There's something to be said about not having your sports franchise released every year. While Electronic Arts and 2K Sports seem perfectly content with having you purchase a new football or basketball game every year, Sega has taken a different route for their tennis simulators. The last time we experienced a console Virtua Tennis was back in 2002 under the name Sega Sports Tennis. Here we are five years later and we're finally being treated to the first "next generation" Virtua Tennis game. It's full of great online game play, an exciting world tour mode, and significantly improved graphics. Unfortunately the game play remains the same and fans of the series will probably feel like they've done most of this stuff before. Thankfully it's all still a lot of fun and definitely worth your time.
The brilliance of Virtua Tennis 3 is that it has a way of turning non-sports fans into tennis addicts. I wouldn't call myself much of a sports simulator person, I generally shy away from the Madden's, NBA 2K games, and all of the other super serious sports fare. But there's something about the Virtua Tennis games that keep me wanting more, even though I'm not much of a tennis enthusiast. There's just something about the high speed game play that keeps me glued to my TV set, and it's even better when you're playing against other people that are just as into it as you are. Virtua Tennis has always been that game I've been able to use to get non-sports fans into tennis games, and I think that speaks volumes for the amazing game design that goes into these kinds of games.
The control in Virtua Tennis 3 is simple; this is not the kind of game where new players will be struggling to understand what is going on. You basically have three buttons, a top spin button (that hits the ball hard in a straight line), a slice button (that is slower but gives you more control over the direction), and a lob button (which goes straight over your opponent's head). That's it. The rest of the controls center around learning when to use these different strokes and how to get the most strength out of them. This is ultimately what makes Virtua Tennis 3 so easy to pick up and play, it takes only a few minutes to figure out exactly how to play and then you'll be slamming the ball with the best of them.
The meat and potatoes of Virtua Tennis 3 is the World Tour mode, a RPG-like single player campaign that has you going from zero to hero in the course of twenty years. In the World Tour mode you start out ranked 300, which is pretty much the lowest you could possibly go. From there it's up to you to not only improve your standings, but also improve your various skills and earn all kinds of special equipment for your player. What's nice about this mode is that it gives you some control over your career, so it's not just one tennis match after another.
Even before you jump into the World Tour mode you will have a chance to choose a male or female character and then customize them in any way you want. Once you've done that it's off to the races as you tackle other tennis pros and improve your skills at the various mini-games. Each month of the World Tour is made up of four weeks, with each week usually hosting some sort of tournament or practice event. You can choose to jump into these tournaments (assuming you are ranked high enough), or you can navigate around the world having fun with the skill-improving mini-games.
The mini-games are a lot like what we've seen in the past, they are here to help your serving, your stroke, your footwork or your volleying. In total there are twelve different mini-games, each with six different levels of difficulty. Some of the better examples include a weird game of bowling where you serve a giant ball into the ten pins (ultimately trying to get a strike), dodging giant tennis balls trying to collect fruit, and this strange game of shuffle board where you hit your ball into enormous disks pushing them into numbered zones. Some of the other noteworthy mini-games include an event where you're hitting your ball back and forth against large balloons, a strange game of bingo where you have to hit the right numbers in order to line up three in a row, and a game where you are trying to keep small alligators away from eating the meat. None of the mini-games are bad, but you will definitely look forward to doing some more than others. In total, each of these mini-games won't last you more than a minute, and then you're back to the grind of tournaments and practice events.
What's nice about Virtua Tennis 3 is that it feels fair right from the get-go. You will notice a gradual increase in the difficulty as you play through the World Tour, but it's never so bad that you feel like you hit a wall. Early on you'll be participating in events that are meant for people in the 300 rank, so the opponents will be easily confused and never very powerful. This is a great way of learning how to control your character and earning some quick rank points. As you increase your rank you will be able to participate in the 204 tournaments, then the 100 tournaments, the 56 tournaments and ultimately the elite 16 events. By the time you make it to the top 16 players you will need to have your stats pretty high and your skills down if you want to stand a chance, but thanks to the gradual increase in difficulty you should be ready when that time comes.
While it's true that you start out ranked 300, there aren't actually 299 other pro tennis stars to play against. Regardless of which division you play in (be it male or female), you will only be going up against a dozen or so different tennis players. This means that you will have to play these characters dozens of times before you are the best in the world, which is kind of disappointing considering how easy it would have been for them to develop some custom made characters for you to go up against. The good news is that you'll recognize most of the tennis pros in this game (even if you're like me and not into watching tennis). You will be going up against Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Venus Williams, Martina Hingis, and of course Maria Sharapova.
From time to time you will have a chance to play mixed doubles, which means that you will finally be given a chance to play with somebody of the opposite sex. Early on this makes your life a lot easier, I found that when it came to the 200 - 300 tournaments having a partner at my side made my playing a lot better. But as you near that coveted first place slot you'll find that a partner just gets in the way. There were a couple of tournaments that I lost because my partner kept hitting the ball too hard and making it land out of bounds, which there was nothing I could do about. After they did that four times in a row I felt like I should just put the control down and not even try. Thankfully if you find this happening you can always skip those events and just focus on the one versus one battles.
One new aspect to this World Tour mode is that you now have a stamina meter, which will decrease as you play in tournaments, try the various mini-games and whatnot. If your stamina bar gets too low then you will get injured and have to sit out for a few weeks. The good thing is that you can miss a day by resting at home, miss a couple of weeks by taking a much-needed vacation, or try your luck with an energy drink (which allows you to not miss any time). While this is a novel idea, it doesn't really play that heavily in the tour. Even if you get injured it doesn't seem like it's that big of a deal, you have more than enough time to get everything done that you want to do.
Beyond the World Tour are a few other modes that will keep you busy playing Virtua Tennis 3 for a long time to come. If you want to go up against a bunch of tennis pros but don't want to deal with the story aspect of the World Tour then there's always the Tournament mode, as well as the Exhibition mode. You can also play a number of multiplayer mini-games in the Courts mode, including a various of bowling and curling. Perhaps the most exciting part of Virtua Tennis 3 is the online mode, which offers just about everything you could want from an online tennis game. It's easy to get into a quick game and you are finally able to play with three other people in a two on two event. If you just want to watch other people play then there's something called the VT TV, which reminds me a lot of the TV mode in Project Gotham Racing 3.
Virtual Tennis 3 made waves when it was announced because it was set to be one of the first Xbox 360 games to feature a 1080p mode, something that we rarely see in current video games. While that's all well and good, the graphics here aren't nearly as spectacular as you might expect. Don't get me wrong, Virtua Tennis 3 is a fantastic looking game full of small details and solid character designs, but this is not the type of thing that is going to blow you away. There are some nice details that will make you sit up and take notice, including some beautiful courts to play on, great lighting, and a lot of spectators that are moving about and acting in a realistic manner. But it's also hard to be really impressed with the graphics when everything is so small. I'm certainly not suggesting that we need giant Gears of War graphics or anything, but if it wasn't for the high def support you might not notice much of a difference between this and other recent tennis games.
The music is also pretty bad. While I'm sure there are people out there that love the cheesy guitar tunes, I personally can't stand it (and ended up just turning it off completely). Thankfully every other sound in Virtua Tennis 3 is spot on, including the voices/grunts, racket sounds and the roar of the crowds. There's little denying that the ambience really adds to the realism of the game.
When it comes right down to it, Virtua Tennis 3 is just a great playing game of tennis. It's an easy game to get into that offers plenty of single player and multiplayer content to enjoy. Fans of the series won't find anything here that is completely new or original, but it has been a good five years since the last game and few will argue that this version is worth it for the phenomenal online modes. Even if you're not the type that usually enjoys following tennis there's something that almost anybody can get into in Sega's next-gen sports sim. I just hope that Virtua Tennis 4 proves to be more of an evolutionary step up, not a step sideways like this game.
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While it's easy to criticize this game for not being very different from past entries, Virtua Tennis 3 proves to be just as much fun as it ever was. With fantastic online support, an engaging single player mode and some entertaining mini-games, Sega's next-gen tennis game will turn you into a tennis fan!