Top Spin 4
When 2K Czech sat down to formulate the fourth iteration of the Top Spin series, where do you think they turned for inspiration?
The 2008 Wimbledon finals perhaps, where the battle between Federer and Nadal lifted the match into legendary status and proved, if proof was needed, that tennis is one of the most thrilling sports in the world? Or maybe even FIFA, a game which has transcended its meagre roots to become the very best game in its field and arguably the greatest virtual football game in history?
Well, no. 2K Czech are actually looking to Street Fighter for inspiration. But don't start worrying yet. You won't see Boris Becker dragon-punching Andy Murray in Top Spin 4. At least not as far as we know.
Instead, it's the balance of depth and accessibility exemplified by the fighting game genre that Top Spin 4 is looking to imitate.
The theory goes like this: Tennis titles are traditionally associated with casual gaming. They are games you pick up for 30 mins, have a bit of fun, then move on to something else. 2K Czech want to change all that, but are mindful of Top Spin 3's pitfalls in going to far the other way.
The aim is for Top Spin 4 to offer a 30-40 hour experience, one where the game's layers, intricacies and tactical options reveal themselves on the way to expert proficiency. Easy to learn, hard to master. Its a simple phrase, but one that is notoriously difficult to pull off.
To achieve this goal, Top Spin 4 has been kitted out with a number of toggle-able assists. Shot timing, bounce indicators and a variety of different, optionally simplified button-presses are now on hand to make things a little easier to newcomers. The result is less Super Street Fighter IV and more Forza III, with multiple UI indicators pointing you in the right direction. The most apparent of these are the timing signifiers. Should the option be enabled, each shot is accompanied by "Too late," "Too early," "Good" or "Perfect" icon above the player's head, highlighting the relatively success of the timing. It can be the difference between a rasping forehand drive and a lame, limp-wristed flop over the line.
Bounce indicators also help in getting your timing just right, popping up on screen with a little X, giving you a head start on where the ball will land. Theres an optional fatigue gauge too. But thats just the very basics. Once you've got the hang of the timings, you can improve your shots considerably by pressing a face button (A for a flat shot, X or B for slice or top spin and Y for a lob) and keeping your thumb on it until precisely the right moment to unleash your swing.
Making this transition brings the timing indicators back in to play again. Thanks to the varying speeds and trajectories of the ball, it's difficult to find the correct rhythm, and all-too easy to knock the ball beyond the tramlines. You need a little help. But when you get it right, it's immensely satisfying. Movement around the court is vastly improved too, with the awkward approach of Top Spin 3 abandoned in favour of a far more intuitive, straight-forward approach to running and aiming. It feels far more natural than it's predecessor.
But, if you're still struggling to get to grips everything you can always spend some time in the Top Spin Academy, the games tutorial mode. Here youll be offered lessons in basic positioning and aiming, as well as more advanced techniques. Which is all great, but it's the character building career mode that 2K Czech are hoping players will invest most of their time into. As such, theyve introduced a few new elements to streamline your path from the lower reaches of the rankings to Grand Slam champion.
This time your character levels up in a broadly RPG fashion, earning XP across both online and offline matches. This allows you to spend points on your attributes. However, your choice of play style will affect exactly where you can spend them. Play styles come in four different, self-explanatory flavours. Theres the serve and volley-ers, the offensive baseline players, the defensive baseline players and all-rounders. Once picked at the start of your career, your play style will put XP caps in certain areas of your development.
So baseline players will never be able to earn a massively good volley, while serve and volley specialists won't be as quick around the court. All-rounders, meanwhile, are the jack of all trades and masters of none, with decent, if unremarkable stats throughout. Of course, if that all sounds a bit stressful for you, you can spend XP to reset your play style, pop the settings on auto-attribute and let the console do everything for you, leaving you to concentrate on the real business of navigating the handsomely-modelled characters around the court.
Which just leaves one more highlighted addition to the career mode: the coaches. As your career progresses, you'll be offered the chance to work with a number of managers, all with different specialities. These specialities fall in line with your play style, with each manager being particularly skilled in one of the four areas. Team up with them and youll be set challenges, such as achieving 20 aces or 50 volley winners. Do that and you'll have a nice package of bonus XP to spread around. Its a decent system.
So perhaps 2K Czech's fighting genre inspirations arent as bizarre as they first seem. Top Spin 3 frustrated and rewarded in equal measure, while many tennis games are typically slight. Top Spin 4 looks to offer the best of both worlds. Let's just hope it doesn't spread itself too thin.