Service with a smile.
Year after year, Madden squares off against ESPN and Gameday. Basketball's battle in the paint includes Live, ESPN and Shootout. Throw in a few Blitzes, Streets and Slugfests and you get an annual sports parade rivaling the Tournament of Roses.
But what about tennis? Sega's Virtua Tennis line has pretty much cornered the market with no major players in recent years, despite the fact that the mother of all video games, Pong, is essentially a 2D game of tennis.
Well, if you're looking for someone to challenge a monopoloy, you can't get any more ironic than Microsoft. As part of its newly designed XSN sports lineup, the gentle giant has tapped into game history by cranking out Top Spin, currently the only real tennis game you'll find on the Xbox. And as luck would have it, it's also one of the best tennis games ever made. Sometimes the quickest way to beat a monopoly is to recruit your own.
Top Spin puts authenticity and playability above everything else. A hodgepodge of male and female tennis stars are here, including Leyton Hewitt, James Blake, the recently retired Pete Sampras, the insurmountable Martina Hingis and the eminently mountable Anna Kournikova. Some star names are missing, though, such as Agassi, Roddick, Capriati and the Williams sisters, but at least they got in a few of the big ones.
Whether you're playing as man, woman or Internet porn queen, you'll enjoy exceptional control and gameplay. You have a variety of easily accessible shot types, from lobs and smashes to slices and topspin. Like other tennis games, it's all about timing; the longer you set up for a whack at the ball, the harder your whack will be.
Giving you an additional edge is the Risk shot. By pressing R instead of a face button, you'll trigger a little meter; nail it in middle sweet spot for a nasty winning shot. Doing the same with L will result in a drop shot, which comes in handy if you're playing a hard baseline hitter. These certainly add some oomph, though they're pretty hard to pull off if you're not a computer. Missing the sweet spot will usually result in an errant shot, so you don't wind up using them much.
To make it easier, the game rewards good, aggressive play with the ITZ meter. The fuller the meter, the easier it is to hit good Risk or Drop shots. If you play poorly, your ITZ meter will stay low and the trickier shots will be even tougher.
There's not much else to the gameplay beyond the simple rules of tennis, but that doesn't mean the game lacks depth. While you'll get by at first just using basic shots, tennis is all about throwing your opponent off balance, a feat best accomplished by using a wide variety of techniques and shots. It's the perfect example of a game that's easy to learn and essential to master.
Which isn't to say it's glitch free. Occasionally your player will seemingly ignore your great timing and hit some lame duck volley, while other times you'll dive for a shot even though you were right on top of it. Neither of these is a deal breaker, but make sure to swathe your Xbox controller in bubble wrap for the inevitable slam on the floor.
You can play singles or doubles Exhibition matches to get your feet wet, but most gamers will dive right into the single-player Career mode. You start by creating a player using a very impressive, robust engine, face morphing and all. It's not quite as fancy as Tiger Woods 2004, but it's damn close.
The bulk of Career takes you around the world as you build up your player, move up the rankings, and earn cash to spend on clothes and gear. There's actually quite a bit to do - you can gain sponsorships along to way for some freebies, hop into a tournament or visit some coaches to increase your stats.
This is handled adequately, allotting 14 Career points to spend on four statistical categories: Serve, Forehand, Backhand and Volley. Unfortunately, the training itself usually amounts to just hitting the ball at some targets in a certain amount of time, which isn't very thrilling. If you botch a session, you lose that Career point and cannot get another one. This can be a little frustrating if you screw up more than once and wind up with a lower ability ceiling.
The other resource is cash, which is astoundingly easy to come by. Unlike the intricate depth of a game like Tiger Woods (in which nearly every item has an impact on your player's skill), here the clothing and gear just amounts to the tennis version of Barbie dress-up. You can buy nothing and do fine, rendering the cash sort of useless.
Despite these missteps, Career mode still offers a pretty good amount of entertainment. You'll likely breeze through the lower level tournaments, but once you're knocking on the door of the top ten, expect a steep rise in difficulty. The top five players are simply ruthless.
Before you smash your racket into the line judge's skull after getting whooped by Leyton Hewitt again, check out the multiplayer. This is where tennis games ultimately thrive, and Top Spin is no different. The nature of the game removes the need for split-screen, though one player will have to play from the awkward top position.
To solve this, Top Spin is the first console tennis game to offer online play, and this is where the game earns some of its highest marks. You can play ranked or unranked games, and no matter what, you'll always play from the comfy side of the court. Lag can occasionally screw up your Risk serving, but that's small potatoes next to the joy of an overall smooth multiplayer game.
And a gorgeous one at that. Top Spin marks a new era in tennis game animation and player modeling. Players look great and move smoothly and accurately. You'll play on grass, clay and hardcourt, which leads to some slightly different animations; you'll slide around more on clay. The bump-mapped courts are realistic, the crowds actually stand and sit according to the flow of the match and the ball is never hard to follow. I would have liked more replay angles, though.
The audio is just as good. The ball makes different sounds in different courts and on different surfaces, while the thwack of racket is as satisfying as it gets. There is no announcing aside from the line judge, but he does fine just calling out the points and will even turn French when you play the Grand Slam event in Paris. Deuce? No, no, "Egalite!" Say it right, Frenchy!
In any language, Top Spin is a winner. Its small flaws are outmatched by its solid gameplay, excellent graphics and nice online support. It's also as close as you'll get to Anna without worrying about that pesky restraining order, and that's gotta count for something.