Successful tennis players understand the need to take risks; otherwise, you’ll just endlessly volley back and forth, Ponging your way to mediocrity while the aggressive players slice, drop and smash their way into the history books and hefty cash endorsements.
The same can be said of video game design, making it a bit frustrating that a publisher as accomplished as 2K Sports seems to be having such a hard time creating new experiences on the Xbox 360. Each of its ports has been strictly by the books, with no new modes or gameplay enhancements to reflect the power of the next-gen system. Still, we had high hopes for Top Spin 2 since it’s the first 2K Sports game to be specifically designed for Microsoft’s newest machine.
Instead, we get the same old familiar forehand. Borrowing the bulk of its gameplay and design from the now three year-old Top Spin, this solid but unspectacular sequel plays it safe with a smattering of gameplay tweaks and marginal enhancements.
The basics, in fact, are identical to the first Top Spin. The four face buttons represent four different shot types – safe, backspin, topspin and lob – which are used in conjunction with the left stick to whack the ball all over the court. It’s a simple, straightforward formula and it makes just as much sense now as it did years ago.
The “Risk” shots, however, still make as little sense. Requiring the same tricky R-trigger meter timing as before, these can result in great power shots or brutal cross-court volleys, but if you don’t perfectly nail the timing of the meter that pops up when you press the trigger, the ball will sail right into the net or out of bounds, making it too risky for its own good.
The last game’s awkward ITZ meter has been replaced by a momentum meter, which moderately affects the ease of pulling off Risk shots. More importantly, increasing your momentum meter by playing well lets you use four brand new ‘Advanced’ shots. These are much more useful than the Risk shots and can turn the tide of a game in a flash, a good addition to the gameplay.
But tennis isn’t about weird shots, it’s about hitting the ball where the other guy isn’t, and that feat is best accomplished by using basic topspin and backspin shots. Top Spin 2’s core gameplay is all about feel and touch, a subtle mechanic that works really well here. Ultimately, the extra shots aren’t nearly as important as getting comfy with the game’s excellent, dynamic control.
The best way to do so is through the large Career mode. A robust character creator gives you a pretty astonishing amount of artistic freedom, letting you shape every conceivable aspect of your player’s face. You can almost carve a decent likeness of yourself, though it’s far more likely you’ll create a scary zombie-monkey by endlessly tinkering with all the adjustable facial features.
After sufficiently scratching your fashion itch, you hop into the life of an aspiring pro. For the most part, this mirrors the experience found in the original game as you engage in training exercises to improve your skills and enter tournaments to increase your standing and make some cash. Performing well earns stars, which you put into various attribute categories. These come in bronze, silver and gold varieties, though the levels really don’t seem to have a great affect on your skills. A good player can handily trounce opponents with far more stars just by using basic shots.
Though it purports to be something bigger by letting you climb the ranks over the course of multiple seasons, Career mode feels like a giant practice arena. For instance, you don’t gain access to the four advanced shots until a good season or two has passed (think four or five hours of gameplay), even though those shots are instantly available in the other game modes. New is the ability to hire and fire coaches, but all that does is change the training levels a bit. Though you can spend money on all kinds of tennis gear, none of it modifies your stats. In fact, the best thing about Career mode is that you have the option to bail out of a set at any point by simulating the remaining games, which is a nice way to speed through tournaments, as well as the ability to save tournament progress mid-stream.
A few hours of Career mode is probably enough for most, which ultimately leads you back to singles or doubles Exhibition matches featuring the game’s wide assortment of real-world pros. Men like Federer, Roddick and Hewiit join Williams, Davenport and Sharapova (you know, the talented version of Kournikova) alongside a slew of other players.
Gamers itching to try their backhand against the world can find ample competition in the game’s online play, which features both ranked and unranked games. The ranked ones only allow you to use your Career mode player, a smart move as it avoids everyone using the top-ranked Federer.
The camera, however, isn’t very smart at all. There are only two angles – far and near – and while that works for Grover, it can be a little frustrating for gamers. Making matters less cinematic is the bizarre absence of any sort of Replay feature, a standard in sports games and a brainless addition to a game like tennis, where slow-mo replays are the norm.
The graphics in general are fine, though other than the great court textures and cool player models, the game doesn’t look a whole lot better than the original Xbox version. Many of the animations have been ported over, jerky bits and all, leading to a weird mishmash of new power and old style. The same goes for the sparse sound, which is entirely composed of a monotone line judge and random crowd gasps and applause. No commentary whatsoever leaves the matches a bit underwhelming.
And that goes for Top Spin 2 as a package. Its gameplay is genuinely good, particularly in the way it emulates the touch and feel that are such hallmarks of the real sport, but its uninspired delivery and dated Career design leave it a step or two behind the ball.