Virtua Tennis 2009 Review (Xbox360)

Fundamentally, tennis games haven’t really evolved much from Pong, but we love them anyway. For years now, Virtua Tennis has pretty much had the tennis game market sewn up. With Top Spin being a little too hardcore for some and Smash Court not being hardcore enough, VT has always fallen somewhere in between, hitting a sweet spot between po-faced realism and arcade accessibility. Virtua Tennis 3 might have ventured slightly too far into arcade silliness with its notoriously stupid dives that transformed rallies into ridiculously drawn out battles of endurance, but VT 2009 is bringing its ‘A’ game into centre court for this update. And it needs to, especially now that Electronic Arts are stepping into the tennis arena with EA Sports Grand Slam Tennis, out later this summer.

Although extremely welcome, it won’t come as a big surprise to learn that VT 2009 has scrapped the diving and instated ‘stumble gameplay’, which means that rather than leaping for the ball like a maniac, your player will stretch for it and stumble in his effort to make a difficult return. It’s not only a lot more realistic, it also adds a far greater degree of fluidity to the ebb and flow of a rally. This places a much greater emphasis on placing the ball and positioning your player to make a proficient return shot without initiating a dangerous falter that can lose you a point. With development duties handed over from AM3 to Sheffield-based Sumo Digital – who has already brought us arcade-style tennis with Sega Superstars – the entire experience has been tightened up a bit, making for a more solid tennis experience than VT 3.

Murray makes his Virtua Tennis debut and is listed as an All-Rounder.
Federer returns and is just as tough to beat as ever.

While the stumble mechanic is easily the biggest gameplay refinement, the central single-player World Tour Mode has been bolstered to last even longer than VT 3’s already massive version. New gear, unlockables and more significantly, new mini-games flesh out the World Tour, but the rest of the longevity is largely superficial, consisting primarily of boringly simple matches that fast become a grind to complete. A much improved character creation mode enables you to create and customise a version of yourself (or engineer a hideous freak), who you play as during World Tour, completing training challenges in the Academy and winning matches to steadily upgrade your attributes. This proves as unavoidably compulsive as ever, especially once you get involved in ranked online matches, where your created character is your only available playable option. Therefore the better your statistics, the more all-conquering your player will become, which gives you added incentive to delve into the training sessions. Online is accessed through the World Tour map, and those hungry to play as the pros can do so in unranked player matches, otherwise you’re restricted to your custom player.

This iteration of Virtua Tennis comes with a roster of 23 top players, including 8 brand new ones and 3 Legends including Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. The likenesses are excellent for the most part too, although they’ve retained the ever-so-slightly waxy-skinned look from VT 3. There’s also the fully licensed Davis Cup tournament beefing up the authenticity, but whether it’ll be enough to combat EA’s forthcoming licensed tennis behemoth is questionable. Where EA also have genuine crowd sounds recorded at last year’s Wimbledon and a buoyant commentary from Pat Cash, VT 2009 has no commentary, crowd effects that escalate as a game progresses, but still sound somewhat iffy and music that will make you want to melt your earholes closed with a welding torch.

Still, VT 2009 offers the finest game of tennis currently available, with intuitive controls and fast-paced arcade action; it’s immediately accessible to anyone. The 12 utterly surreal mini games make a welcome return too and can be enjoyed in multiplayer. These provide added interest outside of the standard tennis experience and will keep you playing for hours. Several have been axed from VT 3 and replaced with equally bizarre substitutes such as Pot Shot, Pirate Wars, Blockbuster, Shopping Dash and Zoo Feeder. Each builds upon a specific tennis skill in World Tour mode, but in multiplayer, they’re insane score-based distractions that you’ll find yourself becoming hopelessly addicted to.

A variety of surfaces feature as you’d expect, but each one is actually quite different to play upon.

A new camera perspective rounds out the list of new features for VT 2009, a viewpoint that sinks the camera directly behind your player, supposedly immersing you deeper into the action. From a practical gameplay standpoint however, the new camera option is a bit too difficult to get to grips with, but switching back to the original and far more sensible television-style viewpoint is just a quick button press away.

There’s a lot to love about Virtua Tennis 2009, although one could argue that it only offers a slightly incremental improvement over its predecessor. Gameplay-wise, this might indeed be the case, but when something isn’t broke, then why fix it? Virtua Tennis still offers the best game of tennis around, and with the wealth of options and features that have been crammed into this edition, 2009 is the most comprehensive VT yet. Game, set and match.

Top game moment:
Discovering the newly introduced madcap mini-games. VT 2009’s have lost none of the esoteric madness and innate playability that always make them so much fun to play.