Virtua Tennis 4 has its share of flashy, box-cover-friendly features. Its support for the PlayStation Move makes VT4 the series’ first foray into motion control, and it also has the bullet point du jour, 3-D graphics support. But it’s a less whiz-bang change—a new, dynamic camera angle—that makes all the difference in this sequel, which marks the return of Sega’s original Virtua Tennis team.
The leader of that group is veteran producer Mie Kumagai, and she said that developing the camerawork of the new game was their greatest challenge. “In this kind of game, there are two approaches,” she told me in an interview. “One is to make it all first-person, which would suit an effort to make an authentic gameplay experience. You only see the ball, the opponent, your racquet. So you can really immerse yourself in the game—you feel like you are standing there on the court. But there's also a problem there, because you can't really see Federer or Murray. And that's one of the points of this game you get to be Roger Federer. So we invented a system where we switch back and forth smoothly from first-person to third-person view [on the fly].”
The system sounds complicated, but when I played a short set as Federer on the Tokyo Game Show 2010 floor, it felt surprisingly natural. When the ball was at a distance, the camera hung at a low third-person view behind Federer. But as the ball approached, the camera pushed in and Federer vanished, leaving only the racquet and the ghostly outline of his arm. The camera pulled back to third-person after I returned the shot, and the sequence began again.
All this camera movement creates an intense focus on the ball and, in combination with the Move controls, it does give an immediacy to the sensation of being “on the court.” (The 3-D effect was also a subtle improvement, but as usual, it’s overhyped.)
The niggling reality is that the demo did seem a lot like a fancy version of Wii Sports tennis. Higher production values, yes. More vivid, sure. But with the player is only responsible for swinging the racket—the computer automatically controlled my movement around the court—a large part of the sport was lost.
“The most essential aspect of the series is that we can hit a powerful shot like the professional players with simple controls,” Kumagai said. And it seems that Virtua Tennis 4, due for release next spring, will likely achieve that much. Given that Sega wasn’t showing non-Move portions of the game, it’s hard to tell how much else the game will accomplish. I don’t think that Kumagai is about to throw away the series’ tradition of detailed tennis simulation, of course. It just remains to be seen whether Move will be a part of that tradition in VT4 or just a pleasant sideshow.