A smashing return.
You gotta hand it to pro tennis. While baseball flirts with its four billionth strike and basketball deals with bailing its stars out of jail, tennis has done a crack job at resuscitating itself over the past few years. Of course, lots of screen time for Anna 'Porn'ikova helped boost the appeal as much as the new breed of uber-athletic tennis stars, but why quibble?
The point is, tennis is big business again and its stars are pretty high profile. However, critics of the sport note that the game has leaned too far into serve and one-volley play, losing a lot of the technique traditionalists are so fond of touting. They complain about fancy rackets and super shoes and wonder aloud if these new talents could win a point with a wooden racket and flip-flops.
Want to shut 'em up? Then give 'em a taste of Sega Sports Tennis, an updated PS2 port of Sega's Tennis 2K2 for the Dreamcast. Despite its arcade roots, this is a title flowing with strategy and surprising single-player depth, though it can still boil down to a souped-up version of Pong. But just as that classic drew newbies to video gaming, Tennis is bursting with appeal for even those who don't know their love from their let.
Fans of Sega's Tennis games for the Dreamcast will feel right at home, as this is pretty much just a slightly beefed out version of those games. It toes the line between arcade and simulation, keeping the gameplay fast and frantic.
The most obvious change is the lineup of the 16 players; specifically, the women. In addition to the Williams sisters, you'll find household American players like Monica Seles and Lindsey Davenport as well as international stars like newcomer Ai Sugiyama. The men's side features notables like Thomas Enquist and Patrick Rafter, though it is still missing big name stars like Agassi and Sampras or even upstart Andy Roddick. Guess those licensing fees are pricey. It's something of a letdown.
However, the gameplay most certainly is not. Continuing the series tradition of ease over complexity, the controls employ really only three buttons - topspin, backspin and lob. Depending on where you aim, where you stand relatively to the ball and how soon you wind up for the hit, you might dive at it or smack it down the line or crush it overhand up your opponent's nose. It's incredibly intuitive but filled with strategy. Like the real sport, it's always a guessing game. Setting up your opponent for a killer passing shot is really satisfying and genuinely fun.
And in a pleasant surprise, so is the single-player game. You can start up a Tournament to earn some dough or play Exhibition matches, but the real gem here is the newly done World Tour mode. You build two players - one male, one female - and take them through a career simultaneously. By following a somewhat clunky calendar, you have to decide when and how you train, when you rest up, and which tournaments to undertake. Winning matches earns higher rankings and access to tougher tournaments, with the number one ranking as the ultimate goal.
This is much easier said than done, as Sega Sports Tennis features an AI that ramps up pretty quickly and at the higher levels will have you gasping for air. It can admittedly get frustrating thinking you've won a point with a crucial backhand only to see the computer pull off some sick crosscourt rocket, leaving you stranded at the net.
To help even things out, you can train your characters and boost their stats by engaging in a collection of mini-games. Some improve your volley skills; others will up your serve strength or footspeed. You can acquire new items like better rackets, fancier outfits or cooler shoes to better your skills. This gives the game an RPG quality that will in fact keep you up much later than you intended, particularly since it's just a tennis game.
And like the real sport, it's sort of a game designed to play with others. Sega Sports Tennis excels as a multi-player game thanks to its pick-up-and-play controls. It also contains doubles matches, so you and a friend can play co-op. In the single-player game, doubles matches usually wind up with you sitting back watching the insane AI player kick ass in your name, which can be entertaining if a little sobering.
Where Tennis stumbles a bit is in its graphics. Despite the supposed power of the PS2, this game doesn't really look better than its Dreamcast counterpart, and in some ways looks worse. Anti-aliasing issues abound with jagged lines poking out to and fro. The stadiums and crowd look pretty bland and the player models are rough and uneven, though the court textures are nice and the player animations are done very well.
The game still only allows two camera angles and features an uncontrollable replay system. It's pretty obvious that minimal effort was put into updating the look.
The same can be said about the sound. The effects are fine, but the music is standard Sega arcade fare. It won't drive you nuts, but it won't have you whistling Dixie, either.
Really the biggest problem with Sega Sports Tennis is how comfortable it is with its past. While it's a very good game, it adheres quite firmly to its predecessors in its gameplay and presentation. Compared to the exhaustive details you'll find in Sega Sports' other games, this one comes up light. Is it an arcade game? Is it a sim? How about a wider assortment of shot types or better customizability with created players? You can't help but notice that this is still very much an arcade game wrapped in console clothing.
But to be honest, you probably won't care. Sega Sports Tennis is a very fun game and should be considered the current king of tennis titles. Lace up those old K-Swiss and check it out.