- Review Price: £36.95
”’Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PSP, PC – PS3 and Xbox 360 versions reviewed.”’
The problem with the vast majority of PlayStation 3 launch titles is that they’ve been around for a while on other platforms. But Sega decided to coincide two of its major releases with the UK PS3 launch – one was Virtua Fighter 5 which we reviewed last week and the other is Virtua Tennis 3, which I’m looking at right now.
I’ve always been a fan of the Virtua Tennis series. Something about the simplicity of the gameplay makes it compelling and addictive. OK, so it may lack some of the depth of other sports games like Pro Evo, but not everyone wants to spend hours, days, weeks or even months learning every move and technique to get the best out of a game. Virtua Tennis 3 is one of those games that you fire up for a quick ten minute blast, then realise that you’ve been playing for three hours!
In fact, there is irrefutable proof that Virtua Tennis 3 is the best PlayStation 3 launch title – it gave me a blister on my thumb! There is no stronger testament to a game’s addictive quality than when it causes you physical pain, but you still can’t stop playing. All the hardcore gamers out there will know exactly what I mean, it’s that feeling you get when the pleasure of playing the game outweighs the pain of playing the game. Call it masochistic if you will, but I’m still willing rub my thumb raw, just to play a few more months of my World Tour career mode!
But Virtua Tennis 3 has a lot more to offer than sore thumbs. Unsurprisingly it looks superb – yes some of the character models don’t look as much like the real people as I’d like, but they’re close enough to draw you into the game. The courts are beautifully drawn, especially the London grass courts, while the character animation during play is second to none.
It’s fair to say that Virtua Tennis 3 is one of those games that really does show the benefit of high definition gaming. Hook your PS3 or X360 up to a good HDTV and you will blow your mates away when they walk in and see it running. The detail on the courts is superb, while the lighting effects are subtle but undeniably effective. In fact Sega has done everything possible to bring Virtua Tennis into the high definition era.
Sound is also first rate with thumping racket effects and believable grunts and moans as each competitor plays their strokes. If there’s one weak point to the presentation it’s the god awful music that accompanies each match, but thankfully you can switch that off in the options menu.
Sega has done a good job in the licensing department, with pretty much everyone who’s anyone on the circuit represented. Brits will probably wonder why Andy Murray is missing, but I’m not particularly bothered about not being able to select a player who’s attributes are whinging and a lack of stamina. As well as all the licensed pros, you can create your own character, making him or her look exactly as you’d like them to.
Each of the resident pros seems to possess the correct attributes – Andy Roddick really does have a cannonball serve, Roger Federer really can take you apart with a superhuman array of shots and Tim Henman really does choke and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in big matches! Obviously the level of your computer controlled opponents depends on the difficulty level that you’ve set in the options menu, although the progressive difficulty in the World Tour mode is spot on and really does drive you to train harder and improve every aspect of your game.
Your arsenal of shots is taken care of by three buttons – there’s the topspin shot, the slice and the lob. It is possible to play using just the topspin shot and do very well, but if you really want to progress in the World Tour, you’re going to need to develop and perfect your whole repertoire.
One of the beautiful things about Virtua Tennis 3 is that it’s easy to dip in and out – it’s not a game where you have to dedicate at least a couple of hours at a time to get anything out of it. If you want to have a quick bash around you can simply fire up an exhibition match, or if you have a bit more time you can have a go at a tournament. But the real single player challenge is the World Tour.
When you start the World Tour you’re ranked 300 in the world and you’ve got to fight your way up the rankings by entering tournaments and hopefully winning. At first you can only enter a limited number of tournaments because of your lowly ranking. A little practice will have you winning these early tournaments, even though you’re still competing against top players – it seems that they just don’t take the low ranking tournaments seriously and never give their best. Your first goal is to break into the top 200, or the top 204 to be precise – then you can enter a whole host of new tournaments for players ranked 204 and below.
The World Tour is dictated by a calendar that’s split into weekly chunks – whatever you choose to do, it takes a minimum of a week. There aren’t tournaments every week of the year though, so you need to spend that time training. Training in Virtua Tennis is far more entertaining than the kind of gruelling physical programmes that real athletes have to endure, that’s for sure. In the Virtua world, training consists of playing various mini-games that improve specific areas of your game. Knock down skittles on the other side of the court to improve your serve, lob balls onto a target painted onto the court floor to improve your volleying, avoid giant tennis balls as they tumble towards you to improve your footwork – the list goes on…
The great thing about the training in VT3 is that it’s not just some dull means to an end to improve your technique and get you through the next tournament, the training mini-games are almost all great fun to play in themselves. Whereas other titles include mini-games as an aside to the main event, in Virtua Tennis 3 the mini-games are integral to the primary gameplay, which somehow makes them all the more enjoyable. Obviously you can play the mini-games separately without having to embark on the World Tour, which just gives VT3 another string to its bow.
You need to plan your diary carefully and make sure that you don’t burn yourself out. If you train too hard and enter too many tournaments without taking a rest you can end up injured. There are three ways to regain your stamina. A three week holiday will leave you completely refreshed and rejuvenated, but it also means that you miss a lot of training and potentially a tournament or two. A week resting at home will recharge your batteries, but still interrupt your busy schedule, while an energy drink will bump your stamina up to top, but can result in you pushing your body too hard. I can testify to the latter where I opted for an energy drink instead of resting just so I wouldn’t miss an important tournament – I won the tournament but ended up dislocating my shoulder and being out of action for eight weeks!
As you start to win matches and tournaments, you’ll also receive new equipment. Some of it is purely aesthetic, but some equipment, most notably your racquet, has a direct effect on your performance. You can nip home at any time from the map screen and change your outfit – you can also switch between your array of racquets, since some are better for power, others are better for control etc. If you’re serious about climbing the rankings you’ll probably try to match your equipment to the type of surface you’re playing on, although how much real difference that will make to your game is debatable.
Sega should be congratulated on successfully scaling the difficulty level in World Tour mode. It really does reward you and challenge you in equal measures as you start to master your game. Once you’ve found yourself waltzing through entry level tournaments, you’ll break into the sub-204 ranking competitions and realise that you’re not quite as good as you thought you were. Then, just when you start winning a few trophies there and your ranking climbs to sub-100 level, you’ll end up getting blown off the court in round one of your first sub-100 tournament!
But the beauty of the progressive difficulty is that VT3 never becomes frustrating. When Tim Henman (Oh the shame!) wipes the floor with you in the first round, it just makes you want to train harder, get better and win that next trophy. And you know what? That’s exactly what happens! VT3 wants you to learn and improve, it wants you to get the timing of your shot closer and closer to perfection, in fact it wants you to achieve that World number one ranking.
There are a few oddities thrown into the mix though. Occasionally a random player will approach you for a chat – sometimes they’ll tell you that you played well, other times that they’ll beat you next game and sometimes they’ll just come out with truly random observations. I’m not sure what Sega thought this would add to the game, and I’m also not sure how I’d feel if I was one of the licensed pros, seeing myself wander up to screen and make some random, throwaway comment. At least it doesn’t detract from the gameplay – you’re more likely to just sit there with a puzzled expression on your face, I know I did.
You also get to mix things up a bit by entering doubles tournaments as well. After you’ve chosen a partner from the list of Tour pros, you get to enjoy the delights of a fast and furious array of rallies. In fact, doubles play can be a real adventure when you’re playing with real people – just make sure your friendships are strong, because tempers can fray when your partner keeps missing those simple returns! And here lies the true longevity of a game like VT3 – the World Tour mode is great and will keep you going for a good while, but it’s the multiplayer angle that will keep you coming back time and time again.
I can still remember playing Virtua Tennis with my mates on the Dreamcast. Even though the single player game was woefully basic, VT remained a firm favourite whenever anyone came over. There’s something just so satisfying about trouncing a real person rather than a computer opponent, especially since real players have a habit of being far more unpredictable than even the best AI. Multiplayer on VT3 is an even more satisfying experience – because the game looks so stunning, it draws you and your opponent into the proceedings, while the wireless controllers are a definite bonus over the trailing cables that were part and parcel with earlier VT games.
It’s also in this area where the Xbox 360 version of VT3 leaves the PlayStation 3 version for dust. In many respects the two versions are almost indistinguishably similar – graphically they’re both superb, sonically they’re nigh on identical and gameplay wise there’s not much between them. Strangely, the X360 version just seems to play faster than the PS3 release, plus there seems to be more delay from your player when he’s gone to ground on the 360 than on the PS3. But none of those little quirks add or subtract too much from what is a superbly entertaining game. What does separate the two versions by a country mile though, is online play. You see the online play on the Xbox 360 version is fantastic, while the online play on the PlayStation 3 version doesn’t actually exist!
I’m not sure why Sega chose not to include online play on the PS3, but I’m sure there were reasons. Perhaps Sony hadn’t finalised the online service for PS3 at the key point in development, or perhaps Microsoft wanted a key differentiating feature for the Xbox 360 version, but the upshot is that the score at the top of this page relates to the X360 version of the game. If you’re in the market for the PS3 version, you’re going to want to drop a point off that score – it’s definitely still worth getting though.
Playing VT3 over Xbox Live is a thankfully simple process, and you should find yourself on court with total strangers or friends in a matter of minutes. The first thing you’ll notice when playing online is that the speed of the gameplay is considerably slower than in single player or local multiplayer. This isn’t a mistake on Sega’s part, more that the developer has clearly decided that slower gameplay over the Internet is better than laggy and jerky gameplay, and I have to agree with that sentiment. You soon get used to the slightly slower pace and the fact that there never seems to be any network lag makes the whole experience far more immersive and enjoyable.
Sega has produced the best game available for the PlayStation 3, even taking the lack of online play into account. But the Xbox 360 version is one of the most enjoyable games I have ever played, full stop. I’m sure that there are people out there who will cite the simplicity of the gameplay as a criticism, but I see that as one of VT3’s best attributes. Yes it’s simple to pick up the controller and win a few matches, but if you want to be really good, it takes a lot of practice and expert timing – just like playing tennis in fact.
This review has taken me a lot longer than I would have liked, mainly because I wanted to spend a decent amount of time with both the PS3 and X360 versions of the game. Both myself and Andy have spent many, many hours playing VT3 and almost as long again debating what score VT3 deserved. We were both convinced that a minimum of 9/10 was on the cards, but deep down we both felt that we were looking at the first 10/10 game to ever grace the pages of TR. Ultimately the sheer addictive quality, superb presentation, well implemented career mode and killer multiplayer convinced us that VT3 deserved the very first Editor’s Choice award in the Gaming section!
Arguing about whether a game deserves a nine or ten is a one of life’s more pleasant tasks. Whichever way one goes, it remains that Virtua Tennis 3 is a stunningly well designed sports game. From the finely balanced learning curve, the perfectly realised skills system and the tension filled action – everything about it feels as it should be.
That isn’t to say the game doesn’t have its quirks, the random ‘conversations’ with pro players are an oddity while the music is a typical case of Japanese tastes being lost in translation. But most complaints one can make about the game are trivial in their nature, and do little to dampen enthusiasm for a game that will have you locked away for many an hour.
Online play and party games only add to the value, and it’s always been a series born for truly excellent multiplayer experiences. This, and a superb single player experience, make Virtua Tennis 3 a must own game, and one of the best games I’ve played so far this year.
|Online Multiplayer||With Online Multiplayer|