Top Spin Review (Xbox)

Company line…

“Top Spin” is the complete tennis experience. Define your tennis playing style, take risks, pull off world-class shots, and work the crowd to develop a unique image on the court. You can also train with a coach to master shots and playing surfaces and work your way up the online rankings to become the best in the world. “Top Spin” offers singles or doubles matches with 16 of the world's top professionals: Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake, Tommy Robredo, Jan-Michael Gambill, Michael Chang, Gustavo Kuerten, Meghann Shaughnessy, Sebastian Grosjean, Anna Kournikova, Daniela Hantuchova, Martina Hingis, Barbara Schett, Ashley Harkleroad, Elena Dementieva and Amanda Coetzer.

Experience intense action and realism: “Top Spin” delivers all the intensity of professional tennis, from cross-court winners and crushing ground strokes to rocket serves. Master all the shots, including slices, lobs, drops, spins, and several trick shots, while perfecting your play on various surfaces, including clay, hard court, and grass.

Get into the zone: “Top Spin” challenges you to take risks. Try difficult shots to "get into the zone," and use that momentum to improve your play. Develop your player's image on the court by pumping his or her fist after a great shot, slamming a racket to the ground, or arguing a bad call.

Become the world's best player: You may be number one in your own living room, but Xbox Live gives you the chance to prove it, any time and any place, on a global scale. Climb worldwide ladders, play tournaments, take on all challengers in singles matches, or find a skilled partner for doubles play.

Build a career: Personalize your player's look, style, and personality and get coaching to correct a weakness or perfect an aspect of his or her tennis game. Work your way up from the local playground, through the amateur ranks, to playing real pros in the world's top tournaments… while earning endorsements along the way.

Tennis games are quiet by nature. The emphasis in this game should be on the general tennis sounds, and “Top Spin” does a solid job. The atmospheric sounds of the different courts and surfaces are spot on. When you play inside a warehouse, it sounds as such. Little extras; like the ball hitting a metal surface and making a “clang” sound, add a nice touch to the game. Play a match on a lawn court, and you’ll hear birds chirping. You’ll hear fans from the crowd scream out players’ names before a point, cheering louder at the important points and in different languages or accents depending on your locale. Sounds vary in strength; depending on the venue, and if it’s an indoor or outdoor court. The same holds for the announcing of the points - the language it’s called in is determined by the locale. When you play in the career mode, there is a TV style introduction and ending - which is a nice touch, but it’s way too short, and not used often enough in the presentation.

“Top Spin” is, without a doubt, the prettiest tennis game to date. From the 45-plus tennis courts that are offered to the animations of the players, “Top Spin” takes everything and raises the bar. The massive selection of courts range from numerous playground courts to Grand Slam stadiums. Pro players, like Pete Sampras, are extremely well designed and even have style of shot making; like serves and ground strokes, modeled after their real-life counterpart. Texturing of the courts is extremely well done for each of the surfaces (clay, grass, hardcourt), not to mention a unique wooden court. When playing on clay, you’ll find your player sliding for shots and kicking up dust. The animation is a little overdone, yet it doesn’t detract from the action. The animations are smooth and the large numbers of animations you’ll see are impressive. Players will lunge or dive at the proper times. The only real complaint here is that, when controlling a player, sometimes it seems they will run off in the wrong direction. While it does not happen often, it is an annoyance, especially on a big point. Unfortunately, all is not well, as the load times in this game will strike a nerve - there are many and they come often in places you wouldn’t expect them. The menus themselves are not fancy, and in some cases even a bit confusing when you first enter the create-a-player mode. There are sub-menus (color for clothing, for example) that are not easy to find or navigate. On the court, there are a limited set of cameras. The default “Zoom” camera suits my needs just fine and will put you in a close-up perspective, yet because of the way the camera pans, you’ll never miss anything. You also have the “far” camera where you’ll play on the far and near courts. Hopefully a customizable camera is in the works; along with the option to play from the near and/or far court only.

The control scheme and Risk Shots/ITZ (In The Zone) meter is where “Top Spin” shows it’s greatest potential, and will hopefully build upon the concept of the risk shots. The biggest problem facing tennis games is the “arcade/simulation” issue. If you make a game arcade, it may become successful with gamers, but you’ll never advance the series. The problem with making a tennis game a full-on simulation is the concern that you will alienate customers with an AI that has too much control over your shot and if it’s in or out. This is where the risk shot and ITZ meter come into play. First you have your base four shots of a flat/safe shot, top spin, slice and lob shot. When serving, you have safe, top spin and slice base serves. Then, you have the shots where ITZ comes into play: the L Trigger, which is your drop shot and the R trigger, which is your “risk shot” during a rally or a serve/return. One of the problems in this year’s version is that the risk shot is too easy to pull off. Unfortunately, once you get the hang of hitting the risk shot it becomes too simple to pull off on a serve. At this point, I’m hitting roughly 90% of my first serves in with the “risk shot”, and that might be a low estimate. It’s peculiar is that the regular serve shot is harder to pull off. Hitting a “risk shot” during points does take some practice and is much more difficult to get in; as you are doing this while moving towards the ball. By using the “risk shot” at least a couple times each game, you’ll find yourself with a more realistic unforced error percentage. Another item that factors into the ITZ is the attitude from the player. After a shot, you have the option to make your player show excitement or frustration. To be brutally honest, I hope this is canned in the sequel; and they simply let me tap a button to skip a predetermined reaction and move on to the next point.

The Career Mode simply feels rushed. This is where the disappointment will set in for those who don’t have Xbox Live. When you go into a tournament you have to play three straight three game/three set matches. In the early stages it might take you fifteen minutes to play through, but once you get to the major pro and Grand Slam events a tournament will easily last forty-five minutes. I assume they left the games and sets at a shorter number due to this fact - but I think most people would rather have full three-set, six-game matches and be able to save at any point during a match. Then, in the Grand Slams - have the five-set, six-game matches. Ironically, the only match I played where you play a six-game set was the final sponsor challenge (there are five total). It would have been a nice addition to extend the length of the Grand Slam tourneys (save or no save), as these were the only tournaments I had a challenge in. The nice part about being able to serve at a high percentage became obvious in the later rounds; where you may have some realistic matches where neither player can break the others serve. That’s true to the sport, as the server is at the advantage, controlling the point. In my Grand Slam events, many of the matches forced me to a tie breaker to determine at least one set.

In the career mode, you’ll create a male or female player and then pick their DNA (skin color). From there, the ability to modify the appearance of the player to fit your tastes is at your fingertips; with the ability to shape any part of your face and body. You can have multiple players, so I went ahead and created a male and female player to take each of them through separate tourneys. Once you have a player ready to go, you’ll visit the World Map. Here, you have the ability to work on progressing your player through the ranks by flying to different countries and entering tournaments - of which there are four varieties. There are Minor Pro, Pro, Major Pro and Grand Slams. I started out in the Minor Pro tournaments; which are far too easy and for most players will end 3-0, 3-0. If anything, the beginning level of play should have been Pro. Also, there should have been a way to train yourself up to a point and then not have access to the training feature until you finish a level of tournaments. Unfortunately, in this game, you’ll have sponsors to choose from and switch back and forth to make easy money that allows you to enter the coaches’ buildings - where you build your stats. While this is great for people who plan to play online,it tends to make the career mode even more shallow. Speaking of the sponsors; by selecting one and entering their challenges, you can unlock special apparel and equipment from that sponsor. These items are kept in your sports bag and you can change clothing as often as you wish. You can also purchase clothing or change your player’s appearance by going into the sport shops and salons.

Attributes are handled well. During a career mode, you must to determine what type of player you want to create. You are limited to filling four skill areas (serve, forehand, backhand and volley), each with five star abilities (there twenty spaces available to place only fourteen stars). You attain these stars by training; which you’ll enter by earning money. You can earn the money by entering tourneys (Semi-Pro), or going to sponsors. The training modes were fairly easy to master, but by allowing the player to do them all before ever entering a tournament makes the minor-pro and pro tournaments that much simpler – and more dull. Along with the fourteen stars, you’ll also obtain four special skills throughout the course of training. Three of them will come during training and the fourth is given to you when you become #1 in the world. This is another issue I have with career mode – It’s far too easy to become #1. I was ranked #1 after completing all of the Semi-Pros, two Pro tournaments, one Major Pro tournament and one Grand Slam.

Multiplayer games are great, and if the time is available, I find myself playing matches with five games and six sets using the professional players on the highest level. I hope we’ll soon see a tennis game with more then 16 professional players. Hopefully, one day, the WTA and ATP will have a license that offers such a thing. Some Davis Cup action would be a nice add-on as well. For now, I’m just happy they added the lovely Anna Kournikova, and gave Pete Sampras a nice farewell by adding him to the game. Of course, it would also be nice to play a mixed doubles match or even allow a male to play a female - a la Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs– but it can’t happen in “Top Spin”.

There is a difference in gameplay between the men’s and women’s matches. I found the rallies to be longer in the women’s game, but unfortunately, they’re too short in both. The biggest problem in gameplay is the accuracy of a player’s standard shot and their top spin shot. Once you max out your attributes, your top spin is deadly, and will paint the line more times then not. Even while playing a baseline game, you can catch the opponent in the corner and setup for a solid top spin shot - almost guaranteeing a winner. Next year, the developer needs to work on making the shots less accurate. To make the game more realistic, they need to cut down on the winners, forcing longer rallies until someone uses a risk shot - especially if people are playing a baseline game. There’s another nagging issue, as well. When two players rush the net, the game goes into a slowdown mode. This has happened with every tennis game I have played; all the way back to “Virtua Tennis”. Once both players rush, the ball deflates and turns into a match of lawn tennis. I have also found that when volleying, some of the extended animations will get in the way of being successful at the net and cause a lot of slow hits to a baseliner. I have found the lob shot in this game to be one of the better ones because of the positioning involved with using it. Hit a lob from no man’s land and it will go out. You’ll also get a lot of shots to go out when aiming for the corners. Drop shots work well with the ITZ; if you are off it will fly too far, making for an easy return. It’s risk vs. reward at it’s finest.

Online Play has been enjoyable once I got my player some experience. If you plan on playing in the “Official” tournaments - where you have to use a created player - then it would be wise to have earned your fourteen stars and at four skills before heading in to play the big boys. If you simply stick to the created players or pros in the exhibition mode, this will not be an issue. The biggest problem with online mode is the lack of a lobby where people can set up a match. There are some issues with the settings you can change to find a player near your abilities. Hopefully, the XSN setup will help solve some of these issues in setting up a tourney. Another thing that’s hopefully on the “to-do” list is to add doubles matches that can be played on four separate Xboxes.

Although the career mode was a complete letdown, this still is the best tennis game to come out in this generation of consoles, including the Dreamcast. To top it off, it plays well online. It has many of the flaws typically found in a first year sports title, and is a mixture of arcade and simulation play depending on how you choose to play the game. The “risk shot” is a step in the right direction towards making a game that can suit the arcade and simulation fans’ tastes, but it still has a way to go. All faults aside, however - there is no other tennis game I could recommend over “Top Spin”, because when it is all said and done, I’ve a lot of fun playing it. The game plays and looks so much better then “Virtua Tennis”, and has earned the honor of being the game that the next batch of tennis games will be compared to. If you need a tennis game for your Xbox library, and the faults I listed above are things that you can live with, then pick it up. If you plan to play online, I see no reason not to buy “Top Spin”.

Top Spin Score
out of 10