Tennis, anyone? About three years ago, 2K Sports asked that very same question when they came up with their own answer to Sega’s Virtua Tennis called Top Spin. The game was a success, bringing together the fun elements of the graceful sport packaged with the big names of the pro tennis tour. Now, the sequel looks to continue this quality trend in the simply titled Top Spin 2. Seriously, the game does not seem to have changed all that much from its previous incarnation except a brutal career mode. So, if you enjoyed the previous title, odds are you will end up appreciating the sequel as well.
For fans of hitting a fuzzy, yellow ball back and forth over a net, Top Spin 2 truly captures the realistic and frenetic athleticism of the game of tennis. Gameplay has, for the most part, remained similar to the first game, with just a few tweaks. The serve is a simple metered affair where sharp timing makes for more powerful shots. The ‘A’ button gives you the standard volley shot with little risk. The risk shots are still tough, though the meters that accompanied them in the first game that required excruciating timing are now missing. The actual work of volleying back and forth is easy enough to jump into, but even on the ‘Easy’ setting, the action does require some practice as getting overzealous with a European grip forehand can get you into a hole fairly quick. To add another layer of challenge, the computer-controlled players seem more robust in their abilities this time around as volleys can be lengthy affairs requiring quite a bit of patience and some quick strategizing during each shot.
The sharper skills of the CPU show up most clearly in career mode. On the surface, the mode seemingly features all of the typical options. Player creation is incredibly detailed, there are sponsors and different coaches who can help develop specific skills and a large variety of tournaments and events to enter sprawling all across the globe. The major obstacle to competing in career mode is the need to upgrade your customized player in a very RPG-like fashion. To tourneys, you need to improve your skills. To improve your skills you need to pay for practice sessions. To make enough money to pay for practice sessions, you have to win tourneys. It’s a vicious cycle, and it would not be so awful if practice sessions were not silly mini-games with an almost Super Monkey Ball aesthetic. An early practice session in the career mode is to return a machine-fired ball at massive bowling balls to knock down a number of pins in a set amount of time. After these practice sessions, you get to raise a few points in skill categories like speed and power only to find out you may still be short some key elements to win the next event on the schedule.
Despite the tough nature of the career mode, the game does have an alternative set of decent features including exhibition and tournament modes that give you plenty to do. There are plenty of ready-made Tennis stars like the wildly popular Maria Sharapova (or, for the ladies, Andy Roddick) to live out your favorite U.S. Open fantasies… of the G-Rated kind, of course. Their skill sets are clearly spelled out in the player menu, and it is fun to play a game between clones of the “Swiss Miss” herself, Martina Hingis. Unfortunately, to play a ranked match on Xbox Live, you need to play as your customized character, and considering how difficult it is build up your avatar, it may be preferable to just play a couple of friendly exhibition matches.
If you came for the offline tournaments, you will want to stay for the online matches. The Xbox Live setup continues to set a high bar for easy matchmaking and lag-free gameplay. The various stadiums and player choices are available in singles and doubles play, and all of the pre-made USTA stars are playable. I was irritated that chat abilities between opponents were left as a holdover from the original game, but I suppose trash-talking in tennis is frowned upon. This may have been a nod to realism (rather than a technical shortcut), but I really did want to go all “John McEnroe” on the Xbox Live mic when a couple of my trickier shots did not go my way.
Speaking of the worst talk show host in cable television history, Top Spin 2 surely could have used a few extra tennis heroes. Where is Billie Jean King or Martina Navratilova? Fight Night can feature Muhammad Ali and the Burger King, but Top Spin 2 can’t get any of the most famous, out-of-the-closet champs in tennis history.
At least the representations of the players that are present in the game look pretty spot on, if not exactly next-generation. The women’s skirts sway with each lunge at the net, and the marquis looks of the modern competitors are rendered quite nicely. The grunts and shouts made by the players are actually pretty visceral, and with the echoing nature of a tennis venue, I could almost feel the effort it took to break to the far left in order to just get a piece of the return volley. The various courts all have personalities, even if they seem a little creepy and unoccupied in lower-ranked venues. Maybe it was edgy to play tennis on the “streetz”, but the run-down stadiums only made the game seem unusually quiet and lonesome. It was nice to see real locales like the main U.S. Open court, Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, N.Y. It’s always fun to see places you’ve actually seen in real life recreated in a virtual setting. The crowd graphics and the ambient sound effects otherwise were pretty standard. If you’ve heard one tennis ball bounce of a clay surface, you’ve heard them all.
So, was the ball in or out? Judging Top Spin 2, I can’t say it will win over the hearts of every gamer, especially with demoralizing CPU opponents and an agonizing career mode that would normally really spice up the longevity of a game. However, the actual gameplay is pretty polished and the online play makes it easy to keep up a long-term love affair for tennis fans or, I suppose, people who really enjoyed Pong. Top Spin 2 is a worthy new sports title with enough graphical “oomph” and exceptionally challenging material to warrant a good long look by anyone inclined to charge the net.