Reviewed: August 17, 2008
Released: June 23, 2008
A long time ago on a system far away, 2K Sports reigned supreme. Nearly every sports title they attached their name to turned to gold, but then the Dreamcast went away and EA started playing dirty, first buying up the NFL license and then the ESPN franchise, and then slowly, the rest of the universe. 2K Sports wasnít left with much; tennis, baseball, hockey, but without the ESPN presentation it was hard to compete with EA Sports. Still, you would think that with fewer sports franchises to cover they could focus their efforts and create something special or at least fine tune their existing sports line-up.
Itís been nearly three years since I played a Top Spin game, and that was the original game on the PS2. That game had numerous issues that left me unimpressed despite the overall lack of competition when it comes to tennis games on the console. Now, several years and a next-generation of system later, we have Top Spin 3. Yeah, I donít know what happened to Top Spin 2 either Ė GCM got skipped when it came to doing that review, so I canít really comment on what happened between my first experience and my latest.
Iím not a hardcore tennis fan. I took lessons as a youth, did the tennis camp one summer and played on the tennis team in my junior year of high school. I donít actively seek out tennis on TV but I might pause my channel surfing if itís Wimbledon or some other major event. Still, like most things I donít focus my real life on, I do enjoy as a video game, and tennis is one of those things. Sadly, I havenít really enjoyed a video game version of tennis since Outlaw Tennis released in the summer of 2005.
Top Spin 3 tries to reinvent itself starting with its core gameplay mechanic. It then throws in some modestly impressive next-gen visuals (sweat-stained shirts), real-life players with signature moves, an fairly impressive character creator, a functional online mode, and some up-beat licensed music that highlights the menus before leaving you to the relative silence of the sport.
If you have every played any other tennis game in your life then prepare yourself for disappointing and a totally unreasonable and uphill battle in learning what PAM calls ďAll-New Gameplay ControlsĒ. In the world of ďdonít fix what ainít brokeĒ, somebody didnít get the memo because Top Spin 3 has the absolute worst controls of any tennis game I have ever played. Admittedly, I say this because they are ďdifferentĒ, but even after 10+ hours I was still lapsing back into my old system of hitting the ball, which in this game means standing still and watching the ball bounce by.
You see, in Top Spin 3 you still use the face buttons to pick your shot type and pre-load your shot strength, but you must now release the button just about the time the ball is bouncing on your side of the net. If you are attempting a volley at the net youíll need to release about the time the ball is coming off the opponentís racket. This translates into two things; decreased reaction time and a totally non-immersive tennis experience where you donít actually hit the ball until a full second after releasing the button. This throws your timing off terribly and really takes you out of the game.
The designers claim this is a more realistic approach to tennis and they may be right but that doesnít make it any more fun. If I want a more realistic tennis game Iíll dig my racket and can of balls out of the closet and head to the park. And unless every other tennis franchise (what few there are) change to this same style, youíre going to have to relearn the old ways of play if you try any of those games.
The right stick is used for more precise and slightly more powerful serves and the occasional drop shot. Using the stick requires a lot more timing and accuracy than using the face buttons, but if you can master the technique the rewards are worth the risk. I found the stick worked well for serves but not so well with the drop shots.
There are also some oddities with the physics including sluggish players who plod around their side of the net with a weight and resistance to them that doesnít fit with your stereotypical tennis player physique. It doesnít help that their feet never appear to be attached to the ground, so it looks like they are hovering or gliding a few inches off the court surface, but thatís more of a graphics issue. Iím guessing a lot of this sluggishness is the new inertial or momentum physics the designers have tried to incorporate into this new game.
Like every other tennis game before this one, strategy consists of mixing up your shots, left to right, and deep and short, to keep your opponent on the run. The amount of physical exertion as well as the stress of the current situation (score, match position, etc.) all contribute to the heart rate indicator. Half the time Iím waiting to see my heart explode from my playerís chest. This loosely factors into the success of certain shots, especially risk shots, which I quickly learned to avoid since I failed them 99% of the time, plus, you can win easily enough without them. You can charge the net or apply what we used to call ďturboĒ to any shot at the expense of your fatigue.
The AI is goofy, and the computer will perform miraculous feats of athleticism when required by a score deficit, then miss an easy slow lob planted at their feet as if to say, ďIím beating you now, I donít need to try to return that shot.Ē The difficulty seems to change radically (and unnaturally) based on the match you are playing. The opening games are pretty easy to win but then when it comes to closing the deal the game gets incredibly tough, and with no mid-tournament save, one loss could have you replaying several matches. There is no Quit or Restart Ė only Forfeit.
Top Spin 3, with itís new and inaccessible control scheme and emphasis on realistic physics and movement has obviously left gamers and tennis enthusiasts behind and is now catering to the limited crowd of sim-purists, and letís face it Ė if you love tennis that much you probably arenít playing the game in your living room. Even so, for those who want to not only simulate the sport but an actual career in that sport, there is a new and improved Career mode that all starts with a fairly sophisticated character creator.
Once you have your on-screen alter-ego there isnít much to do other than play tennis. There are no mini-games or training activities. You enhance your player by playing in real tournaments and earning XP and points. XP is used to improve your character in any of numerous abilities such as Service, Return, Forehand, Backhand, Volley, Power, Speed, and Stamina. The higher the improvement the more XP each new increment costs. By strategically tweaking these stats you can hopefully make up for your own human deficiencies as the player behind the controller.
As a rookie, fresh on the tennis scene youíll start off playing in venues like the local park or recreation center. Then, as you gain fame and rise through the ranks your scenery will improve and people might actually show up in the stands. Once you have mastered what the Career mode has to offer you can take your tennis pro online and enter him or her into the World Tour mode. This is a real-time tourney that lasts 14 days. Youíll earn XP just like playing offline and at the end of the tourney all the records are reset and you can start it all over again.
The interesting thing about the online play is that while there was some noticeable lag in several of my online matches, after having to deal with the huge lag in the new gameplay mechanic this extra fraction of a second was hardly noticeable. I was already having to consciously deal with massively delayed reaction times for every shot. And that is ultimately my major complaint with Top Spin 3. Realistic or not, the response of the character is not in real-time. You push, hold, and release the button and you donít see the results of that input until after a very unnatural and awkward delay.
For those looking to serve up some instant action tennis there is an Exhibition mode that allows you to set up any type of match you want; singles, doubles, sets per match, games per set, etc. You can pick your players, assign CPU players various AI difficulty settings and court positions, and pick from any of the available venues. All of this is also available online as well. Playing against human opponents is probably a bit more difficult than the AI depending on the chosen skill level. At least your human opponents will be consistently good or bad unlike the fluctuating computer opponents whose skills magically rise to the occasion.
I remember when next-gen sports games started arriving after the 360 launch and sweat was all the rage, especially in basketball games. Well, the sweat is back and itís wetter than ever in Top Spin 3. You can now watch your playerís back and armpits stain in real-time as they exert themselves on the court. And thatís basically the best thing you can say about the game technically speaking.
The player models are nicely done but nothing impressive. You can create just about any possibly likeness imaginable with the character creator or if you choose to play as one of the built-in pros youíll get a reasonable likeness complete with a few signature moves from that player assuming you follow their careers enough to notice. The animations are smooth and flow together naturally although youíll see some oddities when players streak across the court with unnatural speed to return a shot that is only possible in a video game. And as previously mentioned, the characters appear to float over the surface of the court and you donít get that ankle-hinge effect that makes it seem that they are sticking to the court.
The venues are nicely done, but again, nothing special. They range from city parks all the way up to the larger tournament arenas. You get some lifeless line judges and an even more lifeless crowd that can turn into 2D cutouts if the camera catches them at the wrong angle. And the opening pan across the court always has several hiccups in the framerate during the initial pre-game load.
There is a nice selection of licensed tunes for the menus and screens before and after the match but once you are in the game itís a pretty barren experience for the ears. You get the almost rhythmic sound of the bouncing ball and the twang of racket strings and the occasional and often misplaced feedback from the spectators. Crowd reactions arenít always realistic or even correct.
There is no play-by-play or commentary. If you are playing an established pro you hear their name otherwise you are referred to as player one. Other than that itís pretty much a recitation of the score between each round.
There are no extra-curricular activities to keep you interested in Top Spin 3 beyond the lengthy career mode. Some mini-games or training exercises would have not only extended the longevity of the overall game, it may have made the overwhelming learning curve of the new control scheme somewhat bearable. Most casual gamers will dismiss this game long before their rental period is over and those who actually purchased it will be headed for eBay or the trade-in store within a week.
For those looking for some quick Achievement points, the road is long and hard to complete the 41 objectives in Top Spin 3. Youíll need to rise through the ranks as well as earn record amounts of cash. Skill challenges like serving 100 aces or playing 50 matches as a male and 50 matches as a female player will take more time than most will want to invest. There are also numerous online challenges.
I was really looking forward to Top Spin 3. It had been more than three years since I had played a good tennis game and this was my first big chance for some next-gen action. Sadly, 2K Sports just doesnít deliver. The new control scheme is a major obstacle to overcome. Theyíve basically redesigned the core of the control scheme so you have no direct relationship to your player or the gameplay. Itís like you are telegraphing your commands and watching your player respond on a tape delay.
Again, Iím just a casual tennis player and not a sim-enthusiast, but as a game, a tennis game, Top Spin 3 is one of the worst Iíve played. Sorry 2KÖbetter luck next year.