Virtua Tennis 3 Review (PS3)

For many sports game fans, Segaís Virtua Tennis series has always marked the apex of quality and accessibility that so many lesser titles strive to achieve yet rarely manage to imitate. Without the additional play mechanics inherent in other titles such as TopSpin 2, the Virtua Tennis team somehow manages to produce a title with more depth and tactical play simply by combining deft usage of the analogue sticks and a well-honed shot placement system developed over numerous iterations in the arcade and home consoles. Little has changed in Virtua Tennis 3, and if the sole reason your reading this review is to find out that particular fact, then stop now and go purchase your copy, you wonít be disappointed.

The plethora of mini-games return, with some new additions to the fold Youíll see this diving animationÖ a lot

The reason for the seriesí unparalleled success has always been accessibility. Anyone can pick up a pad, master the basics of VT within a few minutes and feel as if they have some genuine control over the on-court proceedings. This makes multi-player a blast, as even particularly unskilled friends can add enough to the proceedings to make a decent game out of any opponent. The Dreamcast benefited from this realisation early on in its lifecycle, with countless systems and joypads sold across the country to accommodate some of the finest 4-player action available. Further editions have failed to pull in the sales numbers of the first release, but with a 5-year gap since the last home version and a new console on the market, the timing seems excellent for Sega to repeat the success.

Graphically the series has always pushed the boundaries of its host system, and this iteration is no different. Player likenesses have been improved upon considerably, with the old Ďzombifiedí look of the protagonists replaced with some excellent character models and flowing cloth physics to rival even the 2K sport series for realism. Lighting effects and texturing in the various stadia are supremely realistic, with a natural hue to the sun-bathed clay courts and artificial glow to the indoor arenas. Little effects such as dust flying up from your shoes as you skid around the court or individual player-specific serve and shot animations are an excellent touch. These sort of graphical tweaks and effects that arenít immediately noticeable when playing for the first time but become blindingly apparent when you switch to a lesser product or an old version.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the audio. Whilst the on-court effects and score announcements are excellent (and change language according to the country your currently playing in), someone really needs to shake Sega by the throat for inflicting the same brand of mindless electronic background music thatís permeated the series from its inception. Itís the sort of bland electric guitar twaddle that adds to the charm of the series for a moment, but will grate at every opportunity very soon after. Suddenly the EA sports licensed ĎTraxí system seems desirable, and I never thought Iíd hear myself stating that in a million years.

Its feels good to hit a winner Player likenesses are excellent

The depth of animation in this release is superb, with new shots to be discovered long after the initial foray into the career mode. The team has decided to add a nice emphasis to stronger shots, with players lifting their feet a little higher and following through the ball with more emphasis. Unfortunately there is still an over-reliance on the dive animation to reach difficult shots, but as always this can lead to some superb comedy rallies between skilled opponents, especially in doubles matches.

The main meat of the game has always been the single-player World Tour mode, and VT3 is again no different in this respect. Starting with a blank canvas of a player, you can utilise the very basic character creation system to sculpt a physical specimen of your liking, either male or female, and then choose your home territory. From this point itís the usual formula of entering tournaments to increase your ranking from the starting point of 300, and utilising the various minigames to increase your various shot statistics.

The minigames themselves are largely the same as previous versions, with some additional difficulty levels tacked on towards the end to provide some nightmare challenges. There are a few additional modes here, such as an excellent variation on curling, which will prove addictive long after the others fade into repetition. One compelling new feature is the ability to play the majority of the minigames competitively with a friend. Playing an elongated session of tennis bingo or curling can quickly turn into a more interesting encounter than the main on-court action, and many hours will be lost to grudge matches and re-matches long after you should probably stop playing and get some fresh air.

Innovation is at a premium, but the tour mode does contain a handful of new additions to keep you on your toes. Injury management and player interaction pop up from time to time, and in between tournaments your player will need to rest in order to build up strength in the form of an overall stamina meter. A tennis academy has also been provided to teach you some of the trickier on-court manoeuvres and strategies, as well as the basics for those that need them. In truth, none of the new material here has a particular bearing on the way that the game is played, and feels tacked on at best. Obtaining maximum stats and the number 1 position on the tour will still take a lengthy campaign and a skilled player to accomplish, and feels like a genuine achievement to complete.

Although the game provides a fantastic experience for anyone deigning to pick up the pad and start playing, there are some rather glaring annoyances that really should have been ironed out before the game shipped. Lobs for example, are still particularly useless. Drawing your opponent into the net and looking to hit the ball high over their head inevitably results in a smash heading into your back court, its almost impossible to use this tactic successfully. Whilst I appreciate that this is probably a conscious design decision to keep the action flowing with more ground strokes, itís a bit of a glaring omission to not provide a suitable mechanism for such a staple shot. Drop shots are also particularly hard to perform for the same reasons, and as such most rallies will descend into deep forehand and backhand strokes, with a slice or two to mix up the pace when out of position. It makes for a fun and fast-paced game as always, but such basic shots should really be more effective from time to time.

Of course the major omission from the PS3 version is the complete lack of any online support. Xbox 360 owners can look forward to taking their fully customised World Tour character online and competing in a variety of tournaments, adding life and depth to the game and providing an extra impetus to max out your chosen avatar. Whilst weíll never know the true reason for the lack of implementation of online in the PS3 version, it is a kick in the teeth for Playstation owners considering all the other launch titles that contain a basic network element. Hopefully as PS3 development matures in coming years, this sort of situation will become completely unacceptable for gamers and dev teams alike.

Graphical quality is sublime, especially on a HDTV Differing court surfaces come into play throughout the tour mode

Overall itís hard to fault the graphical improvements and the superb basic mechanics on offer in VT3 and without straying from the formula that tennis fans know and love Sega have provided another slice of classic single and multiplayer action, fit for any console past or present. If the developer takes another 5 years to provide the next version then thatís fine by me, as Virtua Tennis 3 is a game thatís as close to refined perfection as any of us can ever expect.

Top game moment:
Blasting a shot down the line at the end of a 2-minute epic rally.