Smash Court Tennis 3
There is something quintessential about being English and loving sports games. It's simple really. The English love sport. But loving sport brings its own terrible perils. Because along with being in love with sport we also produce either our fair share of mediocre sportsmen, or those who have all the potential God could muster but crash and graze at the last hurdle.
Hence our devotion to sports-based videogames where we can play out our fantasies: England winning the World Cup in football, or the Ashes in Cricket, or... Henman winning Wimbledon. Perhaps not Henman, but he at least provokes some interest in a sport forgotten for 48 weeks a year. So, when a tennis game has to contend with Pro Evo and Brian Lara it has to be good. And it has been the completely playable nature of tennis videogames that has seen them good enough to warrant sequel after sequel - Virtua Tennis is the most famous, but lest we forget the Top Spin franchise.
This, the third in the series (there was an Anna Kournikova 'tie-in' in there as well), abandons the familiar cutesy-far-Eastern-drenched yellow ball affair. It has grown old the wake of Virtua Tennis' deserved success as market leader; Smash is playing catch up. And it shows. This game is nowhere near as playable or immediately accessible as Virtua and suffers as a consequence. However, it could be argued that the major influence here has come from Top Spin. Instead of being easy to get hold of, Smash forces you to persevere, nudging you onto the slipperiest of learning curves.
The PSP is designed for quick thrills, A 100-metre sprint rather than a marathon, yet Smash Court Tennis is made from different material. I wouldn't bother saying this if, eventually, Smash Court failed to deliver. It's worth stating that this is a deep game, the problem being that you're forced to do some proper swimming and hold a deep breath. The Pro Tour, that requires a newly created character to start from the bottom and work his/her way up, is the cream of the game. It forces you to play with an unskilled player, and it's a chore. But as you train, as you play and learn the physics the sense of consequences for your actions becomes a genuine reality. Where as in Virtua you're never really fully in control of what's happening (opponents become more skilled depending on when you face them in a tournament, rather than the actual skill of the player). Smash isn't like this. The quality of the opponent doesn't alter if you face him/her in the final or in the first round; the better players are more likely to reach the final. It's a realistic system that works incredibly well.
Equally authentic is the way the game plays. Your world rank (when playing though the Pro Tour) reflects the ability of your character. There's only so far you can ascend the ladder when you're skills as a climber are limited. As you play (and win) you're allocated points that can then be used to improve you're player. Again, it's superbly executed and realistically reflects a player's progress.
The control system is perfectly suited also. Flicks of the stick will send the ball into the desired area of the court, skill and luck permitting, and require a deft touch to master. The serving system is a delight once understood as you're forced to consider the timing of the serve and the area of the box you're aiming at. What you've got at the end is a genuine service. If you time it right, and aim correctly, even the best player will be unable to return your serve. It's frustrating for those you're playing with, but riddled with reality. More over, it is further testament to the detail that the coders have put into Smash. It's a revelation, in fact - I can't remember enjoying the PSP so much (having been mostly under whelmed by efforts to this point).
Smash Court Tennis is a brilliant game. Unfortunately it may suffer from two serious setbacks. Reviewers might not get it - it's simple to make the assumption after thirty minutes play that it simply isn't as good as Virtua Tennis, this gets stuck fast, said reviewer enjoys the whole experience less and this reflects in review. Good writers will see past this beginning, however.
Gaming punters are also a stubborn lot. Having pledged their allegiance to Virtua Tennis it would take a shift in the Earth's crust to get them playing, and enjoying, Smash Tennis. However, despite this, it remains the most accomplished tennis simulation I've ever played, and I really liked VT. That says it all, really.