Top Spin 2
When the original Top Spin hit the Xbox in 2003, it was an instant success. Playing like Virtua Tennis but with more depth and features, impressive graphics and online play to boot, the title picked up considerable praise indeed as the sales reflected. So three years on arrives the fully-fledged sequel on the Xbox 360. The new developer Indie Built understandably had very high expectations to meet. And did it meet those expectations? Well, mostly.
Perhaps the most celebrated feature of the original was the accessible, yet rewarding gameplay and thankfully, this has been retained. Players can either jump straight into a match via the exhibition mode, sampling any of the twenty-four pro's included, or can begin the season-spanning career mode. The second is the preferable option as not only does it ease you into the flow of things (acting somewhat as a tutorial to begin with), but also offers the most enjoyment. You start off with the now standard character creation, which sees a fair degree of variety, although having said this it is surprisingly challenging to sculpt someone who could pass for a human being, which can lead to comical outcomes. However it is here where the first problems can be found, the extensive and insistent loading times. Simply sampling a different racket or pair of shorts brings up a loading time of about a few seconds. Unfortunately this really disrupts proceedings and is inexcusable for a next-generation console.
Despite this, the career mode itself remains highly satisfying. The mode works on the actual tennis calendar, so it's Down Under in January for the Australian Open and Strawberries and Cream in the summer. However, starting off as a relative nobody in the competitive world of professional tennis, you can only dream of Centre Court for now. Instead you must fight your way through minor and regional competitions, with success in these improving your world ranking.
However, in order to be competitive at any stage of the game, you need to increase the abilities of your character. These are divided into three separate categories; attributes, techniques and skills. The physical side of the game such as stamina and speed is found in the attributes section, the essence of the game; ground-strokes and service is included in techniques whereas the skills sector deals with precision, power and spins. To see an increase in your performance on court, you need to earn stars through either the varied training modes or the matches themselves. Fortunately you can only enhance these abilities so far, which means instead of being able to create an all-conquering tennis behemoth, Indie Built never makes it too easy for the gamer, therefore retaining interest and increasing the longevity of the title.
As can be seen the career mode is huge, and provides the real bread and butter of the game. Added features such as receiving messages from coaches, being able to purchase new equipment and checking the current rankings all increase the sense of involvement, even if the career mode itself doesn't bring anything particularly fresh or innovative to the genre.
The most important aspect of any tennis game though, is of course the tennis. It is here where the game thoroughly sets itself up as the leader of the tennis niche. The controls feel intuitive and give a great deal of freedom over how you want to play the game. It's the sense of depth provided without ever feeling over-complicated that makes Top Spin 2 such as joy to play. Each button on the controller is assigned a specific shot, which makes sure that the gameplay is kept fresh. The A button performs a basic 'safe shot' which will not go out. However, herein lies the real beauty of the engine, using this shot alone will not prove sufficient against the better players, requiring you to use slice and top spin (X and B button respectively) in order to come out victorious. These more adventurous shots (including the lob; Y button) demand a delicate touch though, hold the button for too long and the ball will sail long, too short will see you hit the net or give your opponent an easy winner. This formula is highly rewarding and ensures that you keep on coming back for more.
Unfortunately, Top Spin 2 is not so impressive in the visuals department. The graphics are good, but not exactly truly next-generation. Player models have the same off-putting sheen found in many EA games, and lack the detail that would make them truly stand out. The likeness of the included professionals to their real-life counterparts can be fairly underwhelming. Despite this, the game does look sharp and the animations on court are particularly smooth and life-like. The in-game audio is also solid but not wholly memorable. The sound of the ball off the surface is as you would expect, and squeaky courts and very English sounding Umpires are as standard. However, perhaps something which a brave developer could introduce is commentary into a tennis game. Granted there is little scope for it during rallies due to the nature of the game but in between games it could really add some spice. Even if it did prove to be unsuccessful, there would always be the option to turn it off.
It does appear that Indie Built rushed the aesthetic side of the game somewhat as there are quite a few rough edges to be found. For instance why is it that the stadiums are never full? Although the crowd do look solid and are fully 3D, even in the Wimbledon final, Centre Court was less than half occupied. Also, when the ball goes out of play, instead of the ball boys collecting it, they simply run across the screen like headless chickens. The fact that replays have been removed from the game is simply bizarre, as it is incredibly frustrating that you cannot relive that great passing shot or deft drop shot. It is the blemishes like this that regrettably detract from the total immersion which the developer has strived for.
The outcome of all this is a highly entertaining and accessible game of tennis. A deep and involving single player mode is present, coupled with a fairly standard, no-frills online game (with very little lag to be found). Things are kept interesting with the variety of shots, each requiring to be mastered before you can truly compete with the pro's. While there is little new introduced to the series and the presentational side of the game feels a tad dated with hardly better than average graphics to show, the gameplay remains slick and highly pleasing. So it seems that for Top Spin 2 it is game, set, but not quite match.