Top Spin

Top Spin

Written by Charlie Sinhaseni on 12/1/2003 for Xbox  

After getting pummeled by Electronic Arts in every single major sports category Microsoft has come up with the ingenious idea of picking up a sport that the juggernaut has yet to dig its clutches into. Not only has Microsoft entered a market that’s unopposed by Electronic Arts, it has also produced a title that’s a worthy candidate for the best sports title of the year.

Tennis games used to be of the simple ping-pong variety. Give the players two types of strokes, maybe give them the choice of playing in a doubles match and send them on their way. This all changed after SEGA released Virtua Tennis in the Arcades and on the Dreamcast. It added a huge visuals boost and some much needed depth to the sport. While it was still more or less relegated to two different types of strokes, the ability to wind up for shots and an accurate set of physics made the game the most realistic to date. Subsequent releases added career modes and more professional players and essentially paved the way for deep and engrossing tennis titles to be release. Then there was Top Spin, the best tennis game ever made, period.

Take everything that you loved about Virtua Tennis, multiply it by twenty times and you have Microsoft’s magnum opus. It’s a beautifully constructed game that’s deep, engaging and most importantly, realistic. Never has a sports game done such a great job of recreating the look, feel and excitement that comes from its sport. Sure Madden rules the NFL games and ESPN Basketball is an excellent recreation of the sport but at times they falter when it comes to recreating certain nuances and visual touches that we come to associate with their sports. Top Spin covers it all and if not for some major presentation problems, I’d say that Top Spin is the best sports game ever made.

From the start you’ll be able to engage in a quick match, a custom tournament, the career mode and online play. For those who are short on time the quick match is an excellent suggestion as it allows you to hit the court in the shortest amount of time. From here you will be able to select the men’s or women’s game, the scoring system and whether you want to play singles or doubles. There are a nice assortment of real life pros at your disposal including recently retired Pete Sampras and perennial babe Anna Kournikova. You’ll also be able to play as Leyton Hewitt, Martina Hingis and a couple of other well known players that are familiar to tennis fans. Strangely enough you won't be able to pit men against women, not even in doubles play.

If you’re looking for something a little bit more engrossing you can start up a custom tournament that comes complete with brackets. This is excellent if you have a group of friends who are constantly talking trash and want to match up with each other. Of course it’s also a great way of organizing a competition where players can have some evidence of their prowess.

For solo gamers the Career Mode is where it’s at. Easily the meat and bones of the game, the Career Mode allows gamers to craft their own persona as they work their way up the tennis ranks. It works similarly to the system used in Virtua Tennis in that you travel around the world and pick which tourneys that you want to participate in. You can hone your skills by visiting various trainers around the world or update your look by heading to the sports shops. In a nice move that gives the game some real-world ties you can gain sponsorships from some of the world’s most prominent sporting goods manufacturers. Doing so will gain you licensed gear for you to wear during tourneys as well as net you some good chunks of cash.

It’s very easy to jump into Top Spin but it takes quite a bit of work to become successful. There’s a small learning curve that must be overcome, especially for people who aren’t familiar with the sport. Tennis is a game of angles where you want to position your opponent in tight situations and then cut down their angles on the return. Some games allow you to succeed simply by returning the ball back to your opponent, waiting until they hit the ball into the net for an unforced error. This rarely happens in Top Spin; you’ll have to learn the angles and know a little about ball placement if you want to succeed. Likewise, the net game is excellent too as it’s the first game that I’ve seen where you can actually be overpowered by opponent’s shots as opposed to standing there like a brick wall.

To add some strategy to the game you’ve got a wide assortment of shots at your disposal. You’ll have the standard flat shot which is basically the safest shot in the game, the top spin which adds a high bounce to the shot, the slice which is a very sharp shot that causes the ball to die after bouncing and the lob shot which is used to counteract an aggressive net player. Adding some more depth to the game are the risk and drop shots which function via the use of the L and R triggers. When using these a small meter will appear on the screen, you’ll have to release the button on the sweet spot if you hope to land a successful shot. Mistiming the shot will result in a wild shot that will often land in the net or out of bounds.

I was very impressed by just how accurate the physics are, especially in the parity between the men’s and the women’s games. Women tend to hit the ball flat while men tend to have strokes that add more top spin (well at least that’s the way it was when I played in high school). Other tennis games have failed to realize this and offer shots that are very similar, just different in velocity. In Top Spin you not only get the speed differential but you get an entirely new look on the ball as it comes at you much flatter with less kick in its bounce. This makes a huge difference as you switch from playing the men’s game and the women’s game as you’ll have to account for varying velocities, heights and angles.

I like the implementation of the risk shots but I felt that they were a bit too difficult to pull off with any sort of consistency. I realize that the developers were emphasizing the difficulty it takes to pull off these shots, but I’ve played enough tennis in my time to know that a drop shot at the net isn’t really all that difficult to pull off. Perhaps if the sensitivity of the meters were relative to your position on the court it would have made more sense. Instead we’re left with drop shots that are just as difficult to perform from the baseline as they are from the net.

Top Spin’s last gameplay feature comes in the form of a momentum meter called “In the Zone.” As you string together more points and win long rallies the meter will build. The more full the meter is the more confident your player will become in his or her abilities. It allows for you to hit harder shots with more precise placement. When the meter is flashing you’ll also have an easier time with the risk shots, giving you a slight advantage. To be honest the ITZ meter doesn’t make that much of an impact on the gameplay, perhaps something with a more tangible presence would have brought more to the table.

There is a nice variety of tournaments at your disposable and although some of them are familiar to me I’m not certain that all of them are real. Amazingly each one of them takes place in its own unique court, complete with little touches and nuances that really sets them apart from another. I was very impressed to see just how detailed each of the courts are as I was expecting a cavalcade of look alike arenas. What makes them even more impressive is that each of them is a labor of love that is some of the best arenas that we’ve ever seen in a sports game. To add even more realism to the stadiums the crowds are all fully animated and will even stand up to applaud after points are scored. It’s also nice to see that stadiums become progressively fuller as you advance in rounds en route to the finals.

Our love affair with the visuals doesn’t end with the arenas though, that’s just the start. Without a doubt, the players in Top Spin are the most realistic that have ever appear in a sports game. Looking at them in screenshots is one thing but watching them move and animate is a whole different story. Animations are silky smooth, featuring plenty of transitions to help extend the feeling of realism. There’s an awful lot of variety in them too as players will always react accordingly to the ball that’s coming to them. This means you won’t see a player use his normal ground stroke on a lob or a full backhand when he’s running down a sharp angled volley. There are some truly neat animations as well, most of which are of the defensive sort. When a player is caught off guard by a shot you can expect to see an impressive animation that really drives the point home. Of all the physical beauty I’d say that the hair is the most impressive aspect. It showed me that the GeForce based Nvidia chip still has plenty of life left in it and that the designers are continually finding new ways to unlock its potential. Seriously, the hair in this game is just awesome and looks like those tech demos that has all of the hardware geeks drooling.

Some problems arisein the audio department. When compared to the rest of the game’s polished and primed elements the lacking audio sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s only one licensed music track and when you’re playing in a match it’s eerily quiet. No announcers, just the sounds of the racquets, the judges and the audience. What’s here is pretty damn good though as all of the sounds have been recreated beautifully. We especially enjoyed how the sounds echo in the indoor events and occlude in the outdoor venues. Still though there’s plenty of room for improvement and it starts with the addition play-by-play announcers who help call the action on the court, or at the very least custom soundtrack support.

Online play is more or less the same as single-console play. There’s no advantage to playing someone online because the camera zooms out during multiplay, regardless if it’s online or single-console. At times it can be fun to challenge people from around the country but I found online play to be monotonous at times, simply because most players try too many risk shots and refuse to participate in long rallies. This isn’t a fault of the game though as it does an excellent job with its online aspects. Just make sure you find someone competent to play against because the dozen or so matches I played were with annoying and brain-dead opponents. The XSN network is beautiful though as it gives me the impression that each match was important in proving my dominance over the rest of the world’s players.

An area where Top Spin really falters is in its presentation. Very little is done to give the player the feeling that he’s watching an actual broadcast on his television. There’s an announcer but he’s only commissioned to welcome players to the opening and the closing of a tournament. There’s no commentating during the matches, after the matches or any analysis on what just transpired. Replays are eerily silent because you’re just watching the exact same rally, just from a different angle.

Speaking of replays they’re really poorly done too, although it’s not from a lack of effort. It’s obvious that the team really tried to do something unique with its replays by having picture-in-picture, split-screen and three-screen replays but they’re basically here for looks and do a poor job of displaying the action. Most of the time the windows are so small that you can’t really tell what’s going on and you’ll just pass on them entirely. Forget about trying to watch a replay of that Ace that you just snagged because by the time the replay starts up you’ll catch the tail end of the serve, like when the ball is already behind the returnee. What the game really needs is a replay system that accurately mimics the kind that we see in a telecast, one that sits behind one of the players and keeps up with the action. An easy solution to this is to include a user-controller manual replay system like most of today's sports games.

These minor faults aside Top Spin is one of the most well-made sports titles that we have ever seen. Tennis fans should not hesitate to put this one of the top of their Christmas lists while general sports fans should give it some heavy consideration. Not only one of the best tennis titles ever made, but quite possibly one of the best sports titles ever created.
Not only the best tennis games ever made, but also one of the best sports games ever crafted. Well worth your while, whether you're a fan of tennis or just sports in general.

Rating: 9.3 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.


About Author

Gaming has been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. I can still recall many a lost nights spent playing Gyromite with that stupid robot contraption for the old NES. While I'm not as old as the rest of the crew around these parts, I still have a solid understanding of the heritage and the history of the video gaming industry.

It's funny, when I see other people reference games like Doom as "old-school" I almost begin to cringe. I bet that half of these supposed "old-school" gamers don't even remember classic games like Rise of the Triad and Commander Keen. How about Halloween Harry? Does anyone even remember the term "shareware" anymore? If you want to know "old-school" just talk to John. He'll tell you all about his favorite Atari game, Custer's Revenge.

It's okay though, ignorance is bliss and what the kids don't know won't hurt them. I'll just simply smile and nod the next time someone tells me that the best entry in the Final Fantasy franchise was Final Fantasy VII.

When I'm not playing games I'm usually busy sleeping through classes at a boring college in Southern Oregon. My current hobbies are: writing songs for punk rock bands that never quite make it, and teasing Bart about... well just teasing Bart in general. I swear the material writes itself when you're around this guy. He gives new meaning to the term "moving punching bag."

As for games, I enjoy all types except those long-winded turn-based strategy games. I send those games to my good pal Tyler, I hear he has a thing for those games that none of us actually have the time to play.

When I'm not busy plowing through a massive pile of video games I spend all of my time trying to keep my cute little girl fed. She eats a ton but damn she's so hot. Does anyone understand the Asian girl weight principal? Like they'll clean out your fridge yet still weigh less than 110 pounds.

Currently I'm playing: THUG, True Crime, Prince of Persia, Project Gotham 2 and Beyond Good & Evil. View Profile

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