Like Wimbledon, Virtua Tennis has a pedigree. Since its inception a decade ago, it has had the holy task of bringing the glory of tennis to the unwashed gaming masses, combining beguiling accessibility with surprising depth. It’s a formula that’s raked in the big bucks for years, and Sega aren’t about to risk murdering their golden goose just yet.
The result of this is that, ten years on from the Dreamcast release, anybody who’d ever touched that title will feel right at home here – and in fact, thanks to the game’s simplistic control scheme, everybody else probably will as well. Player movement is controlled by the keyboard (or, more likely, if you’ve got some cash and a jot of common sense, your Xbox controller) and then choose between a lob, a volley, or a slice. That is, for all intents and purposes, as deep as your strategy is really likely to get until you assemble the bravery to carry yourself onto the online multiplayer scene like the newest inmate in the showers.
If you stick to the single-player – seeing how pathetically this is likely to sell on PC and the weakness of the GFWL framework, you probably should – you can choose to play as practically any major tennis player on any number of realistic or fictional courts, ranging from Wimbledon to a bizarre, seaborne luxury liner of the court of Shanghai. The true meat of the game lies in its World Tour mode, where you create a personalised avatar and take yourself on a freakish variant of monopoly in an attempt to become world number one.
In the endless tradition of games everywhere, the character creation screen is utterly useless in making anything vaguely human – but frankly, unless you create the terrifying love-child of Morph and The Hulk, you’re doing it wrong. The “World Tour” itself, is a strange mix of Monopoly and Bingo: at the beginning of every turn, you draw three action cards, allowing you to move between 1 and 4 tiles on the map. Tiles, in turn, can be exhibition matches, championships, charity events, or training mini-games that you can use to strengthen your basic attributes.
Like Virtua Tennis itself, this chase to glory is more addictive than its premise implies – you’ll have to balance your training needs and your competitive needs, while also regularly resting your player if you want to do well in major tournaments. Exerting your player too much risks an injury that leaves you limping around the court like a wounded T-Rex. Focusing too little on training, may mean you’ll find yourself out-classed, and focusing too much at the expense of competitive events might mean you won’t even be able to enter events at all. The events themselves are compulsive affairs, challenging you to take on some of tennis’ biggest names – although, at lower difficulty levels, they’re all disappointingly incompetent. I crushed Federer and Nadal on the first tour, although I met my match at the hands of my frustratingly omnipresent rival.
Your rival, strangely, is one of the many elements that remind you that, while Virtua Tennis might love tennis, it remains fundamentally a Sega creation – and the creators of Chu Chu Rocket and Space Channel 9 were never going to create a bog standard tennis game, and so your World Tour is often punctuated by strange, other-worldy moments where you seem to suddenly enter a freakish tennis twilight zone. Your “rival” – in my case, a diminutive teenager with terrifyingly spiky hair and a leopard skin shirt – pops up with alarming regularity, reminding you of his superiority until you crush him in a bizarre flashback to Pokemon’s Gary. Before taking on Djokovic at the Paris Open, I had to defeat the “Mamba Brothers”, a mystical trio of afro-clad players. Your campaign is also punctuated by “Fancy Dress” events, where you’re challenged to winning games in the most silly costume in an effort to win points. Whether you see these moments of quirkiness as charming or frustrating, you’ll likely to encounter them pretty damn often.
The truth of Virtua Tennis however, is that all this extraneous fluff is just that: an excuse to play more tennis. The intuitive controls and fluid animations remain just as tempting as they were a decade ago, and this fourth opus is just as much of a joy to play as the first ever was. It’s just a shame it doesn’t seem to have gained any of the depth other tennis titles have started to display. Far too often, I found myself relying on simply charging up my super-shot, which quickly became my default “I WIN” button, and not exploring the tactical depth. Unless you begin competing online, the depth simply isn’t hinted at in the least, and certainly isn’t needed.
The overwhelming feeling I get after emerging from a solid week of Virtua Tennis is that there isn’t enough here. Beyond the endless costume choices, impressive character roster and creepy fancy dress choices, what’s left is a catchy but slightly shallow tennis game, like Pong dialled to eleven with more clothing options. There’s depth here, somewhere, but it’s not inviting me in, and truth be told, I’m not particularly bothered.
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