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Hey “Virtua Tennis”? We need to talk…

In 1999, Sega released “Virtua Tennis,” an arcade game that married the simple back-and-forth premise of “Pong” to the aesthetics and physics of tennis with stellar results. Gamers with  a fleeting interest in the sport were nevertheless captivated for hours at the game’s simple control scheme and addictive mini-games. I was one of those people, obstinately refusing to give a second glance to competitors like 2K Sports’ “Top Spin” series.

Unexpected and unassuming, “Top Spin 4” arrived mysteriously at my doorstep this week, almost as if it had caught me contemplating the Move and Kinect support of the upcoming “Virtua Tennis 4,” knowing it had the advantage. It knew I was weak and disenchanted after Sega’s sub-par 2009 entry. Upon unwrapping 2K Sports’ “Top Spin 4” and stepping onto the virtual court, a sinking feeling washed over me – it was time to draft a long overdue breakup letter to my beloved “Virtua Tennis” series.

Where controls are concerned, 2K deftly handles the balancing act between accessibility and depth. The learning curve here can be daunting for some, but stick with it and you’ll see your game drastically improve. The game’s Top Spin Academy mode does a fantastic job at training beginners and revealing the depth of the contextual control scheme, especially to transplants of the “Virtua Tennis” series. While the writers behind the accompanying text are overly verbose, there is a wealth of wisdom behind these explanations. You’re taught everything from the timing of basic control shots utilizing top spin and slice, to tricky drop shots, devastating serve techniques and crafty strategies for risky net play. In a clever twist not normally found in tutorials, you are at one point required to perform shots with bad timing in order to feel the difference.

2K includes a large roster of tennis pros both past (Agassi, Sampras) and present (Nadal, Federer and Williams). For the most part, their relative strengths and weaknesses are represented accurately on the court. Federer’s forehand prowess will scare you into next week, but he’s much weaker at the net. That said, each of the 25 pros’ attributes are pre-determined and maxed out at level 20. Thankfully the allure of the character creator and created player career modes offers a substantial amount of content.

For those who like to customize, “Top Spin 4” has it covered with a dizzying array of options. Using the advanced facial editor, we had a stocky Portuguese look-alike ready to rock in less than 15 minutes. After giving life to your avatar champ, you can further customize him or her with gear, hair styles, tattoos and on-court mannerisms and animations. This is deeper than most character generators found in popular RPG’s.

If you have even a passing interest in tennis, you’ll spend the majority of your time in career mode of “Top Spin 4.” The underlying goal is to evolve your player’s core discipline – Serve & Volley, Offensive Baseline or Defensive Baseline – by spending XP earned from sparring matches, special events and minor and major tournaments. You can also hire multiple tiers of coaches who help you improve certain stats faster than normal, and their challenges also present an enticing meta-game during matches. More thoughtful additions include the character progression screen showing you which real-world champs play as your preferred style, and the fact that your custom character gains XP during any mode of play, including exhibition games and online multiplayer.

Between events you’re presented with goals for advancing your worldwide rank (for example: participate in two minor tournaments and have more than 5000 fans). It’s this constant sense of progression and advancement that kept our interest at peak levels for over 20 hours in a three-day span.

The more time we invested into career mode of “Top Spin 4,” the larger our review outline became. This mode alone has so much depth it’s easy to get lost in the constant draw of competition, sponsorships, improved skill sets and the steady climb to the top of the proverbial ladder. Finding fault here is difficult, but we do have to question 2K’s bizarre choice of grating menu music, consisting of a bouncy, jazzy instrumental sound, and the repetitive “North American Scum” by LCD Soundsystem. After a few hours, you’ll definitely be switching to your own soundtrack.

“Top Spin 4” also features a healthy online offering with the standard exhibition modes as well as the 2K Open (seasonal events limited to Level 20 pro characters) and the robust World Tour mode, which lets you take your created character online to start your ascension up the Xbox Live or Playstation Network ranks. In our experience we were frequently humiliated here, matched with and trounced on by players with a higher level, faster movement and more powerful shots. Fortunately the XP earned – even from losing – can help to level up your character and transport back into your single player career mode. Frankly, the online experience just wasn’t as interesting due to frequently mismatched talent levels (excluding the 2K Open). We also noticed the occasional stutter in animation during a serve, but it was too infrequent to adversely affect the gameplay.

Here’s something to consider: I’ve never had more than a passing interest in the real-life sport of tennis, and while “Virtua Tennis” was always a blast to play and master, “Top Spin 4” has coaxed sincere appreciation out of me by virtue of its deep (and educational) training courses and immersive career mode. If “Top Spin 5” happens to augment this outstanding career mode with some tantalizing mini-games, Sega will have plenty to worry about. Whether you’re new to the franchise or a Pong veteran, don’t overlook this one.

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