Review: Virtua Tennis 4
September 15, 2011, Author: James Sheppard
I admit that in order to play a certain type of game, you don’t exactly need to participate in the activity in real life. I don’t work for criminal gangs and mob bosses, or spend time joyriding in cars stolen from my neighbourhood, but I still enjoy playing Grand Theft Auto. It’s rare that I visit magical fantasy worlds and slay dragons for my holidays (sadly), but that doesn’t stop me from being absolutely psyched for Skyrim.
That said, my general apathy (and incompetence) as far as sports are concerned has effectively caused me to steer clear of practically all games in the genre. I couldn’t care less about the yearly rivalry between FIFA and PES, and nor was I excited about SEGA’s latest release in their Virtua Tennis Series. When a reviewer was needed for Virtua Tennis 4, however, I bravely stepped up to the role regardless (I know; I’m an inspiration).
With absolutely no knowledge of the real-world game of tennis, or previous video-games of the sport, I wouldn’t get your hopes up for an overly informed review. Nevertheless, read on as I serve up my own spin on the game (and hopefully not too many more terrible puns).
You learn something new every day
So as it turns out, tennis is an unusual sport. Players hit balls back and forth at each other over a net, and whoever misses gets a point scored against them. Except, points are scored in a bizarre fashion: 15, 30, 40, and the next is a win. If both players reach 40, they enter a tie-breaker called Deuce. Whoever thought all that up? It’s a bit weird if you ask me; I can’t see it catching on personally.
Okay, let me put my serious hat on. In Virtua Tennis 4, you design your own unattractive tennis player with the ugly character creation tools provided, and pit them against the world. As you travel the world and compete in tournaments, you will rise through the ranks, face real-world pros and become the ‘ultimate tennis star’, or some other cheesy crap like that. Racquets at the ready?
A grand slam?
At first glance, I was taken aback by the peculiar method of progression through the campaign. The ‘World Tour’ is organised like a board game, with different activities on each square. Movement is determined by a similar concept to the dice roll, except that you actually have a few randomised choices to make from so-called ‘movement cards’. Essentially, it’s like throwing three dice at once, choosing which one to use and keeping the remaining two for the next turn, when you’ll get another dice to roll as well.
Consequently, there is a lot of strategy involved in advancing through the game. Movements must be chosen wisely in order to take part in all of the tournaments, exhibition matches and other events that you wish. Careless planning could lead to missing out on some of the major parts of the game, and the obligatory outbursts of profanity that will ensue as a result. Player condition is also an important matter to take into consideration; fully rested, your concentration gauge (special meter) in-game will fill easier, but at rock bottom you’ll sustain injuries and possibly be out of action for a few days.
Progression through the campaign is certainly rewarding, however. Not only is winning matches and tournaments gratifying in itself, but advancement will earn you money, new kit and play-styles to customise your player with, skill and conditioning upgrades, star points (determining how much of a “star” you are), and ultimately rising through the ranks from a nobody to a legend.
It’s a shame that not all of this is easy to grasp right away. The game is quite unhelpful towards beginners; in fact, it brutally punishes incompetence in one of the harshest manners that I’ve ever seen. Let me elaborate. Star points not only increase your rank and status, but they are essential for participating in many of the main tournaments.
The world tour movement system is initially a little confusing, and the core game mechanics aren’t fully explained; consequently you could be expected to lose a few matches in the beginning, or miss them out altogether. You’ll be low on star points, so you will be refused admission to the first few main tournaments. However, these tournaments are integral to earning star points in the first place, so you’re extremely unlikely to make a comeback.
Unless you’re experienced in tennis video-games, or luck-out and are naturally gifted in playing them, you will therefore be penalised for your early mistakes, and thrown into a vicious cycle of failure and inability to experience the game to its fullest. I know this all too well, because I suffered it first-hand. The only option is to persevere through a limited world tour, or do what I did and restart from the beginning.
I almost get the impression that SEGA saw this coming, however, because the game is very accommodating towards restarting. You’ll keep your skill levels, unlocked kit and play styles, money and mini-game progression intact. This could feel a little like cheating if you were intending to truly make a fresh start, but at least it helps out beginners.
Down to the nitty-gritty: how does the game actually play? There’s so much extra padding in the form of world tour progression, side-events, mini games and unlockables that the actual bread-and-butter of the game (you know, tennis), is easily lost in all of the chaos.
That said, it’s solid and well implemented when you actually get round to it. Controls and movement are responsive, but imperfect enough to simulate the reality of human performance. I strongly recommend that you use a gamepad to play, as it will make your experience a much more pleasant one. I used an Xbox 360 controller, which as a Games for Windows Live title, Virtua Tennis 4 supports out-of-the-box.
You can perform top spins, slices and lobs (not that I’d ever heard of any of these manoeuvres before). As you progress, you choose a play style that complements your personal strengths, such as emphasising hard shots, cheeky close-to-the-net smashes or all-round consistency. Play to these strengths and the concentration gauge will fill, enabling you to perform a Super Shot. The camera zooms in and slow-mo activates as you unleash a corker of a shot, which your opponent will struggle to return.
To improve your conditioning and skill stats on the court, you can choose to visit mini-game events. There are a wide range of these, varying in difficulty, fun, and absurdity. ‘Target’ has you returning balls fired from a ball-launcher, and aiming them at stacks of moving targets. This is one of my personal favourites, as it actually practises important elements of tennis; your aim and timing.
‘Chicken’, on the other hand, involves running around like an idiot, hatching chicks from eggs and delivering them to their coop, all whilst balls are fired at you with the intent of murdering your fluffy little buddies. I have no idea who thought that this would be an ideal side-game for a tennis simulator, but whoever it was, I’d like to meet them and shake them warmly by the… neck.
If you’re in the mood for eschewing all of this tat in favour of some real tennis, Arcade and Exhibition modes are eager to please. For simple, no-frills gameplay they’re perfect, but I have to admit that I spent the majority of my time in the bloated World Tour mode; for all of its niggles and quirks, it’s surprisingly compelling.
Shabby or Sharapova?
Virtua Tennis 4 is easy enough on the eyes, and runs smoothly on my modest gaming PC at high settings. The menus and interface are slick and well organised. Visuals are mostly clean and crisp throughout, and the real-world players look adequately realistic (I had to consult Google as a reference, mind you). The graphical highlight is arguably the depth of field effects, which blur the background behind the player in close-up shots.
Other than that, however, the visuals don’t actually impress; they merely suffice. You’re unlikely to find much to write home about. As I mentioned earlier, customised characters also have a tendency to be a little on the… unappealing side. After spending a few minutes proudly designing my avatar, I almost wept after discovering how genuinely repulsive he was in-game. A second attempt didn’t really improve matters.
Making a racquet
I often find that memorability of the game soundtrack is indicative of its quality; as long as it’s memorable in a positive way, at least. I had to rack my brains for a few minutes to even remember what any of Virtua Tennis 4’s music was like. The World Tour menu is accompanied by a tune that would be better suited in an elevator (or a call centre’s phone-hold system), the theme tune during the opening cinematic is embarrassingly corny, and everything else is equally as mediocre and uninspiring.
Sound effects fit the bill well enough, with the exception of one of the male voices. All of the others emit typical grunts of exertion on hitting the ball, but for some reason one of them sounds like a woman… enjoying herself.
Make that a doubles
If you’re ready to serve up some whup-ass, then a world of competitors are waiting for you in Online mode, or rather, you’ll be waiting for them, as just a couple of months after release, it’s a bit of a ghost town. It’s almost like SEGA anticipated the game’s unpopularity, however, because it has a clever measure set in place to stop you from getting bored whilst you wait.
The game places you in Arcade mode against AI, so you can warm up and do something better with your time than just twiddling your thumbs. As soon as someone else arrives into matchmaking, you’re hoisted out of Arcade and placed into the match. It’s a genius move on their part, and something I’d like to see more often in online-enabled games.
Leaderboards and statistics are present to keep track of your progress, and all-in-all it’s a well-rounded mode. Network lag can be an issue, making timing a nightmare, but otherwise it’s a great time sink for those with competitiveness and patience in equal measures.
Game, set and match?
I was pleasantly surprised by Virtua Tennis 4. The World Tour mode has enough depth and hooks to appeal to even the laziest, sport-hating nerd (or so I can imagine). With some well-realised tennis gameplay and the inclusion of a roster of celebrities to play both as and against, actual tennis fans should be in their element. It’s for that reason that I would recommend anyone who knows their arse from their (tennis) elbow to buy the game without hesitation…
I would have said that, at least, if it wasn’t for the minor hiccup I experienced shortly before finishing this review off, and by ‘minor hiccup’ I mean my entire save data corrupting. My customised player, all of my World Tour progress, even my online stats: all gone.
On contacting SEGA, I was informed that “the developers are aware of the issue and are working to find a patch/title update to the problem as soon as possible”. The game was released back in June; I dread to think how many others have suffered the same fate as me by now. Virtua Tennis 4 is a genuinely satisfying tennis pursuit, but think twice if you’re not prepared to play Russian roulette with your saved progress.