Preview

Top Spin 4 Preview (PS3)

Sports that can be accurately and realistically simulated are few and far between. Some just seem to defy accurate computer representation, even if you'd think it was easy to transfer it from the real world into the digital.

Rugby, there's one. It's difficult to think of any game of pixellated egg chasing that's captured the sport correctly. Cricket's very hard to pull off too – name one cricket game that satisfactorily simulates edges and nicks through to the slips or wicket keeper? Exactly.

Blake shows his tennis elbow off to the crowd

Tennis should be easy to make a game out of. Two guys or girls stand on opposite sides of a net belting a yellow furry object at each other. It can't be that hard, can it? Why is it that not one game has really nailed the sport then?

2K Czech think they've hit upon the answer – timing. Introduced in Top Spin 3, this feature is crucial to their hopes for the fourth series outing. From what we've played so far, it's just possible they could have cracked it.

Of course, with only a limited amount of time to get to grips with the new game, it's difficult to really appreciate the intricacies of a system, nor to discover any faults that lie within. Having said that, first impressions of Top Spin 4 are overwhelmingly positive.

Timing, as mentioned, is key to everything you'll do on the court. From the powerful serve to the delicate drop volley, every shot you take needs to be timed perfectly if you want to prevail. A well-timed effort will means the difference between finding the corner of the court or just aimlessly hitting it down the middle.

The better your timing, the more accurate your shots will be, essentially. You'll also have to take into account all the variations on your basic shot, like power or controlled shots that require you to either hold down the button for a long period or just tap it once.

Power shots are useful for bludgeoning your opponent into submission, upsetting his timing or just putting him on the back foot. Controlled shots are more about securing good court position, forcing your opponent right into the corner so you can control the rally.

The French Open only employed one-armed line judges

There's all sorts of tactics like this to be employed with all the different classic players on offer. Sampras will require you to adopt a serve-and-volley style, while Michael Chang is far more adept at running everywhere quite quickly and dominating from the baseline. Fail to appreciate your player's skills and you'll never win.

You could just create your own lumbering monstrosity, of course. Like most games nowadays, Top Spin 4 employs an XP system to allow you to gradually upgrade your character over time. The good thing about Top Spin 4's system is you can't max out all of your avatar's abilities, meaning you'll have to develop a style for each one you create.

Skills are upgraded in 'point packs' split into different categories, such as forehand, volley or physical. You can only go up to level 20, so make sure you deploy your point packs effectively to avoid the jack of all trades, master of none problem. Coaches can be unlocked and hired to give you a little boost in certain areas, although each one will also have a detrimental effect on a contrary aspect of your game.

As well as trying to implement different tactical approaches, 2K Czech are seeking to address some of the issues with the previous iteration, namely accessibility. With that in mind, a comprehensive tutorial academy has implemented to help new players get to grips with concepts like timing and the more advanced things like drop volleys and approach shots.

Top Spin 4 also feels smoother, more realistic in the movement of the characters on the screen. There's a definite weight to the players, meaning that making the right decisions about movement around the court will be crucial.

It'll certainly make playing against human players a very interesting experience, with all sorts of possibilities for tactical play, wrong-footing your opponent and such. 2K Czech promise an improvement in the AI of computer opponents too, but like with all sports games, human players take things to a whole new level.

Top Spin 4 does seem to be an infinitely more rewarding experience than anything currently on the market, retaining the series' more hardcore sensibilities while also introducing a touch of accessibility found in the likes of Virtua Tennis.

Other players took umbrage at Sampras's use of rocket-powered shoes

No longer do you feel like you're fighting a battle with the game just to hit the ball, a problem seen in the older series incarnations, although there'll still be a relatively steep learning curve to provide some depth and longevity.

Add to this the variety of different play styles and tactics, and of course the generally improved handling and gameplay elements, and 2K Czech are on course to finally deliver a realistic simulation of the sport of tennis. What it definitely has done is make your humble reporter eager to get some more extensive hands-on time with the game in the future. You can't ask for much more than that, really.

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