Top Spin 3 Preview (Wii)

When Top Spin 3 debuts for the Nintendo Wii next week, it will inevitably draw comparisons to Wii Sports Tennis, which has been included with the Wii since the system’s launch in late 2006. Wii Sports Tennis fulfilled its role of showcasing the Wii Remote’s motion-sensing capabilities, and it has provided players everywhere with endless hours of fun along the way.

Unfortunately, its simple nature and lack of depth have left tennis fans on the Wii wanting more from their console. Their dreams of a Wii tennis simulation have been unrealized, but 2K Sports hopes to answer their prayers with the latest iteration of the Top Spin series. Operation Sports recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Top Spin 3 for the Nintendo Wii.

In a stark contrast to the Xbox 360 version of Top Spin 3 –- not to mention nearly every other sports game on the market –- the Wii adaptation’s main menu presents only four options: Exhibition, Road to Glory, Party Games, and Tutorials. New players should consider checking out the game’s eleven tutorials before jumping into a real match. 2K Sports appreciates the importance of accessibility on the Wii, however, so the game maintains enough pickup and play elements so as to not make the tutorials an absolute necessity for first-time players.

Road to Glory pits players in a series of challenges and tournaments against professionals. This mode features the four major tournaments (sans Wimbledon in its real form), bringing the total number of different tournaments in Road to Glory to eleven. Because Top Spin 3 lacks a create-a-player feature, users must instead use one of the game’s professional tennis players through Road to Glory mode.

In addition to the absence of the create-a-player mode in the Wii version, mini-games and the other extras that we’ve grown accustomed to in career mode do not make an appearance -- it's straight tournament play in Road to Glory. The game does include ten playable courts and the same roster of professional players as the Xbox 360 version though.

While the controls in Top Spin 3 bear a superficial similarity to the mechanics from Wii Sports Tennis, the desire for a more realistic style of play dictates a need for a more advanced control system. Top Spin 3 players grip the Wii Remote like a tennis racquet, with their index finger resting on the B button and the remote rotated in their hand as if the directional pad represents the strings. The game unlocks more of the Wii Remote’s potential than Wii Sports Tennis, as it determines the power, timing and type of swing based on the user’s actions with the Wii Remote.

Top Spin 3 retains the swing types from its predecessors, allowing players to execute slices, topspins, lobs, and drop shots by performing different motions. An arcing swing in an upward fashion produces a topspin or lob –- the Z button acts as a modifier to differentiate between those types –- while swinging downward across the body results in a slice or drop shot –- again, depending on whether the Z button is held.

Serving has different mechanics, with players pressing the C button to grip the ball, and then raising the Wii Remote to toss the ball, followed by a downward swing to put the ball in play. Holding the B button during this process allows for a powerful serve, but it risks an errant serve due to the greater difficulty involved in hitting the success bar on the meter. Players struggling with this mechanic also have the option of simply hitting the Z button to serve and ensure the ball is in play, but it comes without the benefits of attempting a powerful serve. The serving controls have a moderate learning curve, so novice players will find themselves using the Z button at times to avoid double faults.

Top Spin 3 differentiates itself further from Wii Sports Tennis by bringing the Nunchuk squarely into the equation. Rather than relying on the AI to control a player’s movement, Top Spin 3 players use the analog stick on the Nunchuk to move players around the court. Likewise, the Nunchuk also allows players to direct their shots, while Wii Sports Tennis relies exclusively on timing. These controls, along with the Wii Remote motions for shots, offer players more opportunities than ever to control the action. Simply mastering these mechanics, however, won’t be enough to achieve success on the court.

In tennis, positioning plays a crucial role in a player getting enough power behind his or her shots, and the same holds true for Top Spin 3. Players who constantly attempt shots while off-balance will find themselves struggling to hit the ball hard enough to put their opponents away. Planting a player’s feet has become essential to producing difficult to return shots, and a failure to establish a solid base can spell the difference between winning the point and hitting the ball into the net or out of play.

The visuals provide feedback on a shot’s power in the form of ball trails. A yellow trail represents a strong shot, while a white trail indicates a solid shot. Players should consider a trip back to the practice courts if they fail to elicit a ball trail with a degree of consistency.

The accessibility of Wii Sports Tennis became a driving force for the game’s success, as the ability for new players to pick up its intuitive controls set it apart from the other Wii Sports games. Top Spin 3 brings a great deal more depth to the table, but it maintains a comparable learning curve that should allow new players to compete without a significant amount of instruction or practice. The generally accurate motion-sensing means that the tennis players on-screen will respond to your actions as you would expect –- most of the time.

The shots with upward motions (topspins, lobs) seemed considerably easier to pull off with consistency than their downward counterparts (slices, drop shots). Part of these struggles relates merely to the learning curve, as practicing those shots a bit produced noticeable improvements.

Still, novice players may find themselves frustrated at first with some aspects of the controls, and the system falls a little short of Wii Sports Tennis in terms of accessibility. Casual fans of the sport might prefer the easiest of the four difficulty levels, as it places less emphasis on a realistic position-based approach. Tennis fans who take the time to master the controls should feel right at home and satisfied that 2K Sports has created a reasonable representation of the sport on the Wii.

The rewarding controls go a long way to making you feel as if you’re playing in a professional tennis match; however, the game’s visuals detract from the experience. No one expected true next generation graphics from this game, but the visuals in the Wii adaptation look eerily similar to the original Top Spin on the Xbox -- perhaps even worse.

Other games have succeeded at achieving respectable graphics on the Wii, so it’s disappointing to see Top Spin 3 come up short. But with the controls as the game’s main selling point, the lackluster visuals shouldn’t dissuade anyone from purchasing the game.

Top Spin 3 hits store shelves next week for the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS and Playstation 3. Operation Sports is looking forward to its release and would like to thank 2K Sports for the opportunity to check out the game.

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