Just hitting it back.
First impression of the box for Smash Court Tennis 3: Why is the face of the cover athlete cut in half by the top margin? Why are 162 beads of sweat coming off his shoulders? And how will I prepare for “INTENSE REALISM WITH GREAT CONTROLS”, and most especially, “ONLINE ACTION”?
Admittedly, judging a video game by its cover is hardly fair, and making fun of the heavily capitalized, boastful spiel in the opening paragraph of a review is much too easy. But the smell of overweening mediocrity has a rotten odor, and I’m allergic. Without even popping the disc into the tray, I was ready to hold my nose, pluck the corner of the box between my thumb and forefinger, and serve it straight into the bargain bin. So after thirty hours of slicing, smashing, and swinging, I’m surprised that I didn’t.
Don’t be fooled, though, by my change of heart. Smash Court Tennis 3 has everything you would expect from an ordinary tennis title: passable animations, generic music, basic exhibition modes, online play, a rudimentary create-a-player tool (that annoyingly doesn’t allow you to change your long white socks), and an uncomplicated single-player world tour. You can expect to hit shots over the net using slices, top spin backhands and forehands, flat shots, lobs, drop shots, and everything else in the tennis repertoire, paying careful note to the direction and the timing of each shot. Though nothing is downright broken, nothing makes you stand up and cheer either. It is thoroughly, uncompromisingly plain.
Compared to Top Spin 3’s animations and models, the graphics are not as fluid or as lifelike. From afar, it’s actually difficult to tell whether the characters and the environments are decidedly next-gen, or the best a PS2 or Xbox can muster. Both Rafal Nadal and Roger Federer grace the roster, but their likenesses are muddy and occasionally awkward.
For a sports title that claims realism, Smash Court Tennis 3 doesn’t exhibit the polish the genre demands. It’s the little things that get in the way – how the chair umpire remains practically motionless, how after every pint your character always turns around and walks back, how characters occasionally slow down and suddenly speed up when they run after a ball, and how opponents sometimes run into the invisible wall surrounding the net.
Attempting to downplay this is a reactionary system, which allows your character to display an emotional response – happy, sad, angry, calm, etc. - after winning or losing a hard-fought point. However, this follows the pitfall of giving choice for the sake of giving choice. Whatever emotion you choose has no apparent impact on the game, either on the audience’s reaction or your opponent’s play, and the reactions are limited to about two animations each. Worse yet, your character has a reaction before you select the emotion anyway, so if your character has already pumped his fists after hitting a backhand winner, selecting “calm” just feels out of place.
One choice that does matter is the option of challenging a call. As one of the first titles to incorporate the new challenge system in modern tennis, you can attempt to overturn an unjust call several times during a set. A slow-motion replay of the ball as it hits somewhere around the line is then shown, proving or disproving the original call. It’s a system that’s fair and realistic in theory, but in practice, it sacrifices the definitive power of a video game – and computers in general - to analyze whether something is in or out without error.
What eventually happens, in part because you can’t turn the challenge system off, is that as your character (in World Tour mode) becomes skilled enough to hit shots on the line, you get challenged or are forced to challenge a point about twenty percent of the time. The frequency of balls that are hit out but called in, or hit square on the line but called out, becomes disruptively ridiculous, and when you run out of challenges, you’re forced to deal with the judgments of incompetent line umpires.
The RPG elements of World Tour mode, however, are what separate and ultimately save Smash Court Tennis 3 from slapdash mash-ups such as Sega Superstars Tennis. Just as Smash Court Tennis 2, it’s all about leveling up your character, who this time around can not only build vital stats such as power, speed, and accuracy, but also obtain special skills. Winning tournaments all across a yearly season nets experience points depending on the difficulty of the tournament, and every level you gain nets you a skill point which you can distribute however you wish. There’s nothing like creating a hard hitter that has maximum stats in power and accuracy as well as “Down The Line”, “Topspin Mastery”, and “Passing Shot” skills. That’s right, run, Nadal, RUN!
If you’re the level-grinding fool I am, then you’ll be surprised by Smash Court Tennis 3, but you’ll probably be disappointed if you follow the genre for its difficulty and realism. Being able to set matches to one set and two games makes the pace brisk and intense, which is great for players that just want to gain experience as fast as they can. Still, the refinement of the animations, the character models, and accurately capturing the simulation (that sports titles do best) is missing. Like a practice tennis session, Smash Court Tennis 3 can be casually and addictively played many times over, but it lacks the seriousness and the substance of a grand slam title.