Reviewed: July 3, 2004
Reviewed by: Arend Hart
Since 2002, there have been a handful of tennis titles released – most notably Microsoft’s Top Spin Tennis for the Xbox. In one fell swoop, Top Spin redefined the tennis genre – first by changing the game mechanics, then kicking in super AI, topping it off with killer graphics, and then by bringing the whole package online. In certain circles, Top Spin has became the new king of tennis – but to be honest, I didn’t like it all that much at first. And although it has grown on me since, I still think it lacks that excitement that I used to feel from the Davis Cup games of yore.
You see, Top Spin employs a unique control system where you direct your player towards the oncoming ball with the analog stick. Just as the ball crosses the net, you begin pressing one of the four face buttons (depending on the desired shot) allowing you to “charge” your shot in proportion to how long and hard you press. At this point, your player’s continued movement to the shooting position becomes mostly automatic, as your analog stick now begins controlling the shot placement. It may sound confusing – but it works – and it makes for a much smoother, albeit unrealistic, experience.
After playing two years of Smash Court, where you had to control your player’s movement to the exact spot for the return, and then in a mere moment select shot type, swing strength, and aim – Top Spin seemed a bit, uh, uninvolved. Add in the lack of any music options, and an excruciatingly long tournament structure (which, due to the lack of in-tourney saves, requires gamers to invest an hour or more at a pop just to progress an individual step in the career mode) and you’re left with the most beautiful tennis game I’ve ever had the pleasure of nodding off to…multiple times…seriously. It just lacks the excitement I have found in so many other tennis games. Still, one can’t deny the quality of Top Spin – it is a great game and well deserving of the 9.0’s and 10.0’s it has received. But it’s like a lullaby to me, and I hate to kill a good night of gaming by dozing off.
So, you can imagine that I was pretty jazzed when Game Chronicles asked me to review Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2.
If you had the chance to play the first Smash Court Pro Tournament game, it won’t take long to notice that Smash Court 2 is a little bit different than the original. For better or for worse, number of changes have been made in an attempt to bring the game further into the realm of simulation. For most fans of the original, this will be considered progress. However, others may find themselves disappointed, because while most of these changes could technically be considered improvements, there is that certain concept that in some cases, simulations become more hassle than they’re worth. And Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 definitely sacrifices a fair amount of fluidity in an effort to sim-ify itself.
Most noticeably, the control has been tweaked, adding a new shot option, the flat shot, to the previous slice, top spin and lob shots. Also, the sensitivity of the analog buttons and sticks has been amplified to put a greater significance on input choices (pressure, duration, location).
As mentioned earlier, Top Spin has a very robust engine, what with the automatic running, shot charging and near-perfect placement options. However, one negative aspect of Top Spin’s unfaltering - almost auto correcting even - control scheme and fluid movement is that volleys easily degrade into tedious, long distance cross-court sprinting maneuvers, over and over until one player’s shot either falls just out of bounds or just out of reach. There’s a definite lack of spontaneity to the action, as random mistakes seldom occur and the whole play mechanic becomes formulaic. I know that sounds crazy, but in real tennis, people make mistakes – and those mistakes make for edge-of-the-seat excitement.
Where Top Spin makes shot placement the priority, Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 focuses more on timing. You actually have to run you player to the position, choose your swing, decide on a pressure (hard, soft), choose the placement, and hope that you time your swing right to get the ball where you wanted it to go. And you aren’t always going to get it right – especially at first. Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 is significantly more challenging in nailing down the timing than was the first title, an it’s bound to turn a lot of gamers, especially fans of Top Spin, off at first.
Probably the hardest habit for Top Spin-ners to break (and it took me a while) is the whole shot charging procedure. Top Spin changed the rules on tennis controls and got us all pressing buttons as soon as the ball crosses the net – if you do this in Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2, your player is going to stop in his or her tracks and begin to swing, whether you are near the ball or not. I feel this is the cause for the critics’ complaints about “jerky” controls and animations, and the reason many are casting Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 aside prematurely.
This time around, the court appears to have been opened to finally allow for more unforced errors. This is a welcome addition in comparison to the previous title, in which I can’t remember a single non-serve out-of-bounds error in all the time I played. However, since the control scheme has the analog sensitivity tweaked up so high, especially in the sticks where three-quarters of the way in the up direction roughly equates to the baseline, you’ll find yourself going “out” a whole lot more than you’d like. Still, with a little practice, you’ll soon be able to keep the ball in control.
I found myself quite impressed with the opponent AI, which seemed to react well to my shots, and make a concerted effort to answer appropriately. Unlike Top Spin, where AI players tend to hang at the baseline and allow you to whack away the net, Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2’s players will actually rush the net and put the screws to you more often than not. Try to leisurely lob the ball over them, and they’ll often line up for the namesake “smash” shot and shut you down cold. Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2’s AI logic is definitely remarkable, and an aspect I think is sadly overlooked by the critics.
Unlike Top Spin, whose career structure forces players to win three grueling (via tedium more so than difficulty) matches consisting of three set wins each of which requiring three game wins (which, as mentioned earlier, requires completion in a single sitting), Smash Court tries a unique approach; you only play the computer-determined “turning points” within a series of AI-simulated sets. This means you might be playing only one volley, or at most one set of a match. And, each time you are called in to play, you are challenged to a particular goal – i.e. serve on the serve line, win two successive serves, win with the score at deuce, etc. – complete this goal and you instantly win the game.
This play structure is a real sticky point for me, because while I enjoy the accelerated pace over the sleepy Top Spin method, there is a certain lack of involvement in your progress, and the game ends up being a disjoined affair. For me, it is akin to playing doubles pool at the bar; it can be fun, but when all you do is get called in to clean up every now and then, there’s little focus. So I’m torn. I would have much rather seen both Top Spin and Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 allow for a one game per set structure, letting three games equal a match.
Graphically, Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 is a definite improvement over its predecessor, and head and shoulders above Sega Sports Tennis. The courts show a new level of detail; stadiums are move vibrant and lifelike, the grass exhibits worn areas, and a slight amount of skidding shows up on the clay courts. The fans, while placed in a 3D stadium, are still freakish looking cardboard sprites with only two animations – hands open and hands closed – making any applause scene extremely laughable.
The players display a fair amount of detail – looking far less like cadavers than the original. The serve and volley animations have also been tweaked to closer represent each pro’s actual style. In fact, when creating a player for career mode, the options for facial features might be only a fraction of what Top Spin offers, but the variations in stance and serve types are staggering. At times, I couldn’t even spot the subtle differences between many neighboring animation options – but to a true tennis fan, this is probably heaven.
Yuck. Yes, I said yuck. Tennis games are infamous for having terrible sound, and having Namco in charge just adds fuel to the fire (Namco is notorious for horrible music and sound). Not surprisingly, with its horrendous Japan-a-metal menu soundtrack to the utter silence of the court, it’s the worst sound since, well, the first Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament.
The silver lining is that there are some fairly believable and player-specific grunts and groans on the court, although Namco surely could have programmed in one or two more voices for the hecklers in the crowd.
All in all, Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 is not very impressive in the sound department.
Tennis games are difficult to place a value on, because really – I just want to play a great game of tennis. I couldn’t care less about deep career modes, or player costumes or unlockable features or anything like that. I just want to get my game on for 30 minutes or so and move on to something different. So basically, as long as the play mechanic is good, I’m willing to give the game a fair shake. But then again – I’m really not up for paying half a C-note for a game I don’t want to be engrossed in, and a half an hour here and there isn’t really worth my cash.
But really, with the fair amount of minigames and the career mode, tennis purists are sure to have fun with Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2, and if they’re willing to pay $40 for a tennis game, they really can’t go wrong.
There is a lot of game here, and I’d say the overall package is fairly worthwhile. In the shadow of Top Spin, however, there’s going to be a definite struggle. While Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 attempts to go with the sim approach, there’s no denying that Top Spin’s fluidity, ease, and beauty make it more accessible to casual and hardcore gamers alike. Especially in a genre like tennis where the real fun is in multiplayer and a pickup-and-play nature lends itself well for visiting friends and family.
Still, Top Spin is exclusive to the Xbox, so PS2-only households don’t have much choice. Loyalists tend to like Sega Sports Tennis over Namco’s Smash Court offerings – but I tend to like games that look like they belong on a next generation system (i.e. you can see the ball) and Sega’s offering never really impressed me much in that respect.
Give Smash Court a rent, and play it for a couple of days and I think you’ll like it. I did.