Virtua Tennis. It’s the epitome of arcade gaming, transferred initially, and perfectly, to the Dreamcast and then onwards and upwards through various iterations before heralding the second coming in 2007 with the blisteringly beautiful 1080p PS3 launch title. It’s taken two years for SEGA to bring out a fourth game in the series, and it’s fallen to their chums at Sumo to do the donkey work – so has the time been well spent honing the simple but deceptively deep game mechanics to perfection or is this simply a case of sequels by numbers?
Well, for starters, there’s only so far you can go with tennis, and especially when you’ve crafted your own three button niche. Whatever the boys at Sumo have had to play with in terms of artistic license and freedom, it wouldn’t be Virtua tennis if it wasn’t Virtua Tennis. This means a slice, lob and top spin button and that cute, unique way you ready your shot the split second the ball leaves your opponent’s racquet, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. What we weren’t expecting, though, is the way everything else in the game is pretty much exactly the same as it was in Virtua Tennis 3.
So, apart from a 50% boost to the number of minigames in the World Tour mode, the main campaign in VT 2009, it’s literally the same game you’ve already worked through. Which means a weekly schedule of matches, tournaments and training sessions which may or may not fit your current seed, and a three dimensional globe in which SEGA ask that you needlessly scroll around to find the icon that represents the activity that you already had your cursor on in the calendar mode. And if you’re good at Virtua Tennis already, SEGA say “tough, we still expect you to play through the amateur class for a good few hours before you find someone that can actually beat you.”
The launch title Virtua Tennis 3 still gets plenty of playtime in TSA Towers, it’s a superb example of the genre and a dazzlingly high definition trump card for those that were willing to make the expensive move to next generation two years ago. So riddle me this: why is Virtua Tennis 2009 only 720p? On first glance there’s very little visually different to warrant the drop in resolution, sure the shadows are smoother and there’s a little more detail in the character animation, but the pros are a long way from uncanny valley and there are clipping issues, framerate stutters and ridiculous inner-mouth atrocities that we assumed would be fixed from our trip to SEGA HQ prevalent even in the final retail code.
But to focus on the minutiae would be to miss the point, Virtua Tennis 2009 still runs (mostly) at 60fps and for the best part looks great. The image quality is insanely clean and there’s plenty of diversity in the courts you’ll play in, and although SEGA’s sweat modeling doesn’t hold a candle to EA’s Fight Night mastery of the hardware the players you know and love look absolutely fine. Presentation is typical Sumo across the board: nice, neat menus (reminiscent of some of Bizarre Creations’ work), blindingly primary colours, terrible music, typos (Scotland isn’t a nationality, Scottish is) and often unnecessary loading (why does the game need to load the same player and court for each match from scratch?).
We’re picking because we care. Like Alan Partridge’s encounter with Jed, we like to think our ourselves as SEGA’s biggest fan, and to stumble the way 2009 stumbles hurts our fanboy sensibilities like a Final Fantasy announcement hurts the Sony hardcore – we just wanted Sumo to create something perfect and most of the above wouldn’t even be noticed by the mainstream. Which is good, because niggles aside, Virtua Tennis 2009 is, of course, as brilliant as it’s ever been.
It’s all about being in the zone, forcing your opponent to the other side of the court, teasing with the slow slice before slamming home with a lob to the baseline without even thinking. The career mode is little more than a means to an end, the long drawn out training path for those not ready for online battles (at which 2009 now excels) and a way of bullet pointing the back of the box to show that newcomers will have something to do before being schooled in the fine art of VT mechanics by those that have spent the last 8 years or so getting so good at the game that watching the so called professionals flapping about at Wimbledon on BBC seems unrealistic. For some, Virtua Tennis is the only tennis game, hell, the only sports game, and we’re right with them.
So there’re new mini-games, new real players (like Andy Murray) and a fully fledged online mode, but if you’re still reading as opposed to being on your way to pre-order the game then you’re only here for one reason: the score. This is like Fatal1ty reviewing Quake 3: it’s only as good as you want it to be – yes, there are a few problems, the graphics aren’t spectacular and the interface is peppered with issues, but sports games don’t come any more accessible without forsaking the omnipresent feeling that at some point, when everything clicks into place, this is the only game you’ll really ever be good at. I can’t snipe for toffee, and I don’t care for apexes and racing lines, but I’ll see you on Centre Court.
For fans, this is a first service short of unmissable.