On the surface of it, tennis seems like a sport that should have died out long ago; a person on either side of a low-strung net trying to hit the ball past one another hardly sounds all that entertaining. And yet, it is. From Pong to Virtua Tennis to real tennis, the act of hitting a ball back and forth is fun, addictive and unfathomably satisfying.
In contrast to the cheating A.I, rubber-band hit detection and mystifying physics that inhabit the world of Virtua Tennis, Top Spin has always aimed to simulate the sport as opposed to merely replicate its most basic elements. The problem with Top Spin has never rested with its ability to accurately depict the world of forehands, backhands and smashes, the problem with Top Spin has been its lack of accessibility – only the most dedicated tennis fans ever bothering to master its wealth of poorly communicated gameplay techniques and subtleties.
Finally, that has all changed. Top Spin 4 manages to combine greater accessibility with the series’ trademark realism while not compromising its depth and complexity. The result is sensational, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that Top Spin 4 is the finest tennis game I’ve ever played, showing that ‘virtual’ tennis can be done intelligently and realistically whilst also being approachable.
Top Spin 4’s method of adding accessibility is two-pronged; improved tutorials and a scaled-back control scheme. Upon loading up the game for the first time you’re invited to participate in the ‘Top Spin Academy’, a series of lessons that provide you with the basic knowledge required to tackle the game proper. Even if you’re a tennis game veteran I recommend that you take the game up on its invite and enter the academy because, on the regular difficulty level, this is not an easy game and ignoring its offer of assistance is not a wise move (something I learnt the hard way).
Thanks to the simplified control scheme, the bulk of the academy is spent teaching you about timing, positioning and shot selection as opposed to how to input commands. As a result the initial lessons will seem somewhat patronising to anyone with the slightest of tennis knowledge (i.e. lessons teaching you how important it is to stay in the middle of the court) but, after the near complete lack of any assistance in Top Spin 3, I’m hardly complaining.
Once the academy has been bested it’s time to take on Nadal, Federer and company. One of the great things about this game is that it manages to make each of its roster feel and play like their real-life counterparts. This is true both when you’re playing with and against them. For example, play against Nadal and you can expect him to sit back, fire balls across the entire width of the court and force you to run around like a mad-man in a vain attempt to return them. Likewise, play as Nadal, and your best chance of success is to play those same tactics you’ve just been exposed to.
What’s great about this is that (in contrast to the likes of Virtua Tennis) each player feels unique and you quickly come to a decision as to who your favourites are based on your preferred playing style; if you want speed and power from the baseline go for Nadal, if you want to serve big and end points quickly go for Roddick, if you want to try and bamboozle your opponent by utilising every trick in the book go for Federer.
However, these superstars of the modern game are not merely machines that repeat the same shots and strategies over and again. A big dollop of realism is added by the fact that they actually make mistakes. Opponents will miss serves, hit the ball long and/or wide, they’ll fumble drop shots and occasionally even miss simple smashes. Of course, the better the player is in a certain area decreases the chances of them fluffing it in these moments but, mistakes happen just enough to prevent matches feeling too robotic.
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The crowd get involved too, the polite silence that accompanies the serve disintegrating into excited murmurings and mutterings as points becomes rallies and rallies become marathons ending with excited cheers and applause for skilfully executed winners or with disappointed ‘ohhs’ and ‘ahhs’ for unforced errors. Despite knowing that the crowd noise is merely an audio cue programmed to initiate once a rally breaches a certain length of time or number of shots, it add an enormous amount of tension to proceedings and makes every point feel special.
 It’s these kinds of little touches that give the game a special kind of flair in the matches themselves – the team at 2K Czech have really gone out of their way to provide a sense of drama and intensity. Top Spin 4 really does seem like a game that has been made by tennis lovers, for tennis lovers.
While the single player is suitably dramatic, everything goes up a notch when playing in multiplayer. If you can find an opponent of a roughly equal skill level, matches can be nail-biting to the extent that you’d have chewed through your entire finger if it wasn’t for the fact that you have to hold a controller. Presumably because of the demographic attracted to something that positions itself as a ‘tennis simulator’, the challengers I’ve met thus far online have proved to be stiff opposition. As such I’d recommend some serious practise prior to testing your skills against the online community.
Despite the level of challenge to be found over the airwaves, the real joy of Top Spin 4’s multiplayer is found by playing against others in the same room – providing excellent opportunity for some creative trash-talking and general mocking of one another. Get four people together for some doubles and things can get really nasty.
Outside of the matches themselves the game loses that sense of flair and excitement. The roster is passable but excludes a number of big names; the likes of Juan Martin Del Potro, Robin Soderling, Venus Williams and David Ferrer all missing the cut. A generous helping of ‘legends’ (Sampras, Agassi, Rafter etc) go some way to filling the gaps but this doesn’t satisfy in the same way a full selection of current tour players would. There’s also no official Wimbledon license… so, anyone expecting to re-live the marathon Roddick vs. Federer final of last year will have to rethink their expectations. 
The career mode could also do with a little jazzing up as it doesn’t offer much beyond participating in tournaments, practise matches and hiring coaches. However, it’s difficult to work out exactly how any ‘jazzing’ would work because, after all, this is a tennis sim as opposed to ‘merely’ a tennis game.
Still, these issues are quickly and easily forgotten as soon as you step out onto that court.
2K has managed to fill Top Spin 4 with as much excitement, enjoyment and energy as we’ve come to expect from the sports genre’s elite – rivalling anything offered by FIFA, Madden or NBA 2K. Attempting to hit a ball over a net and past an opponent has never been so much fun and never felt so satisfying.
Version tested: Xbox 360

Paul Younger
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.

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