Whenever a sport makes the transition into a video game, it's up to the developer to precisely convey the nuances of gameplay without sacrificing simple fun. This forces a rather clinical design at times, as running across an open field might be accomplished with a simple press of a button. While realistic motion controls have gained considerable headway over the last few years, button-based controllers still occupy the core of home gaming. For the latest entry in the Top Spin franchise, the power remains heavily situated with the buttons. However, it's through such familiarity that Top Spin 4 manages to ease players into an impressively strategic tennis simulation.
Veterans of the series will immediately notice the changes and will appreciate the game’s outstanding effort to train players in its own mechanics and rules. Instead of guessing your next move and possible hints, Top Spin 4 dips into the deeper end of the tutorial pool. In other words, you’ll get plenty of help as you progress. In many genres, there have been complaints of excessive “hand-holding” in the game’s instructive interfaces, but fortunately, many of these components are optional and can be switched off. The on-screen gauges, for example, help players to understand the essentials of timing shots and the effect of each move variation. There are modifiers available for more advanced tweaking, but simply holding the analog buttons will allow you to experiment with all manner of swats and swings. As one might expect, there is a risk versus reward component for the juicier power shots.
Watching your opponent and nailing the rhythm comprise a huge chunk of gameplay time. This should come as no great surprise, yet it's worth mentioning, considering how often this aspect is taken for granted. No matter how good your player will look—and they will look great, thanks to all that customization and sleek animation—none of the frills impede the core of the game. You'll get to tough it out with an overly aggressive opponent, experiment with new techniques, and build your custom character, so there's rarely a shortage of activity. While this is sometimes a problem for the genre, Top Spin 4 is a well-planned and thoughtfully executed game.
The customization itself is fairly simplistic—nothing daunting enough to intimidate or stall players, a scenario commonly found in today's RPGs, for example. Creating a character is important, since this simple act of investment is reinforced as you progress, hopefully ensuring that you’ll grow attached to your person. Upgrades can make a significant difference on the court, so choose your trainers wisely. Some accessories are unlockable, of course, but these are superficial trinkets that won’t affect your performance. It should be noted that your character cannot exceed level 20, so don’t waste stats in pointless areas.
Online play consists of ranked and unranked matches, complete with standard leaderboards. Given the small number of players involved, it’s reassuring to know that online lag is quite minimal, a crucial quality in a game that relies so heavily on move timing. Top Spin 4 may not be the aural paradise perfect for showing off your sound system (in fact, it can be a bit repetitive), but the game is certainly a looker. Crisp players with naturalistic animations provide a greater sense of immersion, and your blurry-eyed grandma might mistake the game for a true televised tennis match. For those of you excited about TS4’s 3D capability, here's a word of caution: Frame rate issues may detract from the pleasure of playing the game in 3D (assuming your hardware is properly equipped). At best, it feels like a fun gimmick that puts a damper on an overall great game that functions best in 2D. Top Spin 4 offers tennis lovers plenty all on its own, and it presents itself in beautiful form. Its great depth of gameplay, packaged in an approachable and fun format, elevates it to the upper echelon of tennis titles. Buy the game, not the 3D spectacle.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]