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Virtua Tennis 2009 REVIEW

Virtua Tennis 2009 Review (Wii)

For a franchise dedicated to such a niche sport, the Virtua Tennis series has an unusual history of making itself a showpiece for new gaming technology.

The original Virtua Tennis, after languishing a bit in the dwindling arcade market, found great success debuting on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. The game's sharp graphics and accessible multiplayer action were reasons why the game earned a spot in many gamers’ libraries -- sports fans and non-sports fans alike -- ultimately leading to Virtua Tennis being recognized as a "Sega All Star" title, an honor given to 17 of the Dreamcast’s top-selling games.

Seven years and two sequels later, the Virtua Tennis series made itself relevant again, as Virtua Tennis 3 took center stage on the Xbox 360 during the spring of 2007, becoming the first game on the system to display in glorious 1080p resolution -- VT3 still holds up as one of the most colorful and vibrant games on Microsoft’s console.

Now in the summer of 2009, the franchise finds itself in the fortunate position of being one of the three sports games chosen to show off the power of Nintendo’s new MotionPlus technology.

Unfortunately, what Virtua Tennis 2009 ends up "showing off" isn’t the brilliance of Nintendo’s new MotionPlus peripheral, but the general incompetence of the series' new lone developer, Sumo Digital.

Having watched Sumo Digital port the arcade version of VT3 to the Xbox 360, the Sega higher-ups must have been confident that the Sumo team would be able to shoulder the full developmental responsibilities of building a proper sequel to VT3.

But if Virtua Tennis 2009 is Sumo Digital’s idea of a "proper sequel," then I hope (for Sega's sake) that Sumo Digital never gets the opportunity to make another "sequel" like this again.

Not only is Virtua Tennis 2009 a regression from Virtua Tennis 3, but it’s also an insult to a series that has earned the right to be considered the gold standard when it comes to fast-paced, arcade tennis.

Gameplay

Unlike chief competitor Grand Slam Tennis, Virtua Tennis 2009 clearly was not built from the ground up with the Wii’s MotionPlus technology in mind.

Rather, the MotionPlus technology seems like it was shoehorned into the Virtua Tennis series, where it is about as natural a fit as a two-hundred-fifty-pound power hitter attempting to learn the finesse tactics of a serve-and-volley player.

Historically, Virtua Tennis games have garnered widespread appeal because they offer up a quick and accessible brand of tennis that even people with minimal interest in the sport can immediately pick up and enjoy.

As far as the core game engine goes, Virtua Tennis 2009 does little to upset that formula.

That is, of course, until the motion controls come into play –- then the upsetting begins.

Since Virtua Tennis 2009 offers no support for Gamecube or Wii classic controllers, the game must be played with the Wii remote, MotionPlus optional.

Without the MotionPlus adapter, Virtua Tennis 2009 plays like Wii Sports tennis running on some sort of speed hack.

Since shot placement is based entirely on timing, the player must use late strokes to hit balls down the line and early strokes to hit shots across the court.

While not ideal, the "timing equals aiming" system works reasonably well for a slow-paced game like Wii Sports tennis, but on the hyperactive Virtua Tennis courts, the action moves so fast that timing strokes to put the proper angle on shots becomes frustratingly difficult.

Perhaps realizing how difficult a timing-based hitting system in a fast-paced game could potentially be, developer Sumo Digital has included an aim-assist bar that displays over the player’s head. This bar allows the player get a feel for the exact timing that is needed to place a shot in its desired location.

But while the aim-assist bar is certainly helpful (the standard controls are essentially unplayable without it), the bar makes the on-court action feel less like actual tennis and more like a mini-game. I say that because if users want to have any sort of success with the standard controls, they must spend the majority of their time focused on the aim-assist bar -- not their on-screen character.

Naturally, most players will want to give up on the regular Wii remote controls after only a match or two.

And while the alternative MotionPlus control scheme does provide a superior sense of control (one that doesn’t require watching a tiny white line speed across an aiming indicator), the overall experience that the MotionPlus style of play presents remains just as bland as the default Wii remote ordeal.

MotionPlus

Unlike EA’s Grand Slam Tennis, players using the MotionPlus add-on with Virtua Tennis 2009 will seldom miss shots because of calibration or detection issues.

But since the price for proper MotionPlus detection is compromised player animations and constant controller recalibration, it just feels like Virtua Tennis 2009 is a game that never should have bothered with any type of motion controls in the first place.

Reason being -- even with the spot-on calibration -- when the user takes a swing while using the MotionPlus controls, it still does not "feel" like the player is really controlling the on-screen racket.

Instead, it feels like the player is simply controlling the starting/ending point of one of the game’s awkward, preset swing animations. And while the game's approach to MotionPlus gives the game more accurate stroke detection than EA’s Grand Slam Tennis, that does not lead to a more immersive and enjoyable overall gameplay experience.


The MotionPlus controls won't have you muttering curse words into your racket, but the rest of the game will.
Source: cubed3.com

Nevertheless, the real disappointment in the MotionPlus controls department can be found before players even take their first swings on the court.

Because Virtua Tennis 2009 lacks the "instant detection" technology of EA’s Grand Slam Tennis, players must select the MotionPlus controls in a pop-up menu before every match. Once the match begins, players then cannot switch control styles without forfeiting the match and exiting out to the main menu.

And as bad as the lack of controller flexibility is, the real killer of the MotionPlus experience is the manual calibration that is needed before every point.

Whether it is during a mini-game or an actual match, the start of every single point or event in Virtua Tennis 2009 gets interrupted by a huge, orange "ARE YOU READY?" bar that covers up half the screen -- the player must then point the remote at the on-screen character for a few seconds so the game can recalibrate the MotionPlus technology.

This constant recalibration not only kills the fast-paced flow that Virtua Tennis games have become famous for, but the huge, obnoxious "…READY?" bar also destroys what little immersion the game manages to create.

Presentation

While the aim-assist and "ARE YOU READY?" bars do their fair share to help limit the immersion factor in Virtua Tennis 2009, the rest of the game’s presentation doesn’t do much to help out the cause either.

The soundtrack, for instance, is so old and recycled that many of the techno–style tracks date all the way back to Virtua Tennis 2 (Tennis 2K2), a game released in 2001 for the Sega Dreamcast.

The audio team's laziness carries over to the area of commentary. Unlike the franchise debut of Wii competitor Grand Slam Tennis, this latest Virtua Tennis entry still lacks any sort of booth commentary, aside from the robotic, disembodied court announcers who still sound like they've been generated by a text-to-speech program, rather than by an actual professional or hired voice actor.

The graphics don’t fare much better. Popping in the dusty Dreamcast versions of Virtua Tennis and Virtua Tennis 2 confirm that, running each system through composite cables, the graphics in Virtua Tennis 2009 barely compete with either of the two Dreamcast games, which at this point are respectively eight and nine years old (in console years).

But the worst part about the graphics is the constant stuttering that occurs throughout matches -- something that has never been a problem in the Virtua Tennis series until now.

While the stuttering effect seems to be worse in some venues than it is in others, the frame rate drops are consistent across all of the game’s 40-plus arenas.

For a series that thrives on its trademark fast-paced flow, the constant stuttering and slowdown is simply unacceptable.


The courts and characters look decent, but they come with a steep price: serious frame rate issues.
Source: videogamecentral.com

Online

If players think the slowdown is bad offline, they will be truly disgusted when trying to take the game online.

Whether playing in a ranked singles match or participating in one of the new online tournaments, Virtua Tennis 2009 simply cannot keep from lagging up the court.

The lag is so bad during singles and doubles play that both the on-screen characters and the tennis ball spend the entire match teleporting across the court. Users must simply try to guess where opponents and the ball will be, while also guessing how early to start a swing to compensate for the lag.

What really makes the online experience such a bitter one is the fact that its presence in the game’s World Tour mode seems to be the chief reason why the single-player career mode has been considerably condensed.

Career Mode

For a series that has left so many areas untouched over the years, the career mode, which historically has been the highlight of the Virtua Tennis games, has inexplicably mutated in Virtua Tennis 2009.

The first thing Virtua Tennis veterans will notice is that the beloved stat-building element of the career mode has been completely eliminated.

In past versions, players used to participate in mini-games to improve their stats in certain categories (volleys, footwork, ground strokes and serving). However, Virtua Tennis 2009 starts players off at a maxed-out stat level, leaving only marginal improvements available to the player. Those marginal improvements are acquired by unlocking new "play styles" via the completion of mini-games or by buying improved gear in the tennis shop.

Presumably, the player progression was taken out of the career mode to keep the playing field level in the new online portion of the World Tour, but given that online play is such a laggy and glitch-ridden affair, it doesn’t feel like sacrificing the stat-building was worthwhile.

Worse than the removal of player progression is the snail’s pace at which the entire career mode now moves.

Perhaps as a way to artificially extend the experience, Virtua Tennis 2009 has made one key change that has increased the tediousness in what used to be the series' best mode. Where past Virtua Tennis games rewarded tournament victories by moving the player up the global rankings a dozen or so spots at a time, each tournament win in Virtua Tennis 2009 now moves the player up no more than a single spot (or on rare occasion, two spots) in the world rankings.

Considering the fact that the career mode starts players out as the 100th ranked player on the challenger circuit, it seems like it would take close to 80 tournament victories (not just regular victories) against a bunch of no-skill, no-name opponents before players could even make it up to the pro circuit, where the tedious grind then repeats itself -- this time against a harder set of opponents.

I say "seems like," because for the time constraints of this review, I was only able to make it up to the low-70s in the challenger rankings, despite my unchallenged run of about 50 overall wins and two total losses.

Another weak point of the career mode is its structure. While outlandish mini-games used to provide a welcome break from all the tournament play in older Virtua Tennis games, that is not the case in Virtua Tennis 2009. That is because the rest and stamina system has changed within the career mode, which essentially means players will see less of the mini-games and more of the ridiculously easy tournaments.

As players complete tournaments and participate in training events, the game still drains stamina after each event. But what makes no sense is how taking a week off to "rest" no longer fills the stamina bar all the way back up -- instead it barely refills a third of the bar.

The new stamina system forces players to spend the majority of their "off weeks" resting at "home" rather than playing mini-games, which again, only adds to the grind of the tournament-heavy schedule against the same handful of unskilled fictional characters.


Having that much fun playing this game? I guess that's why they're called actors.
Source: v3d.ign.com

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to figure out what type of gamer Virtua Tennis 2009 is supposed to please.

Series veterans will likely despise the new control scheme and bemoan the fact that there is no way to play the game with classic controls. Those same die-hards will also hate the artificial lengthening of the career mode and the compromises that have been made to the standard player-progression system -- compromises that seemed to have been made to incorporate the game’s glitchy, laggy online mode.

Meanwhile, newcomers to the series will likely be unimpressed by Virtua Tennis 2009’s lackluster presentation, complete lack of immersion and tacked-on motion controls.

Ultimately, Virtua Tennis fans would be better off investigating (with caution) the Xbox 360 version of Virtua Tennis 2009, or maybe even just sticking with the tried-and-true Virtua Tennis 3.

Hardcore tennis fans, on the other hand, will continue to look down on the Virtua Tennis series as a simplified, arcade-like take on the sport that features little in the way of depth or actual tennis strategy.

So whom is Virtua Tennis 2009 made for? No one I can think of.

On the Court: The motion controls definitely hinder the game more than they help it, whether the MotionPlus adapter is being used or not. Aside from the Wii remote support, Virtua Tennis 2009 plays much like the series' debut did 10 years ago. Baseline play still dominates, shots going out of bounds or into the net are a rarity, rallies between skilled players go on forever, and any kind of real tennis strategy gets tossed aside in favor of hitting the ball from one side of the court to the other until someone is "out-angled." Essentially, the gameplay more closely resembles Pong than it does the actual sport of tennis.

Graphics: The look of the courts and characters are solid, but the system can’t seem to keep up with all the on-screen detail, which leads to prevalent frame-rate stuttering. Also keep in mind that "solid" for a Wii game means that the graphics still have trouble measuring up to the Dreamcast Virtua Tennis games that are eight and nine years old.

Sound/Presentation: The entire soundtrack is basically lifted from the past two Virtua Tennis games, which means that generic techno music fills the PA speakers, while a robotic-disembodied voice provides score updates, and a canned audience cheers away in the background.

Entertainment Value: Motion controls and Virtua Tennis go together about as well as Tim Henman and major championships (ironically, the Grand-Slam-less Henman is the game’s all-purpose training coach). As if the new controls schemes were not bad enough, developer Sumo Digital had to go and ruin the career mode, too.

Learning Curve: Unlike EA’s Grand Slam Tennis, Virtua Tennis 2009 is a Wii sports game that anyone can pick up and play. In fact, if there’s one thing to say in Virtua Tennis 2009’s favor, it’s that the game is as easy to pick up as it is to put down.

Online: The new online tournaments should have made a great addition to the Virtua Tennis series, but the presence of lag and slowdown renders it and the other online modes unplayable.


Score: 3.0 (Terrible)

Virtua Tennis 2009 Score
MotionPlus detection is accurate.
Mini-games, while scarce, remain fun.
Cheaper than most Wii games.
'Updated' career mode is tedious.
Online play ruined by lag.
You get what you pay for.
3
out of 10
Member Comments
# 1 SBartlett @ 06/22/09 05:11 PM
your a great writer man good piece
 
# 2 The_Balm @ 06/22/09 05:36 PM
neat.
 
# 3 TreyIM2 @ 06/22/09 06:11 PM
Well, the PS3 version ain't so hot, neither, but for different reasons. I shoulda took it back. Lol.
 
# 4 Tico Da Great @ 06/22/09 10:20 PM
i bought vt2009 twice i hated it i had it on the 360
the same game i liked 3 better any way
i exchanged mine for punch out and bought boxing gloves lol
grand slam rules
 
# 5 jyoung @ 06/22/09 10:43 PM
Yep, I actually went back and played through all three of the VT games recently (still got the Dreamcast hooked up!), and somehow, the older games are just more fun to play than this newest version.

VT 3 is definitely the series' champion to date.

If you want a tennis game on the Wii, Grand Slam Tennis (flaws and all) is definitely the way to go so long as you have some buddies to play with (locally or online).

And if you want a great tennis sim, check out Top Spin 3 for the PS3/360.
 
# 6 MMChrisS @ 06/22/09 11:17 PM
It's no small feat that a game gets our lowest score since we revised the scoring methods about 2 years ago when I came on board. I can remember us reviewing truly terrible games, but none dipped below a 4, so for one of our reviewers to think this game was worthy of a 3, that says something IMHO.

It's a shame too, because I remember the old VT games on the dreamcast (like wEEman33 above me) and those games were just plain fun to play. Maybe it's the simple fact SEGA tried to reach into the same old bag of tricks one too many times and the gig is up? Then again, I'd still play a quality tennis game around the VT theme. Maybe instead it just has to do with just plain ol' incompetence.
 
# 7 jyoung @ 06/22/09 11:36 PM
Yeah I don't think there's anything wrong with the classic VT formula (the old games definitely hold up well enough to support that thought), instead, it's the changes Sega's made in this version of VT (poorly implemented motion controls, horrible changes to the career mode, botched online mode, bad framerate) that really screw the game up and leave such a bitter taste behind after playing it.
 
# 8 Pappy Knuckles @ 06/23/09 03:15 AM
I only played the 360 version. If that game was any indication a 3 is a fair score.
 
# 9 goheat @ 06/23/09 06:59 AM
Quote: "Unlike EAs Grand Slam Tennis, players using the MotionPlus add-on with Virtua Tennis 2009 will seldom miss shots because of calibration or detection issues."

From my experience, Grand Slam Tennis' "issues" are pretty much solved through experience in learning how to properly use MotionPlus in the game. The biggest 'flaw' with GST is the lack of a detailed manual or an in-game tutorial on the required nuances of how to properly hold the Remote (the side of the remote is the face of the racket). However, by browsing OperationSports' and EA's Message Boards, I was able to find details on proper control and have been very successful in GST.
 
# 10 jwoodson15 @ 06/24/09 12:27 PM
My main gripe is the slow progression through Career Mode. Five tourny wins is worth more than a small jump from #100-#94. I have yet to lose in singles. Doubles I just hate. I find the game fun at times but it just doesnt showcase the Motion Plus.
 
# 11 jyoung @ 06/25/09 12:37 PM
Yep, after only a few tournaments of experience in the career mode it gets to the point where you rarely lose any points, much less an actual match.

And yet, for every dominating, unchallenged tournament win, you only move up a spot, or if you're lucky, two, in the stupid rankings.

That and the changes to the resting system pretty much kill the career mode for me.
 
# 12 Dellzip @ 09/08/09 09:30 AM
Quote:
Originally Posted by jwoodson15
My main gripe is the slow progression through Career Mode. Five tourny wins is worth more than a small jump from #100-#94. I have yet to lose in singles. Doubles I just hate. I find the game fun at times but it just doesnt showcase the Motion Plus.
always a good one!
 

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