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Virtua Tennis 2009 [360]

Virtua Tennis is one of Those games, capitalisation intentional and spellcheck be damned. It fits in alongside the earlier Pro Evolution Soccer games, the Smash Bros series, Boom Blox, and every other series which is simple enough that anyone can pick up and play it and have a good time doing so, but which contains a deceptive amount of depth. Back in my misspent youth, my friends and I spent a staggering amount of time with Virtua Tennis 2. Whether it was a doubles match against the computer, single matches against each other, or a full-on 2v2 doubles tournament, Virtua Tennis was constantly on the screen. Virtua Tennis 2009 has one hell of a lineage to live up to.

The good news is that it’s Virtua Tennis. 2009 is still extremely simple to pick up and play, with the analogue stick and three face buttons (for top spin, slice, and lob) comprising pretty much the entirety of the necessary controls. Everything else is done via timing and positioning.

When matches are good, they’re really, really good. Playing Virtua Tennis against an opponent of equal level, whether computer or human, is a weirdly tactical experience. On losing a point, you rewind the last few strokes of the rally in your head and realise that if you’d been slightly nearer the centre three shots back you would’ve been in a better position to return that slice, which would then have forced your opponent to stumble in order to return it back, which would’ve let you smash it to the other side, and…

Equally, winning even a single point against a skilled opponent feels like an incredible victory. When rallies go on for a silly length of time and you’re desperately looking for a way to break through a seemingly impenetrable defence in doubles, and then finally spot your opportunity and it works, there’s a euphoria like nothing else. Even if they then end up hammering you without you ever scoring another point. Ahem.

The bad news is that it’s Virtua Tennis. If you’re playing the single player’s World Tour mode, good luck getting to a skilled opponent, because it’s likely going to take a good six hours. You start at rank 100 in the Amateur league, with most tournaments sealed off as they’re too high-level for you. Victory in these early tournaments – two or three matches, generally – can be happily done while eating, or holding a conversation on the phone, or watching a film. Your reward? A bit of cash to spend in the in-game store, and an advancement of one or two places, which seems a bit off considering that you just hammered the number 10 ranked amateur without losing a single point. There’s no option to skip the amateur league or even start at a higher rank so that you can jump into harder matches, so you’re going to be sat there winning points with ease for a very long time – torture, if you’re a veteran of the series.

The World Tour progression is broken up with the usual assortment of minigames to build up your skill within the game, as well as a training facility with Tim Henman asking you to perform various feats to increase your stats further. There are some decent new minigames in this iteration, with Block Buster asking you to create and clear combinations of blocks by knocking out certain types, and Pot Shot basically asking you to play pool with the tennis ball as the white. The new games fit in well and are a decent and entertaining diversion to what remains a flawed career mode.{PAGE TITLE=Virtua Tennis 2009 [360] Continued}In a nice touch, the game doesn’t look half bad on a standard TV. The text is big, the colours are bright and vibrant, and the animation is pretty slick. The character models, though, are deep in uncanny valley. While the licensed pros look okay, almost anything you create with the (admittedly simple and intuitive) character editor come out looking like zombies. It’s not as huge a problem as it might be considering that you’re generally staring at the back of their head or looking at them from a pseudo-top down view for the majority of the game, but the complete lack of facial animation is either off-putting or hilarious depending on your sense of humour. Personally, I was amused when my grumpy, bearded tennis star glared around the court as he held aloft yet another trophy – although considering that was his fourteenth tournament in which he hardly lost a point to players vastly higher ranked, and yet he was still only rank 80 in the amateur leagues, I have to say I could understand his feelings. On the topic of presentation, the sounds are all present and correct, with plenty of over-the-top grunts and shouts. I haven’t heard grunts this extraordinary since trying to open walls in Doom.

So what additions are there? Well, you’ve got some new court games, as well as a few returning ones. You’ve got a few new tennis players, including Andy Murray and Ana Ivanovi?. You’ve got the Davis Cup. There are online rankings and tournaments, which are new for the PS3, at least, and online play seems fairly lagless, so you’re never short of human opposition. There’s a new over-the-shoulder camera angle which, while certainly making matches feel more intense, makes it a bit harder to see how close the ball is. Other than that, it really is business as usual.

All told it’s a bit disappointing. There’s no doubting that it’s a solid game, but there are too many problems that have persisted for too long, not least in terms of the World Tour’s progression. It’s still Virtua Tennis, which means that the gameplay itself is still exhilarating and brilliant and what problems exist are largely niggles – you can pretty much ignore World Tour entirely and just play matches of your choosing, if you so desire – but that doesn’t excuse the fact that this is Virtua Tennis 3.5 rather than a real upgrade. Virtua Tennis 3 didn’t do much new but was worthwhile for the convenience of playing it on a current console and all that came with it, like the graphics and framerate. It’s much, much harder to give Virtua Tennis 2009 that same benefit of the doubt.

If you own VT3, then unless you’re desperate for the enhanced online play, this really isn’t worth it. If you’ve never played a Virtua Tennis game before, though, then it’d be a disservice to ignore this. It’s still the same solid game, after all, just with the same solid problems. Which is a problem in itself.

Personally, I’d be just as happy sat on my couch with three friends, a Dreamcast pad in hand, and Virtua Tennis 2 on the set.

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