A safe forehand winner.
Would it be strange if I told you that your fellow RPG-loving, rhythm-thumping reviewer also follows tennis? I’m not hardcore or anything, but enough so that I was floored when Rafael Nadal ended Roger Federer’s five-year reign as the king of Wimbledon in an epic match that went into a 9-7 fifth-set and hailed as one of the best finals ever. It was jam-packed with unbelievable slices, crowd-gasping mistakes, aggressive near- or on-the-line winners, and just plain ridiculous shots from ridiculous angles with ridiculous precision. Fans who began the match rooting for their favorites ended up roaring, cheering, and gasping over every point because they are getting their money’s worth.
Top Spin 3 tries to serve up an experience as close to that as possible by putting a realistic spin on the usual pick-up-and-play approach on tennis, or what I like to call "Life-sized Pong". Like the Virtua Tennis series, it forces players to pay attention to the timing of the swing, the placement of the ball, and the variety of shots without getting so overly technical that it bogs down the action. Its no-fills, no-nonsense style safely fits within its simulation scheme. However, it doesn’t capture the spirit of tennis as thoroughly as it could have.
If there’s one thing that Top Spin 3 nails dead-on, it’s the mechanics of the fundamental part of tennis: the swing. Holding down different buttons and different directions on the analog stick performs various shots like slices, drop shots, and lobs. How long you hold the button before you release determines the shot’s power, and the direction you point the analog stick as you swing determines the shot’s angle.
This scheme reinforces the idea that you have to get behind the ball and, most importantly, to watch your timing, especially if you want any chance in online matches. When you have to release the racket actually depends on your character’s swing animation as it follows through the ball, and since forehands, backhands, lobs, and drop shots all have different animations, getting the ball over the net consistently takes a lot of practice and concentration. Any stumble in your placement sends you tripping over your feet, and any stumble in your timing lands the ball right into the net or someplace far, far away.
Of course, that would be too simple. If you want to compete with the best of the best, you need to use risky shots, which are executed by holding the trigger buttons down while you swing. You have a choice of either knocking a winner near the line or executing a Miss Sharapova power shot that whizzes past even the fastest sprinters, or a shot that does both. The riskier the shot, however, the more precise your timing has to be, and even after hours of practice in the Top Spin School, the success rate may not improve by much. As such, only those with hawk eyes should think about engaging in any online tournaments. Even my character, a six-foot-nine giant with a 100-max stat in power, who can rip any ball cross-court like nobody’s business, doesn’t stand a chance against a player that can wield risky shots.
Thankfully, players who are having trouble can turn the difficulty down a few notches to have a more straightforward tennis match and still have a satisfying ball-thwacking bout. Hit-and-volley opponents will still frustrate you if you’re a baseliner, and it’s always amusing, with an evil smirk kind, to force your opponents on a heaving gallop from one side of the court to the other.
Just watching the players move and the environments change is enough to make anyone want to pick up the controller. Player animations are fluid and seamless, without a single hitch or jerk. In particular, Andy Roddick’s stinging, un-telegraphed serve is virtually perfect. As players drain their stamina as the match gets longer and longer, their faces and the armpits of their clothes become drenched in sweat. Shadows creep across the court as the sun slides across the sky, all the more to make you believe that you’re in a living, breathing world.
The mood is expectedly serious and stoic, highlighted by an arduous career mode that slugs you through the amateur and junior ranks, and pits you into three-round events on clay, grass, and hard court as well as the longer, more prestigious Grand Slam tournaments such as the Australian Open and the French Open. Your life-like character is fully customizable from head to toe, via a character creation tool that can even professionally tweak a player’s face with a point transformation system. Moreover, you can purchase tennis clothes and equipment through a mock outlet mall, though having three floors of stores is rather pointless when you can access a global shop that has every purchasable item in stock.
Unfortunately, Top Spin 3 fails to capture the aural atmosphere of tennis. Crowds usually only muster a stilted applause and a few ‘yahoos’ and ‘yeahs’. Even if you’re playing in the finals of the Australian Open, the crowd doesn’t do anything but clap like they’re watching an off-off-Broadway show in Tunisia. Real-life audiences cheer if you represent their country or become heavy with anticipation if you’re in a match with a Top 10 ranked player, but none of that happens here. And as far as how the crowd looks, it’s like a throng of dim-witted Sims 2 characters showed up just to see what they should like in next-gen.
On top of that, there’s no trophy ceremony, no celebration of any kind, just a bunch of stilted animated sequences that hardly changes, no matter whether you won your fifth career Grand Slam or a match against a paraplegic. There’s also no variation in the chair empire’s voice, which after two hours starts to sound as monotonous as an announcement by your middle-school principal. So by the time you reach the French Open, you’ll actually be relieved to hear some French.
Players who are into the number-crunching of stat-tracking will be slighted. Only the most basic of statistics are available like a percentage of how you won or lost points. A breakdown how many points you win or lose on a specific court surface, with a specific shot, or against specific players are unavailable.
You can’t even access your opponent’s attributes like power, speed, and stamina, apart from a short loading screen of your opponent’s attributes right before a match begins. On that note, you can’t even max out your character’s attributes, which is restricted to an overall rating of 70, when many of your opponents have overall ratings higher than that. It’s just a poor way to force the game to remain challenging and fair, when all that’s needed to create balance is to have opponents with overall stats in the 90s.
But worst of all, Rafael Nadal is all but missing. (I’m sure Federer is happy to hear that.) The last three to five years of men’s tennis have more or less been dominated by the Nadal vs. Federer rivalry, so not having Rafa around is inexcusable. Fans of women’s tennis will also be put off by the absence of the Williams sisters. Sure you could create those characters, but without their official representation, you can’t compete against them in career matches or any matches that actually matter. Oh, and where is Wimbledon?
Top Spin 3 latches onto back-to-basics tennis, focusing its full attention on the play, power, and flow of the sport. The result is fairly straightforward but strong enough for anyone to pick up and appreciate the sport for what it is. The quibbles with the attribute cap and the lack of crowd interaction are fairly minimal. However, those hoping to recreate the infamous Federer vs. Nadal final or the Serena vs. Venus Williams final at the 2008 Wimbledon will have to look elsewhere.