In a way, it all started with tennis.
Or, rather, it all started with Pong, the granddaddy of home gaming, which was of course basically tennis; two players volleying a ball back and forth, trying to find the angle that would make the other player miss.
Unfortunately, while the gaming world has progressed ever so slightly from the days where two rectangles bouncing a square back and forward constituted cutting-edge home entertainment, tennis games have never quite lost the mechanical feel of playing a fancy game of Pong. Sure, you’re playing Roger Federer with an array of backhands, forehands, lobs and volleys, and sure it’s neat how your feet slide across the clay just like in real life, but the drama and excitement of a five set grand slam show-down has yet to be captured to my mind.
In part of course, this is because a game of tennis, like cricket, is difficult to condense effectively into a game. So much of the aforementioned drama comes from the ebb and flow of a three hour match. The average gamer has little interest in recapturing that, and so, as with cricket, it is inevitable you will find yourself playing something that captures only a portion of the game’s intangible magic.
However, more importantly, most simulation-focused tennis games developed thus far have tended to be fairly staid affairs when it comes to straight-up gameplay. It can sometimes feel like an exercise in patience and geometry, steadily manoeuvring your opponent around until you strike. This, of course, does capture the thinking man’s aspects of the game, but it doesn’t capture the grit and spirit of an injured play diving across the grass to desperately fend off match-point after match-point.
2K Sports’ Top Spin 4 attempts to overcome this perennial disappointment with tennis games. At least, it certainly takes a good shot at it.
This fourth edition in the Top Spin series has a much more fluid, intuitive approach to gameplay, with the controls proving to be significantly simpler to adapt to than was the case with the overly complex Top Spin 3. As would be expected, the graphics are also a step beyond existing tennis simulations. The physics are better, and movement is both increasingly more fluid and more personalised from player to player, with different players interacting with their environments in their own ways. Ubiquitous tennis grunts included.
The player creation tools are more nuanced now too, although they still seem a little underdone when compared to similar functions in other sports titles. Still, as you guide your slightly-uglier-than-you-might-like player through a career of training events and tournaments, the progressive character improvement is handled in a straightforward fashion that staves off the tedium experienced in other games. Also, while licensing is limited – both in terms of tournaments and players – there are enough legends of days gone by to keep the game engaging, such as Boris Becker, Björn Borg, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and more.
It’s a shame, therefore, that ultimately the career mode for Top Spin 4 feels unrewarding. While the gameplay is initially enjoyable, the off-court action is a little basic. It’s not that a Fight Night Champion-style storyline would be preferable, but given the depth of ‘between game’ options available in so many sports titles these days, it seems that more could be done to capture the professional development of a superstar in waiting.
It wouldn't have taken much – perhaps additional training routines, press events, or likewise could have alleviated some of the drudgery.
Coupled with this is the fact that repeated play becomes dreaded, clinical and uninspiring after a time as you push your computer opposition around the court.
However, all is not lost. Much as Pong derived so much of its appeal from the opportunity to outwit your opposition with a well-placed shot (or bounce, or rebound, or whatever it was that was going on in Pong), so too tennis games thrive on good old-fashioned multiplayer action.
Where the simplicity of tennis as a game and the lack of a league-based season means long-term competition against the game is unrewarding, going head-to-head against another person is an altogether different proposition. Here the strengths of Top Spin 4 are much more evident as you struggle for that moment when your player can rush to the net and flick a non-returnable volley into the far corner of the court.
This means that the real value to Top Spin 4 lies not in its career mode, but in online play and the ‘King of the Court’ mode which turns tennis into a school yard game of ‘winner holds the court’. This is fully customisable and offers the potential for hours of good competition between friends. Sure, it’s not ‘real’ tennis, but it’s certainly fun.
It's hard not to feel like there is still more to be explored from tennis as a game. Equally, however, it is equally hard not to enjoy this particular game when placed head to head against human competition.
After all, 35 years on from Pong, it's still sweet to get one past your opponent.