I’m drawn to sports like tennis; specifically, it’s the angles and spin that can be applied to the ball. It’s not just tennis, in fact, but soccer, baseball, golf, billiards, and table tennis all draw me in for the same reason. There is just something inherently beautiful and elegant in the way the ball moves in such sports. When I think back to the coolest things I’ve ever seen in sporting events, it almost always involves bending, curving, or spinning the ball in some way; whether it’s a seemingly over-hit golf shot that is deftly back-spun into the hole, or a perfect strike on goal that bends away from the diving goal-keeper, I love those moment and it’s a big reason why I enjoy those sports.
However, no sport distills such elegance down into its basic components better than tennis. Freed from the clash of bodies in a soccer match, or the archaic rules of baseball and golf, tennis boils down to human versus physics versus another human versus physics. One of the few weapons a tennis player has is the spin they can apply to the ball when they hit it. A tennis court is small enough that without that spin, every match would boil down to a war of attrition.
The first thing I did when I started playing Virtua Tennis 4 was check out what options I had for applying spin to the ball. What I found made me happy. Every time you swing the racquet in Virtua Tennis 4, you have the option of hitting the ball with top spin, or back spin, (you can also hit deep or shallow lobs to foil those the rush the net or hang back behind the baseline, or hit a super powered shot when your “concentration gauge” fills up) and it’s as easy as hitting the correct face-button when you initiate your shot. After that, all you do is aim your shot in any direction with the left stick and hope your opponent can’t hit it back. It’s easy to pick up and get acclimated, yet it’s also very deep. The longer you play, the more you realize how important your positioning is, or how wide angle forecourt shots become super weapons when you learn how to use them. It’s a system that worked wonderfully for me, and was immensely enjoyable to boot. Since sports games rely on the strength of their controls, its solid, easy to use, and fun controls provide Virtua Tennis 4 with an exceptionally strong foundation upon which to build.
Unfortunately, the house built on that foundation is a bit shaky, but more on that in a later.
The meat of the game is broken down into World Tour, Arcade, Exhibition, Practice, and Party (the game also features online play with two to four players and Kinect support for up to two players). Arcade and Exhibition let players pick from the game’s stable of real pros or user-created characters and attack the courts as they see fit. Exhibition offers more customization by allowing the player to choose AI difficulty (for single player games), the number of games and sets to win, and the court (more are gradually unlocked as you play). Up to four players can take part locally, so what with the control scheme being the way it is, family game night just got a new option. “BOYS VERSUS GIRLS DOUBLES, LOSERS DO THE DISHES FOR A MONTH!”
Arcade, on the other hand, is more old school. One or two players can square off in singles or doubles action against each other or the computer in each of the game’s four major tournament analogues for points and medals. Complete those four and you face off against a boss of sorts in an exhibition match. However, you’re limited to one set and two games to win, so you won’t be dueling with you buddy on the courts of pretend Flushing Meadows, New York for hour(s) long five set marathons. You do have the option in Exhibition, but it lacks some of the panache as many of the Exhibition courts are smaller. In Party mode, up to four players can attack one of eight tennis-themed mini-games. These range from fairly normal, breaking clay targets for example, to the random and bizarre. One game sees players running all over a grass court “collecting” chicks by stepping on their eggs while basketballs are fired at you. You score points by returning your conga line of chicks to a mother hen that pops out on either side of the court. The more chicks you lose via errant basketballs, the lower your score. Weird. That leaves Practice mode, but there’s not much to talk about. There are several “lessons” but you’re not scored on your performance and don’t even need to use the technique the lesson is ostensibly teaching. Points are scored by popping balloons that appear, but serve no purpose.
The deepest of these modes, obviously is going to be World Tour Mode, which acts as a career mode of sorts. You begin by making a character. The options are on par with the likes of Mass Effect or Fallout, but don’t expect any real masterpieces. Once you’re done with that, you jump in to what is called “open season.” In real life that would be the part of the tennis season that leads up to the Australian Open, one of the four real major tournaments that aren’t licensed in Virtua Tennis 4. After that, it’s three other seasons, each ending in a pretend major: the French Cup, the English Cup, and the American Cup. It’s here that the goodwill the gameplay and controls have built up begins to erode.
I’m just going to say it: World Tour Mode is stupid. It’s unnecessarily complicated and seems to go out of its way to screw you up. The mode is set up vaguely like a turn-based strategy game, or an IRL board game, but instead of dice, you determine the number of moves via what the game calls travel tickets. These tickets allow you to move one, two, three, or four spaces. At the end of your move, the space you land on is the activity you have to partake in, no matter what. These activities break down into four groups. You have mini-games (the same as Party mode), public events, accidents, and actually playing tennis against another player, be it exhibition, singles or doubles, a tournament, or a truly bizarre “fancy party” event that requires players to dress up as strangely as possible to be eligible.
If you land on a mini-game space, you compete to achieve a certain score within a certain time limit. As you pass them, they level up and get progressively harder. By level four, you be pulling your hair out. Success means money, used to buy gear, and experience that accumulates (failure nets you far less money and experience). Accumulating experience allows you to improve your stamina, which depletes after every activity and match, and will lead to an injury if it drops below a certain point. It also allows you to unlock play-styles such as “hard-hitter, “wide-volley,” or “net play,” among others. Hitting shots that match your play-style fills your concentration bar, and when it’s full, you can unleash an extra-powerful shot that can be essential to scoring on pros later in World Tour mode.
Landing on a public event space means your character takes part in some kind of fan event, donates to charity, or gives an interview. These (and tennis matches) earn you stars. These stars affect your rating, like “famous,” or “rising star,” and act as an entry fee of sorts for both the small “satellite” and major tournaments. This is really where World Tour mode comes apart. Getting stars can be hard, and not getting enough to enter even one satellite tournament (or losing in the first round of one you do qualify for) basically means you’ll never have enough stars to qualify for any of the satellite tournaments for the rest of the mode, or qualify for the main draw in majors. Stupid, stupid, stupid. People who buy tennis games want to play tennis, yet Virtua Tennis 4 seems to try its hardest to keep you from it while in Tour mode. I made six attempts at World Tour mode, and each time, I found myself behind the star curve needed to really compete with the AI players. Each time, I made it a little farther before I fell behind, but I still fell behind. Sure, I could still play the mini-games and exhibition matches, but I was permanently locked out of satellite tournaments, which net you the most stars by far. Moreover, when it came time to play a major, I had to win a “play-in” tournament just to qualify. To make matters worse, if I didn’t watch my moves, I wouldn’t make it to the major on time and I’d be penalized the very stars I couldn’t earn fast enough.
It gets worse: The movement tickets are randomized so it’s impossible to plan far enough ahead to hit the activities you need to hit (without the aid of a computer program or possibly Rain Man). You can buy travel tickets, at special management office spaces, but that only helps a little as you can only buy one at a time, the one you need isn’t always available, and you only get three extra travel ticket slots. You can also by a shuffle ticket that allegedly gives you a set of new tickets, but for me, if I had two threes and a four, but needed a two, the shuffle ticket would give me two fours and a three. Thanks for nothing, game.
It gets still worse: The stamina system I mention before plays a big role in totally working against you every step of the way. Like I said, every activity or match depletes your stamina. You can refill it by landing on relaxation spaces. There are two levels. One fills it all the way up and one fills a tiny bit that’s less that what you lose from one match (and one relaxation ticket you can buy from management spaces). If you haven’t leveled up you stamina enough by playing mini-games, you’ll be injured by the finals. You can still play, but you won’t win because you’ll move like a geriatric with lung disease, a broken hip, and a central nervous system that’s been replaced with peanut butter. That’s if you play your cards right and hit the tournament with full stamina. If you have less than full stamina, you might as well flush your Xbox down the toilet for all the good competing in said tournament is going to do you. Losing these tournaments also puts you behind the star curve, meaning one missed relaxation stop can ruin an entire tour. That’s unreasonably harsh, if you ask me.
We’re still not done with the worse: There is one other kind of activity space you can land on: the “accident” space. Whoever conceived of these abominations clearly hates videogames, the people who play them, tennis, puppies, and not being punched straight into the Sun. Landing on them serves no purpose other than to make you hate yourself. You’ll “drop your wallet” and lose money or “weird rumors will start about you” and you’ll lose stars. Once again, these can ruin an entire tour for you by disqualifying you from satellite tournaments.
I can’t hold it in any longer…
RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE RAGE!!!!!!!!!!!!
There, I got it all off my chest. I really needed to, so thanks for listening. I really really did enjoy the actual “playing tennis” portion of the World Tour mode. In fact, I loved every second of every match I played in, so it was extra upsetting for me to have the game actively try to keep me from doing it.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention these other problems as well: The majors were only three rounds. Matches were only one set, best two out of three games wins. The play-styles I mentioned earlier relied only on your ability to hit the right kind of shots without also buffing your ability to play that style. For example, “net play” is totally wasted if you don’t have the chops or the guts to effectively rush the net. Also, the music was ill fitted to a tennis game, sounding more like it belonged in a discothèque than pouring out of my speakers while I sliced volleys into my opponent’s forecourt.
Now, I know that sounds like a lot of bad, and there is, but it’s mixed with lots and lots of good. When it’s all said and done for me, Virtua Tennis 4 was more about the beauty and elegance of ball and how it moves when I hit it, than it was about pro-tour level realism. Mid-match, when I was desperately trying to serve and volley my way past the likes of Roger Federer, against whom, I could not for the life of me get a ball past otherwise, Virtua Tennis 4 was a grand experience. It can be tense, exciting, and very rewarding when you finally get one by you opponent. In addition, because of its simple yet deep gameplay, it’s a grand experience that can be enjoyed by anyone whether they’ve played a tennis game before or know anything about it. How many other sports games can say that?