Top Spin 4
's Career Mode is the meat of the single-player game and takes a created player from being a relative unknown to, ideally, earning a spot at the top of the rankings and into tennis immortality. Players gain experience points for many actions, both on and off of the court. Achieving certain objectives, participating in certain events, and just playing matches all add valuable experience points which are used to level up the player in one of three different disciplines: Serve & Volley, Offensive Baseline Play, and Defensive Baseline Play. Leveling up in each (or all) of these disciplines increases stats in a variety of areas, and it's wise not to drop all 20 possible level increases into just one discipline. As players play in tournaments and have strong showings, their rankings increase and more prestigious events become available.
Players won't walk through their careers alone. Coaches can be hired, and each coach brings his or her own set of bonuses and skills that can be unlocked after meeting certain criteria. There is a variety of skills that can be unlocked that enhance serves, volley play, and can unlock special shot types. There are three tiers of coaches, and these gradually become unlocked as players progress through their careers. Each successive tier's coaches have more demanding objectives to complete. One objective for a coach who specializes in Serve & Volley skills demands that a player hit eight aces; it took me more than a few tournaments to achieve that feat. The rewards can be well worth the effort, especially when experience point bonuses and hefty stat hikes are the payoff.
Tournaments are the major feature in Career Mode, but there's more to do. As players win more tournaments and become more popular, more special events open up with the potential of earning more fans, more experience, or both. Strength training, playing in a charity soccer game, and doing motion capture for a new video game are just a sample of some of the events that players can take part in before each month's tournament event. These events are generally non-interactive, so participating in them brings about a quick screen that shows what the event was and how the player benefited. Players also have the option of playing exhibition matches versus other players for experience points and to play against opponents with varying skill sets. Tennis players in Top Spin 4 don't have to account for fatigue from month to month, unlike in Virtua Tennis, so player management is a bit easier overall.
One last special event to mention comes in the form of special matches against some of the most recognizable tennis legends ever to step foot on the court. If you've ever wondered what it might be like to play against the likes of Sampras, Lendl, Agassi, Chang, and others... this is as close as you're likely to get. These events only become available after players are well on their way to Legendary status, which is the next-to-last rung on the career ladder. There's good reason for this, too; the tennis legends are a notch above the talent that players have experienced up to this point and you'll need to have leveled up as much as possible to compete. Completing a couple of these special matches is a requisite for reaching Legendary status, but they're worth the effort and competition if you're a tennis fan.
Top Spin 4 is easy to pick up and play for most players. Walking through the Top Spin Academy before getting into any gameplay at all is crucial as it walks players through the controls, shot types, and, most importantly, proper shot timing. Timing is determined by when players release the shot button when striking the ball; if the release is too soon or too late, accuracy can be greatly affected and this can mean the difference between a shot being in or out of bounds. Getting the hang of proper timing is difficult. Perhaps this is by design, but the success rate for Good or Perfect timing is rather low... even on the weaker difficulty settings. Timing is only one component of ball striking, though; two new shot type-- called Control Shots and Power Shots-- are introduced here. Control shots, which sacrifice power for accuracy, are pulled off by simply tapping a shot button. Power shots are executed by holding the shot button down and waiting for a red sphere to light up completely. Predictably, it's tougher for newer created players to execute accurate shots, but the game is relatively forgiving in the lower difficulty settings.
That forgiveness factor is perhaps the biggest improvement that Top Spin 4 boasts over the last two games in the series. While there certainly is a learning curve associated with the intricacies of the play controls, Top Spin 4 is inviting enough for novices and still can provide a formidable challenge to more advanced players or more seasoned fans of the series. This level of accessibility persuades players to become better through practice rather than punishing them for not having much initial skill. Players should expect some trying situations, especially when playing against the very best players in the world, but following the Career path as it's set out also serves as a tutorial on its own. As you play against lower-ranked opposition, you gradually learn the play controls and get a feel for which shots are the best ones for certain situations. By the time you face your first notable pro, you feel like you're armed with the experience and skill to have a chance. Top Spin 4 isn't as forgiving as Virtua Tennis is, but Top Spin 4 also walks a line between arcade and simulation styles of play while Virtua Tennis is all about the arcade experience in a real-world setting.
Career Mode is good for hours of tennis on its own, but Top Spin 4 also offers robust online play that comes with its own World Tour that serves as an addition to the single-player Career Mode. Players can still level up on the World Tour, but now rankings are wholly determined based on the outcome of online tournaments. There wasn't a lot of lag to be seen when playing online, but novice players should note that online opposition can be significantly more challenging than computer-controlled opponents. If you're up for Exhibition play, that's also possible both online and offline, using created players or any of athletes included in the game. If you're looking for practice, there's even a ball machine that you can use to hone your timing or work on your accuracy.
Top Spin 4 is one of the best-looking tennis games that you will see. Player models are fairly accurate, the venues are stunning, and the game's TV-style presentation has made great strides over past games. Seamless replays will cut in after certain points are complete and a Point of the Match replay comes up after each set is completed. Facial models can be a little off at times, but the animation is smooth and there is a lot to see. Even little details, such as new footprints on a clay court or seeing your player's name on the venue scoreboard, show quality. There's even a 3D option for users with compatible televisions or monitors. Ambient sounds are solid, with different effects for ball striking and impact on certain surfaces. Players grunt with effort and the sounds of feet skidding on clay or thumping on hard surfaces are authentic. It's unfortunate that some level of commentary is missing, however; hearing analysis of points during replays or talking about certain stats or benchmarks during a match makes sense. Since announcers don't talk during play anyway, recording lines of post-point commentary and analysis doesn't seem like it should be so difficult. Hopefully 2K Czech and 2K Sports will consider this for their next tennis effort.
Top Spin 4 is a big step in the right direction for a series that seemed to be too focused on making a strict tennis simulation rather than an enjoyable experience. Balance has been restored to the gameplay so that someone who's never played a Top Spin game before has just as much of an opportunity to enjoy the game as someone who has played any or all of the three previous games. The Career Mode is deep, online play is solid, and there's enough depth in the gameplay to keep players practicing for hours and leave them actually feeling as though they've improved. When it comes time to face Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, it's hard not to feel a bit of adrenalin pulsing in your veins as you face the ultimate test in seeing if that practice has paid off.