Reviewed: March 29, 2011
Released: March 15, 2011
I’ve been playing Top Spin games since 2003, back when Microsoft published it for the original Xbox. I even reviewed that particular title. But year after year each new installment kept trying to do new things and revolutionize the gameplay, ultimately failing with each new sequel. Top Spin 3 was the pinnacle achievement of failure, and I really thought the franchise would die after that, but here we are, almost three years later, and 2K Sports is going to take another shot.|
Translating tennis to a videogame is a two-part process. You have to nail the graphics and presentation, and you most definitely have to nail the physics and controls otherwise you just end up with a 3D perspective of a traditional Pong game with humans instead of paddles. Top Spin 4 manages to smash both of these elements out of the court, creating what is easily the best installment in the four-game franchise and perhaps, besting those other tennis games out there.
First, Top Spin 4 returns to basics when it comes to controls with a new input scheme that is accessible by newcomers but easily adapts and expands to something much deeper for experience gamers. Your four primary shots – flat, spin, slice, and lob – are assigned to the face buttons. You can play all day making these basic shots but pretty soon you’ll want to start switching things up by using control and power modifiers. These controls, their proper use, and even some valuable strategy tips are passed along to you in the Top Spin Academy, the in-game tutorial and training mode that offers an accelerated and rewarding lesson plan.
Once you have learned the basics you’ll want to dive into one of the most immersive career modes I’ve played, not just in tennis, but any recent sports title. You start in the character creation, a vast tool kit where you can create just about any look imaginable and dress and equip them with all sorts of licensed tennis gear from companies like Nike, Adidas and FILA. From there you start off in a series of minor tournaments working your way up to the larger events with the more recognized names in the sport.
You’ll earn XP along the way, but rather than spend it on individual stats you’ll work toward building up various playing styles. While you should focus primarily on a single style, you can hire new coaches who allow you to cross-train and earn XP so you can work on additional styles. These unique role-playing approach to the career mode helps to disguise what would otherwise be considered a rather repetitive grinding process to the top of the leaderboards.
The sense of scale, pacing, and especially presentation really makes this career mode seem like an actual career rather than a thinly veiled series of ladder events. It takes several hours of skillful gameplay before you ever get to face off against any of the 25 legendary pros 2K Sports has recruited for the game. Sure, you can play these icons in instant quick game matches, but when you finally stand across the net from the likes of Novak Djoković, Serena Williams, Andy Murray, Caroline Wozniacki, Boris Becker, Bjorn Bor, Ivan Lendl, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, or Andre Agassi in the career you’ll know you’ve earned the right. And the designers have spared no effort in making sure these virtual professionals play as hard and aggressive as they do in real-life, right down to their signature style and shots.
Graphics are excellent, especially for the player models and their smooth animations that are so realistic you'll be able to recognize several professional signature moves. Presentation shines with a TV-style camera angle, slick slow-motion replays, and even some pre-game cutscenes in the locker room. Never before has the Top Spin franchise emulated the real sport of tennis, or at least the way we perceive it from watching it on TV.
There is a nice selection of fully-licensed venues that look identical to their real-world counterparts, but what happened to Wimbledon? Sadly, the sound is a bit lacking, mostly in the repetitive music, but once you are actually playing tennis it’s all about the twang of the racket, the thump of the ball, the grunts of the players, and the squeaks of the sneakers. The crowd reacts quite realistically, both visually and audibly, to the in-game action, but I would have enjoyed a more robust TV-style commentary between the shots.
The career mode is surprisingly long and you still have quick play and local and online multiplayer if you want a quick game of mixed-doubles or one-on-one face-off. The training school, despite its steep learning curve, is a rewarding and almost-mandatory prerequisite to the career, and there are dozens of challenging achievements and trophies to quest after.
If you love tennis then Top Spin 4 is a must-own game. It rises above all of its predecessors and even surpasses its competition – what little it has - with brilliant presentation values and intuitive, deep, and challenge controls and gameplay. The lines of arcade tennis and professional simulation are nearly transparent, making this a game enjoyable by anyone with a deep or even a passing interest in the sport.