For reference the last tennis game I played most recently was Sega Superstars Tennis for Wii and whilst it was fun it neither managed to recapture the initial fun of Wii Sports Tennis nor the typical Nintendo charm found in Mario Tennis. As much as I like Sonic and his friends they just don’t have the same level of personality as Mario and his pals do but maybe I’m just being a biased Nintendo fanboy. Anyway I digress.
Virtua Tennis was first seen in 1999 but in my opinion didn’t really take off until it appeared on the Dreamcast later on the following year. The gameplay wasn’t too radical (after all it was just tennis) but it was the graphics looking much more lifelike than anything beforehand that caught everyone’s attention. The player models were very recognisable to the real life counterparts and gameplay was fast and smooth, looking back now though, the polygonal graphics haven’t aged very well but the same could be said for Super Mario 64 which is still one of the highest ranking games of all time – if a game plays well it doesn’t matter how it looks.
The general consensus is that sports games have reached a level where the gameplay is more or less set and we only see basic refinements in their yearly or bi yearly updates. Now this is generally true of the EA Sports range but Sega don’t tend to release new versions of their sports games quite as regularly, however Virtua Tennis 3 was released on Xbox 360 only a couple of years ago so it’s not a surprise to see that Virtua Tennis 2009 isn’t a huge leap from the from its predecessor but let’s see if Sega can put the power of the Xbox 360 to good use and recapture the popularity of the original in my Virtua Tennis 2009 review.
Now I’m not the biggest Tennis fan but I do watch the odd bit of Wimbledon (and yes I’ve even played the real game on occasion) so it can’t be said I don’t know the rules. Virtua Tennis 2009 for Xbox 360 has all of the modes that you’d want including the career style World Tour mode, Xbox Live online play as well your standard option to dive straight into one off Arcade style matches, Exhibitions, Tournaments and mini games (single or offline multiplayer modes).
World Tour allows you to create your own player from scratch; everything from gender to facial appearance and even body shape and size. After that you head into your new life as a rookie as you try to climb the ranks from lowly 100th place all the way to super duper world number 1. Just as with real life it’s not quite as simple as turning up with your racket and balls to one off matches because you need to practice and work hard to get good. That’s why in Virtua Tennis 2009 getting to the number 1 spot will take lots of time and effort on the real court but on the training court too. After you’ve created your character and chosen a home location you’ll be given a top flight coach which in my case was Tiger Tim Henman because like me he’s from England. Your career hub is displayed as a globe and all your activities are placed around by world location and everything is easily navigated by moving around with the left analogue stick.
First things first you should hit the training courts with your coach for a little while and it’s worth noting that in Virtua 2009 every event you partake in (save visiting the tennis store and having a fizzy drink) takes a whole game week. Be it playing a mini game or competing in a tournament it’s best you don’t get too sidetracked with training and the minigames and keep checking your calendar or you’ll quickly miss practice matches as well as the vitalchances to get up that rank ladder. Instead of teaching you the absolute basics such as hitting the ball and controller button placement; right from the get go your coach is there to test your skills on the court and will award you with bronze, silver or gold medals depending on your performance. Complete enough training missions and you’ll unlock new play styles for your rookie character which will help them become more powerful and skilful. Actually getting gold on most of these training challenges is pretty tough and to be honest harder than diving into an Arcade game against the pro players, it sounds odd but when it comes down to it you don’t need to be able to pull off every trick in the book to beat them but if you want to be the top Virtua Tennis player online you’ll need these skills and the advanced play styles.
Virtua Tennis 2009 has lots of depth in its game modes but as far as actually playing it goes everything is quite simple. Obviously it follows the rules as any good sports game should but controlling your character player is very simple with the left analogue stick and along with the four main face buttons which control your different shots (lob, slice, etc) the only time you’ll need any other button is when in a doubles match with a CPU teammate as you can shout orders with the LB or RB buttons. On the top right corner of you screen is your stamina bar which you need to keep a close eye on, be sure to plan your activities well and take enough rest to avoid injury – it could be that you want to enter that doubles tournament to earn some cash to spend in the tennis store but if you’re out of stamina you may very well have to take a 2 week vacation, spend a week at home or drink an isotonic sports drink to recover yourself a little. As you’d expect the 2 week beach holiday refills your stamina completely but a non essential trip abroad costs you money. Spending a week at home refills half of your stamina but the bonus is that it’s totally free (and to be honest who doesn’t just like having a week at home away from work)? The quickest option is to have one of those special energy drinks which gives you wings, it may not fill your stamina bar up very much but could just be enough for that last minute make or break match.
Most of the time you’ll be entering into mini tournaments either solo or in doubles and going up a couple of spots up the rank every time (I don’t think I lost a game so I’m not sure if you can fall just as easily). Spending time away from this on the minigames and such may not seem a good use of your time but they too have their own energy bars to fill which will also help you unlock those valuable play styles found in the training centre. So at one time or another you’ll probably need to play them to earn everything valuable for your skill repertoire but if you don’t fancy doing so there isn’t really a fixed rule forcing you to do so. The practice and sponsorship games don’t provide you with ranking but its good practice none the less and you’ll also earn new tennis friends that you can invite over for any doubles matches that are offered your way. The mini games are quite basic and similar to those you’ve seen in other titles before, my favourites include Pot Shot (a pool game reminiscent of Billiards from Super Monkey Ball), Zoo Feeder which sees you having to hit food towards the correct animals (so meat towards a lion and a banana towards a gorilla) and Block Buster that gets you to volley against a wall of colourful shapes (well blocks) in a bid to remove them in a breakout fashion to earn tons of combo points. There are many more to play and they’re all fun enough to keep you amused for a little while – especially in multiplayer mode.
Overall World Tour mode in Virtua Tennis 2009 gets a little repetitive and even as you climb the ranks the CPU opponents that match real life players such as Andy Murray, David Ferrer Timmy Haas, Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova don’t seem that difficult to beat, I know difficulty and learning curves are quite difficult for game designers but one thing I do know is that when a game is too easy you generally tend to play it less than when a game is too hard. There is always something fun about a challenge and that unattainable high score but you don’t get any of that when a game is too easy. Luckily the real difficulty comes in the form of ranked online matches against random people from all over the world via Xbox Live but the problem is that the match making system or to be precise the lack of match making system. No matter how many matches online I tried I was firmly beaten by the other players which seemed really odd when I had been beating the CPU moments before, as it turns out I was being pitched against people who had already unlocked the best play styles and strongest rackets – I didn’t stand a chance. It turns out that playing non ranked online matches with your friends is a much better idea and if you do have the chance to play doubles then of course you’ll have tons of fun. In the end though I did have the most fun playing matches online where the opponents you face are much harder to second guess than the CPU, even if I got beaten by somebody who had been practicing for weeks it didn’t feel as worthless as beating the AI players senselessly. Keeping a check of your progress on the online leaderboards is always a hoot but don’t expect to top them unless you are committed to play for hours every day.
If you’re into your graphics and if you have a next gen console you probably are then Virtua Tennis for 360 hits the spot when it comes to player likeness and the motion captured player animations. Quite simply they’re great (especially when watching the action replays) and if you could set the AI to play by itself it wouldn’t be too far off watching the TV coverage. One final thing to mention here is that the new camera angle which puts you behind your player (as opposed to above) really increases the realism of the game. And those tennis balls heading towards you seem much faster to!! Hopefully next year we might even see a first person viewpoint which could be very interesting and even more realistic. There is a nice choice of courts and the different surfaces are very detailed and the ball physics do feel different depending on which surface you are on. It’s a shame to see that the crowd and court officials are much less detailed but I suppose you can’t have everything.
Now what I’m confused about is why the crowds sound muffled and why there is a lack of any sort of commentary, yes we have the score person who sits in that tall chair but apart from that nothing. EA Sports have proven that a realistic commentary adds realism and it’s a shock to go into a sports game that is essentially silent for most of the time. I’m sure plenty of retired tennis player would be happy to it in a studio recording some commentary for a few extra dollars, I know I would be Sega if you’re reading.
Virtua Tennis 2009 is a solid performing arcade title which has stepped slightly closer to being a simulation which in my opinion is a good thing. It still has that arcade feel which keeps things exciting but it would have been nice if it was a little more difficult to hit perfect shots around the court and nearly always making incredible diving returns time after time. Now I come to think of it I’ve played it for a couple of weeks and have hardly hit the net or smashed the ball out of bounds.
If you already own Virtua Tennis 3 then you may well feel underwhelmed by this latest instalment but if you’re new to the series this is a fine time to jump on board as I doubt you’ll find another tennis game to match it right now (although Grand Slam Tennis for the Wii is looking rather tasty).
Virtua Tennis 2009 scores an ace 7 out of 10 but if it wasn’t for its double faults could have seen scored higher.
Related: Table Tennis review, Wii Motion Plus Release Date