and three buttons for top spin, slice and lob shots, the controls are accessible and intuitive for ultimate playability no matter what your gaming experience or knowledge of the sport may be. That being said, on the higher difficulties the CPU AI becomes quite devious, requiring some actual tennis know-how in mixing up shot selection and putting together point strategies on the fly in order to come out victorious, which I certainly appreciated given my affinity for the real sport. In skewing more towards arcade sensibilities, a few minor imperfections keep the gameplay from evolving past its predecessors in terms of realism, namely the inconsistent volleying, utterly useless lob shot and near-nonexistent presence of errors and service aces, but fortunately none of these cripple the play experience. Overall you simply won’t find many games that can match Virtua Tennis 3‘s pure level of entertainment.
Tapping the power of next-gen hardware and supporting true 1080p HD (if you actually have a TV to support it), Sumo and AM3 have crafted not only the best looking tennis game ever, but one of the most visually gifted sports games overall. Virtua Tennis 3’s 20 licensed male and female pros – including among others Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal, James Blake, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport — have been modeled in astounding detail and realistically animated to capture their unique swing mechanics and mannerisms. Subtle details like clothing and hair animations also heighten the visual realism over what’s been seen in past sports titles and give the game that true “next-gen” polish that not many others have (the ball physics are pitch-perfect too by the way). Aside from the player models, the various court locales are beautiful as well, showing off detailed court surface textures, great lighting and realistic courtside set pieces. The stadium crowds, on the other hand, look pretty ugly when you get a clear shot of them, but thankfully they’re really only ever visible during the pre- and post-game sequences. Crowd noise is solid at least, as are the announcing and on-court play sounds – if only the cheesy rock riffs and electronica tracks didn’t drown out much of the ambiance.
Virtua Tennis 3 clearly falls under the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” method of game design. Except for the updated visuals and a few minor content additions, this is very much the same Virtua Tennis fans have already been playing and loving for years. While that inherently works in the game’s favor, as it’s just as fast, fun and fluid as it has ever been, I couldn’t shake this subtle feeling of déjà vu that occasionally swept over me as I took to the virtual courts. Lack of evolution aside, Virtua Tennis 3 manages to serve up yet another ace for the series in all areas, be it the true next-gen graphics, silky smooth animations, tight and addictive gameplay or limitless replay value. With online play and achievements, the Xbox 360 version comes out just ahead of the PS3 in terms of replay value, but no matter which console you play it on Virtua Tennis 3 is the best game of tennis on the market, bar none.