Back in 2008 they released Top Spin 3, a proper tennis simulator that promised intricate detail, precision controls and outstanding realism. The kind of game that served up such believable, emotionally charged action it would leave you performing Tim Henman–esque fist pumps every time you won a point.
The problem was, the game turned out to be something of a tennis-themed treasure hunt. 2K wrongly assumed that the lure of such wonders (especially the fist pumping) would inspire players to search them out for themselves, and TS3 offered only the most basic of tutorials before abandoning you to discover its fabled Centre Court Shangri-La (a place where the strawberries and cream flowed freely and someone had slapped a ball gag over Cliff Richard’s mouth). The result was a game that unwittingly prevented far too many people from ever fully appreciating it.
Top Spin 4 then, is 2K’s offering of atonement; a game that’s falling over itself to be helpful and inclusive. Every panel on every menu screen is meticulously explained, every facet of the game’s philosophy is spelt out, and the Top Spin Academy, which was previously very much a self-service affair, is now a more welcoming and instructive place that builds your skills from the ground up. In fact, it doesn’t stop short of lowering the nets and breaking out the plastic rackets and squishy yellow balls.
The academy’s doors are always open, and it’s here, through a range of lessons, that you’ll be comprehensively and caringly schooled in the theory and practice of TS4’s various shots, tactics and new array of visual assists. In Top Spin 3 on-screen aids were about as rare as a British woman in the second week of a Grand Slam, now they’re everywhere. Discrete energy bars for players, an ‘X’ marking the spot where opponent’s shots will land, a gauge that swells in size when you build up for a power shot and a crosshair indicating when you’ve executed a precision control shot. The game even provides instant feedback on how well you’ve timed each swing of your racket.
Rather than overwhelming you with information, all this tennis-related telemetry is vital to improving your play. And by the time you graduate, you’ll have a working knowledge of the vital importance and incredibly fine margins of shot timing, when to trade the accuracy of control shots for the velocity of power ones and how thoughtful aiming can prove decisive. You’ll also have a grasp of a handful of more advanced techniques and the way TS4 simplifies tennis by breaking the game down into three distinct styles of play: serve and volley, offensive baseline and defensive baseline.
This trio of different techniques lie at the heart of progression through the game’s career mode. Here, every time you earn enough experience points to level up, you simply select which one of the three styles you want to improve in and the game automatically makes slight increases to your created player’s appropriate physical and technical attributes. It’s a streamlined system that’s once again been implemented to guide players, but importantly, its simplifications don’t make things too shallow, as a limitation to only 20 chances to upgrade throughout your entire career necessitates careful consideration over whether you’re going to focus on one style or become a jack of all trades.
While the available tournaments – some official, some believable bootlegs – on the career’s perpetual circuit increase in number and stature as your status and fan base grows, their size and match lengths have been pruned hard for mass consumption. Minor tournaments, for example, start at the quarter final stage with each round simply an extended tiebreak.
Away from these, training matches provide chances to earn extra experience points, while other fan and XP yielding distractions, including nightclub visits, TV interviews, charity events and even launching your own scent, supply a humorous selection of characters and correspondences. There’s also a range of coaches, each with different specialities, to work with who provide attribute bonuses and special skills for signing up with them and completing their in-match challenges.
What Top Spin 4 delivers beyond anything else, however, is proof that, rather than compromising depth, accessibility can actually promote it. Without all of TS4’s helping hands, fewer players would get to experience and appreciate the rhythm and volatility to rallies, the unbridled joy of hitting winners and the way tennis combines metal and physical agility. And even less would get to the point where they’d even consider turning off all the visual aids and playing pure tennis guided only by the game’s beautifully natural and subtle player animations and the sound of racket on ball.
It’s heart-breaking then that Top Spin 4 suffers from one glaring problem: some inexplicable difficulty balancing. For almost its entirety, playing on the ‘Normal’ difficulty setting is far too easy. Your computer controlled opponents lack any sort of tenacity and it won’t be long before you whitewashing the likes of Federer, Nadal, Williams and Wozniacki. That is until you reach the semi-final stage of a Grand Slam event, at which point they suddenly remember that they’re world class sportspeople and start performing accordingly. If ‘Normal’ had just been stupidly easy, simply switching to ‘Hard’ would have been all that was required, but as winning Grand Slams here is even tougher, there isn’t a single difficulty level that fully satisfies anyone aside from elite players.
Online play, of course, isn’t dominated by such matters, just a hotbed of talent that means that you’ll need to bring your ‘A’ game to avoid getting aced into oblivion. The online World Tour does a fine job of replicating the tournaments and other trappings of the game’s career mode for Top Spin 4 owners who want to pit their created players against one another in the ultimate rankings war, while the exhibition matches and 2K Open allow you to play a few, slightly more laid back, sets with some of the game’s past and present superstars.
2K Sports have obviously listened to the volley of abuse fired back at them following Top Spin 3’s release. Whilst TS4 remain very similar to its predecessor, and entrenched in the depths of tennis simulation, lifting the veil on its fundamentals and philosophy has led these to turn from frustrations into fascinations. Some poor difficulty balancing is the only thing that tarnishes Top Spin 4’s silver service and prevents it being declared outright the best tennis game ever. Even so, TS4 is quite a turnaround for a series that previously didn’t seem to know its coaching ass from its tennis elbow.
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