With tennis games like Top Spin and Smash Court Tennis showing us just how realistic a tennis sim can be, SEGA have decided to stay true to the Virtua Tennis franchise and keep the arcade feel to the gameplay whilst showcasing impressive graphics and fantastic player animations. This will polarise fans.

Some will love the fact that it’s still essentially the same game as it’s always been, while the rest will spurn the game for being exactly that.

Virtua Tennis 2009 is a bit of a contradiction in itself. In some ways Sumo Digital have gone out of their way to make things as realistic as possible, and yet the gameplay itself is about as close to playing the real thing as Wii Tennis is.

Take the player animations for example; there’s excellent attention to detail, especially when the player changes direction in a hurry, or gets wrong footed. On clay and grass courts you’ll see them slide and stumble trying to recover from being sent the wrong direction. But then the gameplay is ridiculously easy, even at the hardest level. All that is required to blitz the opposition is a basic knowledge of tennis. At the easier difficulties, rallies rarely last more than five or six shots, and at the hardest it’s just a matter of a few more angled shots until the opposition is far enough out of court to hit the clean winner.

After playing through three seasons of World Tour Mode I’ve not once hit the ball out of court, and I’ve only had half a dozen winners hit against me. That’s not a statement I could make in any other tennis game.

But let’s backtrack a little and take a look at the character creation feature. There can be no argument that Electronic Arts are the masters when it comes to comprehensive character customization, but the one on display in Virtua Tennis 2009 is on a par with the best. It’s comprehensive to say the least, with the full range of cosmetic options available, as well as physical characteristics like receiving stance and serving and forehand styles. Ordinarily I try and make a character bearing some resemblance to myself, but this time I decided to go all out and made a 7ft tall, dark skinned male with a face like Abe from Oddworld and a ginger mullet. Of course I could have just chosen Andy Murray, but this was more fun.

If you want to dive straight into a match then there’s a decent list of current top ranking professionals at your disposal. Federer, Nadal, Murray, Nalbandian, Sharapova, Hantuchova… ok those last two are just top looking rather than ranking, but you get the idea. In the opening scenes I saw a flash of Stefan Edberg which suggests that there are some classic players of yesteryear available as unlockables. The likenesses are pretty good although the harsh contrast at times gives their faces a bit of a Michael Jackson appearance.

There’s a good range of game modes to choose from, all of the standard tennis matches – singles, doubles, mixed etc. Plus a solid World Tour/career mode, which isn’t as linear as it might seem at first glance. You actually have plenty of choice as to how you want your career to progress, in that you can pick and choose which events to enter or whether to rest for a week or two to regain stamina. You can choose to focus on singles, doubles or both, gain/drop double partners and develop friendships off court. In your downtime you can play practice matches, train at the Tennis Academy or play some tennis-themed arcade games which all serve to boost your stats and abilities.

The arcade games available during World Tour are used to develop your skills and therefore seem like a chore rather than fun. There’s a ‘Breakout’ style game, one where you have to sink Pirate Ships and another where you run around the court picking up groceries while dodging tennis balls. However outside of tour mode there are more games available, all of which require tennis shots to be made (usually serves) but see the court transformed into the likes of a curling rink or pool table for example. Most of these are a welcome diversion and actually work quite well.

Virtual Tennis 2009’s AI runs on a par with its difficulty. Some opponents will run to the part of the court where you’re likely to hit the next shot, and others will get it completely wrong. I’ve had players who are Serve & Volley exponents not approach the net once in a match, and some baseline brawlers who charged it at every opportunity – I don’t believe it was the AI adapting to my own tactics either – they’re not that smart. I saw marked improvements in doubles matches however. Your partner AI is excellent, and in fact they can often do most of the work. They intelligently swap sides if you end up running amok and they definitely make a better job of splitting the opposition with well-placed volleys. Even in easy mode you can get some decent rallies going in doubles matches.

But as with most sports titles, where Virtua Tennis 2009 shines is in multiplayer modes – playing against unpredictable humans instead of sub-routines. The arcade-like gameplay comes into its own here and makes the game accessible to all-comers. Online I found no lag whatsoever (which would be the death knoll for any online tennis game) and you can play random games or compete in tours complete with world rankings.

I have one major beef with Virtua Tennis 2009, and if the game had been more of a challenge all-round then this would have resulted in me using the disc as a new beer coaster. During play, you can basically play the ball where you want to easy enough, but if you see your opponent suddenly bolt to where you were going to hit it in advance, you don’t have the ability to change your shot direction at the last second. If you do then the ball gets hit down the centre of the court as if you hadn’t aimed at all. In Top Spin and Smash Court Tennis you can set up to do an inside-out cross-court forehand and, if you see your opponent heading over to cover it, suddenly change to a top-spin winner down the line. You can’t do that here. Not that it really matters as you’ll win the point anyway – but it gives you an example of the difference between a tennis simulation and a tennis game like this.

So as long as you go into it knowing that while SEGA is claiming that it’s “The World’s No.1 Tennis Series”, Virtua Tennis 2009 isn’t the greatest looking or most accurate game in the tennis genre, but it’s definitely worth playing, has some excellent arcade diversions and provides quality multiplayer enjoyment.