Just got another serving.
The Virtua Tennis series is not the typical video game sports franchise in that it foregoes the normal schedule of an annual release. Sega has only published four Virtua Tennis titles since the franchise debuted in 1999 - a strange fact given its worldwide popularity and the propensity for developers to milk sports titles like cash cows. But this means that Sega can rebuild the series with every iteration without the pressure of having to deliver an installment every year, and Virtua Tennis 4 looks to be all the better for it.
[image1]In the brief demo and presentation for the title, motion gaming with the Kinect and Playstation Move became the clear highlight, going well beyond the overly simplistic tennis mini-games in other motion-supported compilations. For motion play, the viewpoint switches to a first-person perspective with the imaginary racket in your hands and with lateral motion left and right automatically controlled. Whether it's a backhand or forehand, the speed of the follow-through matters; holding the racket to the side doesn't do squat. The full range of shot selection was not explained in detail, but we should expect the ability to perform topspin ground strokes as easily as wide-angle volleys and drop shots.
As you might assume, the Move version works more soundly than the Kinect version, which had a few bumps in the swing detection. This isn't too surprising, though, given that the Move version can detect hand rotation and position more smoothly and the device has physical weight similar to a light tennis racket. Having something to hold makes motion support in tennis video games that much more believable. (Curiously, though, in the Kinect version, you can use your feet if ever you need a lob.) Of course, the builds we played were only alpha at best; Sega has plenty of time to surprise us with how they polish the game with the Kinect and the Move.
The other complete overhaul is the career World Tour mode, complete with a robust character creator that goes down to the nitty-gritty details of eyebrow height and jawline thickness. With the world map designed like a board game, players receive tickets from coaches or by purchasing them in a shop that give them a certain number of spaces they can move in a linear track all across the world. While tournaments are still the most important events to conquer, there are other skill-based mini-games that will award you more experience points and coins the better you perform. But to make sure you can't grind your way to perfection, you only have a a certain amount of days to complete your goal, in addition to a condition bar that decreases with each event and increases with rest. Don't complete the goal in time, and it's an effective game over.
[image2]Additional tweaks include two-player play via split-screen (a rarity nowadays), a reformed online infrastructure that reportedly removes lag and substitutes players with an AI if the connection is ever lost, and an interesting mechanic called match momentum. Each tennis player has a certain playstyle that suits them; for instance, the all-around play of Roger Federer and the solid defense of Rafael Nadal. Every time the tennis player hits a shot in their style, their meter rises, and upon reaching the maximum level, the player can use it all to hit a super great shot - those miracle, out-of-nowhere shots only legends can make. Saving the momentum bar, though, is also a legitimate strategy; keeping the bar at maximum will keep the player in the zone longer, along with the coupled benefits in shot-making and reaction time.
With motion gaming and a revamped World Tour mode, Virtua Tennis 4 looks to be a worthy competitor to the Top Spin series. Take a hit when it arrives in spring 2011.