Now, I love tennis. Love it. Everything about the game is so free flowing and beautiful. For me it’s not just a spectator sport, but a way of life. I remember being in an English exam and not thinking about the paper, but about who would win the Australian Open. I have long sought after a game that captures the essence of tennis; Top Spin provided an in-depth career mode, whilst the physics engine seen in Virtua Tennis was second to none. Both of these games were amazing in their own right, but I still wanted more: I wanted a game that made me feel like a real tennis player, providing the thrill and ecstasy as you won your first major tournament or the excitement as you climbed the ranks to world number one. I have longed for such a game, and with Smash Court Tennis 2 I think I’ve found it.
Most games since Virtua Tennis have largely copied it, but with SCT 2, it uses its own system. With Virtua Tennis, you needed to be in the general vicinity of the ball, and just press a button to hit the ball: the computer would automatically make sure that your racket hit the ball, even if you weren’t in the best of positions. However, with SCT 2, your positioning is much more important.
For example, if a ball is coming towards you, and you try to hit the ball too early, you’ll just end up swinging your racket randomly, and missing the ball completely. You have to make sure your character is positioned well, and that you try to hit the ball when it’s in your hitting zone. This might seem quite awkward, but is actually a breath of fresh air when every single tennis game imitates Virtua Tennis. It might seem quite unforgiving at times, when you try to hit a ball and completely miss it, but those times are few and far between. The system works extremely well.
This system also applies to the serving action: you press a button to toss the ball into the air, and when the ball falls down into your hitting zone, you press the button again to hit it whilst directing the serve. However, if you don’t press the button at the right time, the ball might go out or into the net.
It may seem complex for casual gamers, or people who don’t know that much about tennis: how do I know when to hit the ball? Where is the hitting zone?
Luckily, NAMCO have developed a system that makes it so much easier. When a ball is coming towards you, a circle appears around it: the size of the circle goes from large to small, depending on how close the ball is to your player. When the circle is just the size of the tennis ball, it means that the ball is directly in your hitting zone. This system can be turned on and off in the option screen, depending on whether you want the help or not: but when you start playing SCT2, it’s great way to help you get used to the game’s unique system.
Like all good tennis games, SCT2 features all the different types of court to play on: grass, hard courts and clay courts. But with SCT2, you truly feel the difference between each type of court. In Top Spin you might initially feel like each court is different, but after hours of play, I began to realise the differences weren’t so vast. All the courts felt similar, the only difference being the colour of the court. Clay court tactics worked just as well on grass court, and grass court tactics worked just as well on hard court. Especially when I mastered the risk shot, I was able to perform a risk shot on nearly every single ball, and it made the type of court redundant. With SCT2, you can feel that each court is different, and that each court demands a different style of play and tactics. You’ll soon find that a certain kind of court suits your style of play, and that court will be where you can achieve your biggest wins.
SCT2 features a vast array of modes such as exhibition, arcade, spectator, challenge, trophy room and pro tour. Exhibition and arcade modes are great for a quick match, whilst trophy mode holds all the unlocked items gained from the arcade mode. Challenge mode contains a few mini games to play. Spectator mode may seem a bit pointless at first: choose two players, and watch as the computer plays a match between them. But actually, it’s quite enjoyable and it’s good to see some of the shots that can be pulled off in the game and then see if you can perform those shots as well.
All these modes are great fun, but the meat of the package lies in the Pro Tour. Whilst the others modes are quite generic, seen in countless other tennis titles, the Pro Tour mode is where the game really shines. You start off by creating your own player, choosing his or her appearance and their style of play. Do you want a tall, pony-tailed all court wizard like Roger Federer, or do you want a hard hitting powerhouse ? la Andy Roddick? You decide.
Once you’ve done that, you hit the tour.
The tour operates on its own calendar, starting in January, and works on a weekly basis. At certain times of the year, there will be different tournaments, other times, there’s nothing. These free periods of time can be used either A) for training, or B) for resting.
Training can be done any week of the year, and like Virtua Tennis, is done via fun little mini games. The mini games usually amount to little more then hitting a certain amount of targets, in a fixed time limit, but these games are faced paced and extremely enjoyable. Once the training exercise has been completed, you earn ?experience points’ or ?EXP.’ These points can be used to improve certain aspects of your players’ game, such as improving the forehand, improving the speed of the player, or improving their stamina.
As I said beforehand, you can use your free time for resting, and this is because your player has a stamina meter. After playing a tournament, or even a single match, your player can get quite tired, and won’t be able to run as fast, or perform as well. This is particularly bad if you enter a major tournament, such as a Grand Slam, when your player is completely wiped out. So it adds a certain amount of strategy to the game; if a big tournament is looming, you might want to rest your player for a few weeks so they’ll be as fresh as a daisy when the big day comes along.
When you start your career, your player is pretty average, and will be ranked extremely low [250 to be exact]. You need to do a lot of training, and enter a lot of tournaments to get the experience under your belt, and improve your player. In this way, the game is extremely realistic. You can’t just win Grand Slams straight away. You need a lot of training and practice before you can even think of reaching the quarterfinal stage, let alone win a slam. A nice little touch to the career mode is that at the beginning of your career, due to your low ranking, you won’t get immediate entry to some tournaments: you’ll have to go through the qualifying rounds. Whilst being hard work, it adds to the realism of the game, and is quite satisfying to go through the qualifying stages, and then proceed to do well in the tournament.
The Pro Tour mode can be played via two different ways: the mission mode, or the normal mode. The normal mode means just that ? playing a match normally. The mission mode is extremely different. The mission mode only let’s you play certain points in the match, called ?turning points.’ During these turning points, sets, or even matches can be won or lost. The game will take you to a specific point in the match, and set you an objective ? like serve an ace, or win three consecutive points. If you complete the objective, you might win the set or even the match. If you don’t complete the objective, the match might be lost. There are a number of turning points in each match, so even if don’t complete one turning point, you can always win the others. This has a few advantages over ?normal mode’. Firstly, it’s quicker to win a match than in normal play, and enables you to zip through the smaller tournaments. Also, it gives you more EXP than normal play. However, mission play does have its disadvantages. Sometimes, the objectives can be extremely ridiculous, and nearly impossible i.e. make sure your opponent hits less than 30% backhand shots, or serve two aces consecutively. Some of these objectives are extremely difficult, and if you don’t complete them, then the match can be lost in an instant. This is extremely frustrating when you progress quite far in a tournament, only to lose it because of one point.
But besides a few little niggles, SCT2 really is head and shoulders above the rest. Whilst Virtua Tennis and Top Spin both provide strong competition, SCT2 feels like the fresher experience. The unique system for hitting the ball works extremely well, and the career mode is engrossing. Whilst it may take a while to build up your character, when you finally win a tournament, you truly feel like you’ve hit the big time; and that all your hard work has paid off. The little things like receiving fan mail, having to enter qualifying rounds if you’re ranked too low, and the stamina system not only add to the realism of the game, but draws you into it, making you feel like a professional tennis player.
Game, set and match to Smash Court Tennis 2 then.