Top Spin 4
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: 2K Czech/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone
By Billy O'Keefe
There may be no harder needle to thread than the one that forces you to take a great but steeply difficult tennis simulation ("Top Spin 3") and scale back in a way that makes it more accessible without leaving the devoted feeling alienated.
Fortunately in this case, "Top Spin 4" could teach a class on how to do it right.
In essence, all "TS4" does is level out the mountain without making it a shorter climb to the top. Anyone who wants to simply press the face buttons to return standard-issue shots may do so — and if you're quick on your feet and smart about your shot selection, you can win this way as well.
But avenues for excellence abound. Holding down those same buttons can result in a more powerful version of the shot — provided you time it right. A well-timed shot in conjunction with the stick allows you to better place your shot, while a couple of modifiers allow for advanced maneuvers like reversing orientation and performing drop shots.
"TS4" ties it all together under a currency — timing — that's tricky to master but always makes sense. The harder the shot, the more timing matters, and a perfectly-timed standard shot will take you farther than a power slice that's sabotaged by late contact.
(A brief sidebar about "TS4's" Playstation Move integration: It's as tacked-on as tacked-on gets, and doesn't work well at all.)
"TS4" lays this out across an extensive Tennis Academy mode, and while it's never mandatory — the game boots into a free-form practice court for those who prefer to experiment without interference — it's highly recommended you pay a visit. "TS4" sports a terrifically user-friendly interface throughout the game, and the efficiency with which the Academy introduces the spectrum of available techniques is nearly as impressive as the spectrum itself.
The sum of all this accessibility and shot science — along with the series' customary attention to animation, weight and momentum with regard to player movement — makes "TS4" an enviably faithful representation of the energy and strategy that comprises a professional tennis match. A great sports sim has to understand the "easy to play, difficult to master" credo better than most other genres, and this one nails it.
In terms of features, "TS4" mostly goes where past games have been. The career mode once again is the highlight: You design your own tennis pro via a satisfyingly deep player editor, are presented with a calendar of events, and are free each month to engage in one practice event and one tournament for which you qualify.
Predictably, your success in your career — and subsequent ability to enter prime events (US Open and Roland Garros, among others, though Wimbledon is omitted due to licensing reasons) against the 25 licensed stars (Nadal, Federer, Serena Williams and a few legends like Agassi and Borg) — is dependent on your popularity and tour ranking. But "TS4" dangles additional carrots by giving you coaches who each have their own challenges to complete, and there are additional objectives within the practice events that reward bonus experience points that boost your player's attributes.
The best news about the experience system is that it's game-wide: Win matches online with your created player, and points funnel into your career progress (and vice versa). "TS4" cleverly adds cachet to online play by inviting all comers to participate in an online World Tour, an accelerated season mode that each week crowns its top-rated player as champion for all to see. For the less ambitious, standalone exhibition matches (singles and four-player doubles, online or offline) are still available as well.
(c) 2011, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.