Although I don't play tennis, it has always appeared to be one of those games which is easy games to play horribly and horrendously difficult to play well. If you can't manage to hit the ball in tennis, it's not like golf where you have to keep trying, you'll just lose the point. It might not be much fun that way, but you can definitely complete a match.
Of course, in the videogame world, things are far more simple than that. Anyone can hit a golf ball in Tiger Woods, and anyone can hit a tennis ball in Virtua Tennis 4. That's probably a pretty good thing, because no one would want to play if a sports title was remotely as difficult in the videogame world as it is in the real world.
To get this next bit out of the way upfront, while there is network play available in Virtua Tennis 4, it is not going to be covered in this review. As the world knows, the PlayStation Network is not currently working and therefore that portion of the game is not currently available (although presumably when the PSN comes back, the online multiplayer will become available).
Multiplayer is just a small portion of the game though, the real meat and potatoes of it all is within the World Tour, where you are tasked with creating a player and bringing him or her up through the tennis ranks. World Tour has been revamped for this new version of Virtua Tennis and features you traversing four different areas of the world one at a time as you prepare for the Grand Slam event in that area… not that they're called Grand Slams tournaments, while the title has some licensed players, it does not have those four tournaments (but there are tournaments in those locations).
On your way to the tournaments your goal is build up your star rating, which is essentially your world ranking, and to improve your skills. This is done through a series of ridiculous (and often fun) minigames. You'll be doing things like hitting a bomb back and forth with a competitor until the timer runs to zero and one of you ends up getting caught in the blast, breaking clay pigeons, trying to make good poker hands by hitting bad cards, and bringing baby chicks to their mommies.
In other words, the minigames have absolutely nothing to do with real tennis. There are some moments on your trip to the major events that are real tennis related, including minor tournaments and practice rounds, but while most of the minigames have you on some sort of tennis court and with a racquet, they're not traditional tennis.
It is all perfectly fun (if only sort of tennis related), but the way you get to these events isn't nearly as enjoyable. The map is organized with a trail on it, one which takes you from event to event, but you only get to move on the map with "tickets" which number one through four and thereby denote how many spaces each one will take you. If you play too many events (minigames) at the spots you land on, you'll become rundown and potentially injured, but you may not have any choice about what you do due to the ticket availability (you must participate on the event on any space on which you land). There are special spots where you can purchase more tickets (one each time), but this all makes too much of the focus of a tennis game non-tennis related things. Imagine if you could only play tournaments in Tiger Woods by landing on the right square or could only play a baseball game in MLB 2K11 the same way. You don't need to land a ticket for the exact right number of spaces to play in a major, but for other tournaments you do and that's hugely frustrating for anyone who wants to build their tennis player by playing tennis.
Once you do get to play tennis, the actual mechanics of it are good, if a little dumbed-down. There are several basic types of shots you're allowed to hit (lob, top spin, regular), but anything more specific is game controlled depending on your position on the court. It makes you look like a much better player than you might be at first, but as you progress, you'll find that it really hampers you in trying to accomplish what it is that you want to accomplish on the court.
There is no claim that this is an EA Sports-esque title, one that would do its best to imitate the actual real-world sport, but Virtua Tennis 4's desire to do so sometimes and even then in only halfway fashion makes it something of a disappointment – if you're not able to/don't wish to license all four Grand Slam tournaments in tennis, don't build a game mode which revolves around you going to knockoff versions of those tournaments, particularly when the path to get there involves things like having to serve soccer balls into goals on a tennis court while being blocked by plastic defenders.
Honestly, when the game embraces this sort of minigame goofiness it can be a whole lot of fun. However, I can think of several other ways to make the minigames a part of the title without diminishing the actual quantity of tennis played.
There are other modes available as well l (like the aforementioned not reviewed online section) allowing for one off matches and small tournaments, and you can play as a licensed player in them as well. But, if you're offline and one player, you won't be spending that much time there because it doesn't allow for the same depth of play.
Graphically speaking, the game isn't quite realistic in its animation style, but it does look good. The cutscenes upon winning points or matches become repetitive all too quickly though, and they don't match up with what's just taken place on court (if you're at the net for a point and you win it, in the cutscene you may find yourself running in from the baseline). Sweat does pour down your skin as well as the match progresses. Characters don't necessarily look true to life, but they do make for pretty good facsimiles.
We have not tested the Move or 3D capabilities of the final version of the game, but we did get to experience them at Sega's Spring Showcase back in February. Our assessment at the time was that while the Move was fun, it didn't provide quite as much control as the traditional method of play. The 3D at that point too looked good.
Let the Virtua part of the Virtua Tennis 4 title be your guide here – it's virtually tennis, not an all out pure sim. It is fun, but don't expect it to be more than what it is.
Virtua Tennis 4 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief. This game can also be found on: Wii and Xbox 360.
Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Virtua Tennis 4 on Blogcritics.