Top Spin 4 Review (PS3)

The original Top Spin, on its Xbox-exclusive debut back in 2003, ended up as the Pro Evo to Sega's flashier and more easily-accessible FIFA-like Virtua Tennis series. More heavily in-tune with the tactics and shot placements of the real game, the series peaked with 2008's Top Spin 3, which was widely regarded as one of the most rewarding - and inaccessible - takes on the sport. 2K Czech's Top Spin 4 arrives almost three years later with a similar slant towards the subtleties, rhythms and real-world nuances of Tennis, but with a fresh focus on easing players into the depths and advanced features of the engine. On-screen meters and gauges ensure that shot angles and timing are no longer a mysterious lottery, and the excellent Academy features are a logical starting point for anybody easing themselves in.

Indeed the game shunts you immediately in this direction on first play, and with very good reason. Topspin 4 has a bewildering array of gameplay mechanics comprising its complex simulation, and the academy is a necessary training school to learn them all. There are the usual four types of shot to master (flat, topspin, lob and slice), but each of these is modified by two types of approach. Holding down a button to the maximum power level from a good position results in a well-placed and vicious shot, whist variations on lower power from tricky positions necessarily result in a greater degree of error.

Animation is top-notch

Interestingly though, instead of turning into a war of positional attrition controlled by whomever strikes the first significant blow in a rally, 2K Czech has included ‘control’ shots, which require a good sense of timing but only a tap of the button to pull off successfully. These shots land pretty much wherever you place them, but at the expense of any sort of pace; putting them firmly into the recovery bracket. On the run, a well-timed and well-placed control shot can often catch out a dominating baseline player, and it’s in those aspects that Topspin’s already-realistic ebb-and-flow improves considerably, to the point where it becomes a noticeable - and welcome - difference.

Those changes would be moot without overhauled graphical presentation to give them leg-room of course, and fortunately Topspin 4 is beautifully presented. The all-new animation system showcases its vast raft of officially-licenced talent with a greater degree of accuracy and fluidity than any other tennis game to come before it, and even with such weighty and precise animation, each of the protagonists respond quickly enough to your command to make them intuitive to use. Player likenesses range from eerily brilliant to just plain good (old-school Agassi is an expected highlight), whilst the selection of shots, lunges, dives, walking, running and flourish animations are tailored well for each individual. A few of them err on the side of becoming a little too labored in execution, but those are far between and generally unobtrusive.

In terms of tactics, the gap between speedy and powerful players is heightened all-round because of those mechanics and animations, and for once there doesn’t seem to be a best choice in the roster. Playing to the strengths of any of top-hitters will result in a good stab at victory against whomever you’re playing against, with patient and intelligent play winning every time over pure reactions and baseline power. Online play is vastly improved because of those dynamics, and whilst it was a little under-populated at the time of testing, the matches we played were true to that sense of excitement. A persistent ranking system provides a good draw for those of you in it for the long haul, and we found lag to be minimal. The overall impression is of a much more robust offering than previous titles.

Player likenesses are superbly realised

Indeed the only real disappointment with Topspin 4 is a similar criticism levelled at other games in the series, in that it’s just a little too dry to recommend to everybody. Despite the work at easing in new players elsewhere, the career mode is fairly formulaic and contains a complete dearth of extra-curricular activities for your pro to embark on. Difficulty is well-regulated, but somewhere along the line those 20 levels of progress just become too repetitive to be truly enjoyable. It’s focused on the tennis to the nth degree, and although that decision serves a good portion of the previous audience, the extraneous aspects of the game are trumped easily by Virtua Tennis, and you’d have to imagine that any casual fan would still look to Sega first and foremost.

That would be a shame though, because Topspin is - at this stage - easily the better series on-court. A willingness to refine its trademark depth and realism with advanced features has provided enough of a leap for those of you well-versed in the game, and the excellent training Academy and on-screen indicators provide a crucial link for everybody else to get to grips. Whilst they didn’t go quite far enough in that direction to capture everybody you might like, 2K Czech nevertheless deserve praise for continuing a meaningful evolution in a genre that could easily have become stale already. It’s a cracking return then, but just shy of the chalk.

Best Game Moment: Smashing one down the line for a winner.