Genre: Sport Developer: Sumo Digital Ltd. Publisher: Sega Classification: G Release Date: 29th May 2009 Platforms:XBOX360
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Virtua Tennis needs to choose. It can either be a simulation tennis game like its visuals and roster would have you believe - or it can be an arcade tennis game as the world tour mode and still limited shot selection appear. It can't keep straddling the line - not with other more specialised titles out like the Mario Tennis games or 2K's Top Spin series.
One thing they have chosen is the decision to go to a sequel numbering system which is based on years - on one hand I applaud their decision to give the game a title based on actual year the game has been released, on the other I fear the potential year on year sequels of the game will dilute the quality of the title even further. And that's assuming it decides whether it is a sim or an arcade game.
Let's roll it back a little though. Virtua Tennis 2009 is the sequel to Virtua Tennis 3, and it's the fourth VT game for home consoles. The first one was on the Dreamcast, though if you've been to an arcade sometime in the last decade odds are good that you've probably encountered the series in one way or another. I saw number 3 in a pub the other week.
The key to the game's success has always been its minimalist approach to tennis - you have three shot choices, Top Spin, Slice and Lob as your choices. Flat shots don't make the cut (again) which will satisfy series fans and likely frustrate some simulation fans. The choice to eliminate any semblance of a HUD (except for serving!) reinforces the game's aesthetic style and bolsters the feeling of realism - a strange juxtaposition with the shot selection.
Still, game to game you'll feel satisfied by the way your player moves and the way they choose their shots - they automatically decide between forehand or backhand depending on where you are standing on the ball, allowing you a lot of control in terms of playing to your characters strengths/opponents weaknesses.
The single player career mode is a bit of a mixed bag - the mini-games are varied, fun and they provide a lot of entertainment, but the actual tennis play is somewhat frustrating and slow. Like so many sports games with career modes these days, you start with no skills and you have to level them up - balancing training with actual playing matches.
The training is made up of the mini-games - challenges like a Puyo-puyo-esque brick breaking game, bowling and pool are all heaps of fun, and completing challenges unlocks more mini-games. Playing each mini-game consumes a little stamina and are difficult to determine amount of time required (one or two weeks, it seemed to change), so you can use these in between big tournaments on your calendar.
The strange thing is that leveling up in any area simply unlocks a skill - "All-Rounder" or "Fast Runner" - and doesn't actually contribute to your overall skill. So your player doesn't have a rating like in most sports game - you're not a 99 rating tennis player after completing all the challenges, you simply have access to all the skills. This places the emphasis on player skill more than picking the best character to win, but it also makes all that hard work feel wasted because all you get is an arbitrary skill.
The tournament play in World Tour mode is tedious - there's usually two or three shots per rally and you'll find yourself winning consistently in straight sets until you hit the pro tournaments (after literally hundreds of games, as the game ranks you up very, very slowly). Once you turn pro the difficulty ramps up - for a time it's good fun but eventually the computer appears to be able to predict your next shot and instead of two or three shots per point you're looking at two or three dozen, making the game tedious in a brand new way.
Multiplayer is the game's real shining point - at least offline. The mini-games are all available to play outside of the World Tour career mode, and they are all multiplayer too which is a treat. Singles and doubles matches of vanilla tennis are fun to play, and four player matches are hilarious (as expected). With four control pads and three friends you could ignore the rest of the game's foibles.
Online play was pretty abysmal - finding a game was just a shot in the dark and the net code is horrible. The lag compensation is actually pretty good, but it makes for some confusing scenes when you think you've won a rally only to have the ball fly back at you.
If Virtua Tennis 2009 is going to choose either sim or arcade, it would probably be better off going arcade. The sim elements are probably the worst in the game - while the characters look great when they move and the actual gameplay looks great thanks to the lack of a HUD, the gameplay suffers quite a bit. The mini-games on the other hand are heaps of fun, and the offline multiplayer is great - the fact that there are only three buttons means anyone can pick it up and play it as well.
Virtua Tennis 2009 isn't a bad game - it's more fun than most sports games with three other people at hand - but it certainly isn't a good game. Go and get Virtua Tennis 3 or Top Spin 3 if you desperately need a tennis game on your Xbox 360 though - they're both better.