TSA Plays Virtua Tennis 2009

I gave myself two and a half hours to do a trip that only takes one and a half.  Yet two hours in, with just six miles of the North Circular and a few hundred yards of the A4 to go, I was growing concerned that I might not make it.  Yes, driving in London is that bad.

I was on my way to visit SEGA to take part in their VT2009 Masters Monday event.  A chance to go hands-on with the latest instalment of the Virtua Tennis series with representatives from the developer, SUMO Digital, there to talk us through the game and finally, to compete on behalf of TSA in a VT2009 tournament.

Arriving with just a few minutes to spare having fought my way through the traffic on a grey and  wet morning, I parked the car, got out and turned to face my destination.  At that moment I knew I was about to enter the hallowed halls of one of gaming’s great names.

SEGA titles are renowned for their vibrant colour palettes, with their lush green vegetation and bright blue skies.  It seemed to me that even the weather paid homage to SEGA’s gaming legacy, as the one patch of blue in the overcast sky had been carefully positioned to form a halo around the company logo.

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Eighteen years on from his Mega Drive début, Sonic is still an unmissable presence in SEGA’s offices.  Not only are you greeted with a wall-sized Sonic on entering but there is a six foot tall Sonic in their main reception and another in the conference room where the event took place.

The Tennis Tour

One quick round of introductions later and it was on with the show, with Toby Allan, VT2009’s Producer and Kenton Fletcher, one of its designers, from SUMO Digital taking us through the game.

They fired up a preview build of the game on one the PS3s and we all gathered around.  Up comes the new front end and it is immediately apparent that compared to Virtua Tennis 3 (VT3) it has much more of a PS3-style look and feel.  They had very deliberately aimed for that look and later confirmed that PS3 had been the lead platform for the development. Nice to know that Sony’s black monolith hasn’t been a second string contender.

Time to create a character.  As well as taking another step forward in realism, as you will have seen from previous screenshots here on TSA, the character customisation options have been expanded beyond those in VT3 and are now much more reminiscent of those available in PlayStation Home or games like Fallout 3.

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With a suitably uncharismatic avatar created, we popped into the new, much larger, shop to take a look around.  The shop now boasts a range of about 1500 items that can be purchased once unlocked through gameplay.

Patriotism or Taking Botswana to Davis Cup Glory?

Another decision you will need to make before you can take your player into the World Tour is which country you want to represent; where your Home will be located.  You can choose to be from any one of over 200 nations and regardless of your choice, if you become good enough, you may find yourself invited to play for your country’s team in The Davis Cup.

Players of VT3 will find themselves feeling quite at home once they enter World Tour mode.  The familiar globe appears before you with all your possible destinations spread across its surface.  The store is accessible from the globe, there’s also the Tennis Academy, the fruit-dodging, pirate ship-sinking mini games and any tournaments that you can enter.

VT3’s calendar has been kept, but with the greater number of events available it has been split into two rows, so that many weeks you may find you have a choice of tournaments to enter.  Your options when you go home are also broadly the same as those in VT3.  You can choose to take some rest or an energy drink to recover your stamina, change into a different outfit and save and load your game.

Developers Make an Exhibition of Themselves

Next Toby and Kenton demonstrated the gameplay with an exhibition match.  This gave us our first proper look at the in-game graphics.  Flying up from the grassy surface of the court the camera assumes its default position above and behind the serving player, its view encompassing the entire court.

My first thought was that there was more clutter around the edges of the court; more objects and people beyond the white lines.  It took my a while to realise that there were not necessarily more of them, they were just more detailed.  The texture of the court’s surface looked more like grass.  The umpire’s and player’s chairs looked more like they should instead looking like simple plastic mouldings as they did in VT3.

Then the game is on.  Initially it looks identical to VT3, which is no bad thing.  There is the odd minor graphical hiccup with the preview build they are playing.  A couple of times the skin on a player’s face disappears leaving them grinning like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland and the odd, barely perceptible, stutter in frame rate but nothing to worry about.

Red Card for Diving

The player animations look smoother and there seems to be more variety to them.  There is no more diving though.  If you have played much VT3, you will be familiar with seeing players dive to return a ball, racquet outstretched, before all-to-quickly regaining their feet.  That has been taken out as it was deemed too unrealistic.  The slips and stumbles are all still in place though and are frequent deciders of points.

The developers tell us that they have only applied a light touch to the mechanics.  Listening to feedback they have improved things like the ball physics and the way it reacts with the different court surfaces.

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Taking inspiration from the Federer/Nadal match at last year’s Wimbledon, where the rallies instilled such excitement in the crowd that the “oo”s and “ah”s became ever louder as the rally progressed, they have implemented an audio system to mimic that.  As your rally goes on you will hear the crowd’s reactions become louder and more excitable.

Wet T-Shirt Contest?

Do you like your tennis players hot and sweaty?  If so, you are in luck.  SUMO have created what they call “sweat mapping”.  As the games progress, sweat patches will appear on the clothing of the players.  That is something that I am sure will excite some of you more than others.

With the core match gameplay looking solid, everyone is keen to take a look at VT2009’s mini games.  For some reason the word “pirates” keeps coming up, though Kenton is eager to introduce us to Zoo Feeder.

Six of the mini games from VT3 have been kept.  Alien Attack, Avalanche, Pin Crusher, Court Curling, Drum Topple and Meat Defender have all been given a bit of a polish.  We are told the fruit in Avalanche now bounces a little more realistically and is more varied, for example.

The other six mini games are fresh from the crazed minds at SUMO.  There is Pot Shot, Count Mania, Shopping Dash, Blockbuster, Zoo Feeder and Pirate Wars.  No mention was made as to whether Dale Winton and Bob Holness feature in any of those.

We take a look at Zoo Feeder first.  At the opposite end of the court to the player are an elephant and a lion.  They need to be sent to sleep by feeding them with the food they desire.  Little thought bubbles show that the elephant wants some oranges and the lion drumsticks.

The food items are fired from launchers at the side of the court and you have to hit them towards the right animal.  When the animals are all asleep you move onto the next level.  This time, doing so adds a panda with a hunger for bamboo to the mix.  Kenton says the penguins are a particular favourite but we do not dwell on Zoo Feeder any longer as we are all keen to get a look at another of the mini games.

Avast There!  Here be Pirates!

Yes, VT2009 brings pirate vessels to a virtual tennis court near you.  Three rows of amateur dramatic society-style waves cross the far end of the court.  Between the first two rises a small sailing ship flying the jolly roger, a loud “Arrr” announcing its arrival.

Its cannons thunder and towards the player flies a tennis ball.  Directing the ball back to hit the vessel reduces the health bar displayed above it.  A first hit sets the ship ablaze and a second sends it into its watery grave, only to be replaced by two more.  In amongst the tennis balls fired by the ships are cannon balls that must be dodged or a life is lost.

Two more sinkings and a larger vessel rises from the waves like the Flying Dutchman.  There are five different pirate vessels you may encounter and this is one of nine of the mini games which supports multiplayer.  With up to four players battling each other for points it is sure to be a somewhat hectic experience.

One thing you will find as you play through the mini games is that you will unlock items that make up fancy dress costumes.  Unlock enough parts and you will be able to dress your player up as a skeleton, a superhero or, yes, a pirate amongst others.  The point of the costumes is that one of the tours that you can enter in the game is a Charity Tour and it can only be entered by players in fancy dress.  Unfortunately, there is no ninja costume, so settling the pirates vs. ninjas question on a tennis court is not yet possible in Virtua Tennis.

Online and Trophies

Your worries are unfounded. The PS3 version of VT2009, unlike VT3, has the same substantial online component as the 360 version.  Online multiplayer is supported.  The World Tour rankings have online leaderboards for overall rankings and there is an Online Tour where players can compete to become the top-ranked player for the week.

As well as the ranked online multiplayer modes, there are unranked ones allowing you to play matches, tournaments and mini games with and against your friends.  The mini games themselves when played outside the World Tour in score-attack mode all have online high score tables.

Those of you into collecting virtual silverware will not be disappointed, as you might have noticed in our forums, VT2009 supports trophies.  You are sure to be capable of picking up a least a few as I was able to unlock two during the short time I spent hands-on with the game.

Speaking of Hands-On…

Now it was our turn.  Taking hold of the nearest SixAxis I sit down with another of the event’s guests, we pick a pro player each and launch ourselves straight into an exhibition match.  I quickly lost the first set, but that is not relevant here.

As an aside, there are around 20 current tennis pros represented in the game.  A further three “legends” are unlockable, those being Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and, um, Tim Henman.  Those of you with long Virtua Tennis memories may be pleased to hear that King and Duke are also there to be unlocked.

I am pleased to be able to report that VT2009 really does still feel like Virtua Tennis when you’ve got a controller in your hands.  There are subtle, hard to define differences, leading VT2009 to just feel that little bit crisper and tighter.  Not only do the controls feel a little more responsive, the player animation also seems to react a little quicker and more smoothly than before.

The pick-up-and-play nature of the game is still there and yet, as was demonstrated by my opponents a number of times, those more practiced with the game can achieve some highly accurate positioning of their services and returns.

After losing another set, the opportunity arose to try out the retail build of the game on another PS3.  The time spent playing through several sets with the day’s host, Joe, was enough to demonstrate that the Cheshire Cat grins and occasional frame rate stutters that we had witnessed in the preview build demonstrated by the SUMO guys had been successfully addressed in the retail build.

VT2009 Masters Monday Tournament

The time for idle chit-chat is over.  This is where it all becomes more serious.  The competition to win a VT2009 tennis bag and jacket, as well as defend the honour of our websites, is on.  Receiving a bye into the first semi-final because a couple of people have failed to show, I am selected to play against the same person, Richard, who had dealt me a two set defeat at the start of our hands-on session.

We sit down and the crowd gathers around us to watch.  Deciding that I will need all the British pluckiness I can get, I choose Andy Murray as my player.  Richard picks Andy Roddick, making it a UK vs. US match too.  I am first to serve and the match begins.  After a cautious first rally I take the first point before going on the win the first game of our single set match.

Richard wins his first service game too.  It’s becoming apparent what a difference the removal of diving players from the game has made.  A desperate lunge for an out-of-reach ball now results in a lost point rather than a dive, and a stumbling turn is almost certain to lose you a point against an accurate opponent.

We both win our second service games.  I take my third and then run Richard close on his.  He wins thanks to a stunning over-the-shoulder backhand shot played with his back to the net.  With the games tied three all, we are into a tie breaker.

Preceding as the games before had done, we seem unable to break each other’s serve.  We reach 4-4 without either of us seeming to have a clear advantage.  I take my next service point to make it 5-4 and then finally achieve the breakthrough on his next service point and win match 4-6.

The next semi-final, again featuring Murray vs. Roddick is a much shorter affair being won three games to love by Dan.  Now I know who I am to face in the final and having just witnessed the demolition of his opponent, it does not look good.  My only hope is that finger-fatigue from his having to play two matches in quick succession might help me.

Unfortunately, it turns out that there is nothing wrong with his finger-fitness.  He breaks my serve in the first game and wins his own service game leaving me to serve the third game with the score at 0-2.  A surprisingly strong start to the game sees the score get to 40-15 and my hopes for at least a consolation game win rise, before he begins his comeback.

Before I know it we are playing for match point with Dan on the verge of winning.  I manage to save that point, but it only prolongs the inevitable.  Two more points and Dan wins the match.  Still losing to the best player in the tournament is not that bad and at least TSA was represented in the final.

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The Others

After the tournament there is a little more hands-on time available and I sit down at the 360 dev kit to play through some of the mini games.  I try Blockbusters first and rather than working towards a Gold Run, this game sees coloured (if they were licensed they would be called LEGO) bricks falling to build a wall across the court.

Where bricks of the same colour stack or overlap they join together to form a single shape.  Hitting the ball against the wall causes the shape it hits to disappear, with bigger shapes earning you more points.  Occasionally a bomb will fall amongst the bricks and hitting one of those will destroy a radius around the bomb, much like a power gem in Bejewelled.

Then it is a quick go on Avalanche to see how it has changed from its VT3 incarnation.  Simply put there are more varieties of fruit and they rolls towards you more irregularly than they used to.  Bunches of bananas are a particular challenge and the first time a pineapple came hurtling towards me I was tempted to jump out of the way.

Finally I had to have a go on Pirate Wars.  Who would have thought that sinking pirate ships on a tennis court could have been so much fun.  We had a two-player game and it really is hugely enjoyable running around the court trying to beat the other player to the tennis balls whilst you both dodge the cannon balls.

There was a third console in the room running VT2009 that had us all intrigued and eager to have a go.  A special green-fronted version of Nintendo’s little white box that we were not allowed to photograph.  The attraction of VT2009 on that was a small white cube called the MotionPlus.

I was only able to spend a few minutes waggling the extended Wiimote, but that was enough to tell me that games like VT2009 that successfully implement MotionPlus control are going to bring another step change in the levels of interactivity for titles on Nintendo’s little console that could. Sitting on the sofa just casually flicking your wrist backwards and forwards to play Wii Sports Tennis just is not going to cut it any more.

Alas, the march of time cannot be halted though and the event finishes with an appropriate lunch of sandwiches, Robinson’s fruit squash and strawberries and cream.  Ace.

Thanks to SEGA’s Joe Turner for hosting the event and SUMO Digital’s Kenton Fletcher and Toby Allan for taking the time to answer our questions.

Keep your eyes on TSA for our forthcoming full review of Virtua Tennis 2009.

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