Review: Virtua Tennis 4

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As far as I’m concerned, there can never be too many tennis video games. I’m not sure what it is, but even in its simplest, purest form there is something deeply addictive about hitting a ball back and forth against another person or AI, as Pong demonstrated oh so many years ago. But like any sports game, there comes a time when there just isn’t much left to improve upon, and new seasonal editions grow more and more stale by the year.

Virtua Tennis has really struggled with this of late. Sega’s vaunted arcade tennis series has been stuck in neutral for years, and the previous installment, Virtua Tennis 2009, even felt like a step back in many ways. Now Virtua Tennis 4 is here, and while it does take a few baby steps in the right direction, it fails to make a huge leap forward and realize its full potential.

In my Virtua Tennis 2009 review, I described the game as being “a mixed bag of good, bad and a whole lot of ‘more of the same’,” going on to say that “there are a number of subtly effective improvements throughout, but sadly there are just as many confusing downgrades.” That statement sums up VT4 as well, although I absolutely give it the nod as the better game.

On the court, VT4 plays solidly and is generally a lot of fun. I don’t still have a copy of VT 2009 handy to make direct comparisons, but from what I remember I would say VT4 ever so slightly reverts back to the series’ arcade roots, countering them with just enough realism to appeal to fans of both arcade and simulation styles.

You have three basic shots – top spin, slice and lob – to work with, and the gameplay condenses down to getting into position quick enough to be able to charge your shots for greater power and angle. There is no timing involved, errors are unrealistically rare, and, unlike VT 2009, lobs and drop shots are back to being completely and utterly useless. Player movement and momentum is a smidge more forgiving than the last game as well, so hustling around the court feels a little more fluid and accessible. However, one thing that does annoy me is the way your player gets sucked into canned animations when charging before a swing. Sometimes you’ll be in perfect position to crack off a winner, but your avatar will run forward into the shot and hit a weak, returnable ball through no fault of your own.

The most realistic aspect to the game has to be the new Match Momentum system. During a match, you build up a momentum gauge by playing to the strengths of your character’s designated play style. So, for a player with an aggressive volley style, net shots fill the gauge, while a ground strokes specialist builds momentum by rallying from behind the baseline. Once the meter is full, you can unleash a super shot, which is accompanied by a slow-motion cutaway sequence.

What I like about this system is how it actually delivers on the realistic sensation of strategically constructing a point, and how you can literally feel yourself getting into a rhythm before going for the kill shot. I also like that not every super shot will necessarily go for a winner. If the opposing player guesses the shot angle, they can get a racket on it and extend the rally. Even more exciting, is when you have a super shot in reserve and use it to counter a super shot for an unexpected winner, instantly turning the tide of momentum in your favor.

VT4 also earns realism points for its graphics, which are vastly improved over the sub par visuals seen in the 2009 edition. The game’s 24 player avatars, including stars like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Del Potro, Sharapova, Wozniacki and old legends like Becker and Edberg, are immediately identifiable from appearance alone, and the stadiums are detailed and well lit. Conversely, the audio is lamer than ever. Ball and racket sounds couldn’t be any more unbelievable, the grunts and moans are closer to what you’d hear from any old anime or JRPG character, and there is very little audible ambiance to build tension and atmosphere during a match.

In terms of modes, don’t expect much deviation from Virtua Tennis tradition. Standard arcade, exhibition and World Tour modes are once again the main attractions, plus there’s online network play, the usual collection of addictive party games, and, in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, side modes for PlayStation Move and Kinect use.

World Tour mode, however, has been drastically reconfigured from previous seasons – and like the rest of the game, some of the changes are good, and some aren’t. Instead of grinding through a long and drawn out season of tournaments and training, the new World Tour takes the form of a board game. After first creating a player, you are taken to a world map consisting of a linked series of nodes that you must follow as you work your way to tennis stardom. As always, winning tournaments raises your ranking and rewards you with money to purchase new gear, and training in party games allows you to improve your player’s tennis skills and unlock new play styles specialize in.

You begin each day (or turn) with three numbered cards, and the card you choose to play determines the number of spaces you move on the map. Each space consists of a different event, be it a tournament, practice match, training mini-game, charity event, autograph signing or rest stop, and there are also hazard spaces that can impeded your progress.

While there is an element of random luck involved with the cards you are dealt, the board game structure actually forces you to be mindful about managing your schedule and regularly looking ahead on the map before choosing a card to play. Each season of the tour culminates with one of the four majors, and you only have a set number of days to trek across the map and qualify for the main event. Throughout this process you must also monitor your player’s conditioning. Any event you compete in drains a portion of your energy bar, and if you go into a match fatigued it directly impacts your player’s abilities on the court.

The downside to the World Tour this year is its brevity and lack of actual matches to participate in, not to mention the removal of online play integration. I went through all four seasons in just five hours, and in each season I only had to complete three or four tournaments. Compare that to VT 2009, which took me over 12 hours and 70 tournaments just to complete the amateur tour, and VT4’s career mode seems disappointingly skimpy. That said, the tour never becomes a dull grind like before, and the tournaments you do get to compete in do at least present a challenge as the seasons play out. It also helps some that you can restart the World Tour and carry over existing stat progress, even if you do have to start from the bottom of the rankings all over again.

More disappointing than anything else, though, is the lackluster motion control implementation. Back when it was first announced only for the PS3, Sega said that the game was being designed for PlayStation Move. But boy did Sega ever screw the pooch on that promise!

Instead of being fully integrated with motion controls, VT4’s Move support is relegated to a barebones side mode consisting of exhibition matches and two exclusive mini-games – one a zombie wave defense challenge, the other tasking you with returning balls into colored nets for points. That’s it – you can’t use Move to play through the World Tour, online or in any of the other fun mini-games.

Worse still, the Move controls aren’t very good to begin with. Well, the controls are fairly accurate when you can see what you’re doing, but the camera system, which jarringly jumps between first- and third-person perspectives with each passing shot, makes it nearly impossible to time swings and achieve consistency with shot placement.

As for online play, Sega has done a lot to improve performance since the last game. There is an odd lag glitch that breaks serve timing, and I have been disconnected a couple of times at inopportune moments. But beyond that my online experience has been overwhelmingly positive, with the vast majority of matches successfully completing without interruption.

For Player Matches, you can set up clubhouse lobbies hosting up to four courts, each allowing other players to compete against each other in singles, doubles or mini-games. Ranked Matches, on the other hand, are accessed via automatic matchmaking only, and while the system searches you can play through the arcade mode until a challenger is found, which I thought was a nice touch.

All factors considered, Virtua Tennis 4 is another well made game with no shortage of simple tennis-ball-swatting fun to offer. Give it a shot, and before you know it the hours will fly by as the game quietly gobbles up your time. Trust me on that!

At the same time, the improvements it does make are incremental and largely cosmetic, certain positive aspects from the previous game have been needlessly altered rather than carried over and expanded upon, and the major selling point of motion control support is lazily executed. The result is an enjoyable but altogether underwhelming effort from a series that is now officially well past its prime.

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Pros:
+ Core Virtua Tennis gameplay is as fun and addictive as always
+ New momentum gauge spices up familiar play mechanics
+ New World Tour format is a step in the right direction
+ Deep roster of authentically detailed tennis stars
+ Improved online performance
+ Awesome mini-games

Cons:
– World Tour mode is noticeably smaller in scope than last game
– Horribly disappointing Move implementation
– Weak sound effects and stadium atmosphere
– Drop shots and lobs are useless
– Canned pre-swing animations occasionally force you into unwanted positions

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for Wii and Xbox 360
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega
Release Date: 5/10/2011
Genre: Sports – Tennis
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4 (local and online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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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!