For the sport of tennis on the video game console, a simple question remains: When will they get it right? Considering the latest releases Top Spin 4 and Virtua Tennis 4, the answer is simple: not yet.
I played Top Spin 4 ($59.99, rated E) for Xbox 360 and Virtua Tennis 4 ($49.99, rated E) for PlayStation 3, and neither delivered as much fun or competitiveness that tennis deserves. There were some enjoyable moments, but they were fleeting and mired amid long stretches of yawn-inducing action.
For Top Spin 4, online play was the highlight, thanks to match search menus that allowed me to find opponents quickly. I chose Ivan Lendl's character for my first foray in online head-to-head play, hoping a bit of his signature crushing forehand would lead me to victory. The result? I lost 0-6, 0-6 to someone online playing as Roger Federer.
It was an interesting match and I had several game points, only to squander them with late hits that came up short in the court. Federer summarily polished those off with crosscourt winners. I had to learn to time my shots better to succeed online with this title.
Top Spin 4 delivers the tennis strokes on the release of the controller buttons to the right, while the player movement is dictated by the thumb stick on the left. Time it right and the word "perfect" appears in green letters. But when I waited too long to swing, those late hits lacked the power to pin my opponent to the back of the court.
I trudged off in search of another match, this time playing as Bjorn "The Iceman" Borg, a personal favorite. No way I could lose with those looping, heavy topspin ground strokes, right?
Wrong again. I lost 4-21 in a so-called "super tiebreaker" (first player to score 21 points) to Serena Williams. Williams' character serves extremely well in this game and poor Borg was left guessing with his returns.
The offline career mode can be toggled to go quickly, or take an eternity with regular scoring selected for best-of-three set matches. The graphics are passable, but nothing I hadn't seen before.
Virtua Tennis 4 for PlayStation 3 was a little odd. The navigation menu felt like a Nintendo DS scheme borrowed from a Mario title. I plodded along various dots on a representation of a world globe, scoping out places to either practice my strokes, rest in a hotel to build up my endurance, or just plain do nothing. The button toggling for this menu is awkward and requires too much deselecting of icons, a disappointing time-waster.
A better solution would be to be able to quickly highlight an activity, and simply do it.
Once your character is actually playing tennis, however, Virtua Tennis 4 came to life nicely. I started my career campaign far down the ranking rung, trotting around Asia to pick up experience and points by playing small tournaments and exhibition matches.
Once I had a few wins under my belt, I was able to take on French baseliner Gael Monfils in some exhibition matches. The best part about Virtua Tennis 4 is the attention to detail paid to pros' swings. Just like real life, Monfils double-clutched a lot of high backhand shots before striking them with a slight scissors kick in the air.
I didn't fare as well against Tommy Haas, who dealt me a barrage of drop shots. The game unfortunately snapped into a close-up view of me lunging for the ball, only zooming back out to a full court view just as Haas hammered his response shot up the line.
Both titles lack a serious approach, opting instead for corny training mini-games and less than useful career menus.