Top Spin 4 Hands-On PreviewBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Feb 22, 2011
With Top Spin 4, the developers at 2K Sports have tried to create a tennis experience that is both familiar to longtime fans of the franchise’s sim-focused gameplay but is also a bit more accessible to newcomers, and/or gamers who haven’t picked up a virtual racket in a while. I recently spent some hands-on time with the Xbox 360 version of the upcoming four-quel, and came away being quite impressed with just how well the game balances on the simulation/arcade chalk line.
One of first takeaways I had once my play session was over was that the game is just as enjoyable to watch as it is to play. The Top Spin series has always had solid presentation design, but this latest installment has an added bit of polish that just makes the TV-style broadcast pop off the screen. A new sound effects system also ensures each match sounds as authentic as it looks. The crowds ooh and ahh appropriately throughout rallies, and if they get a little too rowdy, the chair judge will kindly ask them to be quiet, something I never get tired of hearing.
For the on court side of things, 2K Sports has brought back the charge shot control system, which might make a few critics of Top Spin 3 wince a tad, but I’m happy to report that while it definitely takes some getting used to, once you start to see the release-button-to-swing scheme as an extension of your player, it becomes second nature. After just a few rallies, I was smoking crosscourt winners and painting the baseline with perfectly placed defensive slices.
Top Spin 4 features 24 pros, the most of any tennis game to date, including some of today’s biggest names (Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Serena Williams), as well as legendary players like Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, and, appearing for the first time in a video game, Andre Agassi (Agassi’s awesome mullet-ish hairstyle is easily one of the greatest pre-order bonuses in gaming history).
The character models and animations have been painstakingly crafted and, unlike some sports games where the gameplay suffers at the hands of “realistic animations,” the gameplay here remains satisfying and looks great in the process. Watching Federer slide to get to a deep baseline shot, only to give up mid-slide because he realized he couldn’t reach the ball made me giggle out loud with joy, and that’s just one of hundreds of custom animations that give Top Spin 4 its hyper-realistic presentation.
I finished up my hands-on time with a quick doubles match. The 2K rep and I took on the computer, and were beaten fairly handedly, which, the rep told me, is pretty common, since doubles is all about communication, and it’s much easier for the computer AI to coordinate than it is for two humans. But it was still a blast to play, and, like the singles portion, the more you think like a tennis player, the better you will do.
And this is really one of 2K Sports’ major focuses with Top Spin 4: pushing players to strategize and approach every point like they would if they were actually playing tennis. This idea is even built into the characters themselves, so if you’re playing with someone who is known for their serve-and-volley approach, they will have limited success if you play them as someone is a baseline defender type. Knowing your character’s strengths and weakness, as well as those of your opponent, will play a major factor in determining your success on the court.
The player progression system has also received some improvements, chief among them the fact that everything you do with your created player goes towards his experience, so whether you’re playing online or off, you’re always leveling up. The character creation system has also been boosted to include the same customization tools used by the developers, which will bring a whole new level of immersion for fans of sports role-playing. I wasn’t able to play around with the character creation system, or check out the game’s 3D support, or PlayStation Move controls, so those are the big remaining question marks at this point.
I’ve been wanting to be excited about a tennis game for a long time, and Top Spin 4 definitely has my attention now. Thankfully, I won’t have to wait much longer to see if the anticipation pays off, since the game releases on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii March 15.