Review: Top Spin 4

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Top Spin 4 is an enjoyable tennis game that left this player with a surprisingly positive first impression.

I use the word “surprisingly” because I know next to nothing about tennis. I know Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are good players, I know John McEnroe had a temper and I know Ana Ivanovic is one of the world’s best female players but probably gets more attention for her appearance. As far as tennis video games go, the last one I played featured Mario in the umpire’s chair.

Despite my tennis ignorance, 2K Sports has succeeded in designing a game in which it is easy to learn the basics and play the game out of the box. What’s more, the title seems to have enough of a learning curve to keep players coming back.

Top Spin 4 lets players play as 25 current and historic tennis stars or create their own player. The title also features an academy mode to learn basic and advanced skills. Timing is important, so the academy is a valuable feature. Players, however, need to be prepared to be badmouthed by their virtual coach if they don’t immediately pick up a new skill.

After my lessons in tennis and humility, I turned on the exhibition mode and tried a round as Bjorn Borg. It’s not often that a game lets me assume the role of a long-haired Swede in a 1970s sweater and headband, but as a fan of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” I thought it was pretty cool. The match result? A thorough beat-down at the hands of virtual Rafael Nadal. There were times when I wished the controls were a little more responsive, but the game’s pace felt about right and I didn’t feel compelled to turn off the console in frustration when a shot didn’t go my way.

Borg and Nadal are two of 25 real-life male and female players on the game’s roster. The women, who include Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic, are quicker than their male counterparts and may be a better option for new players. The game’s designers also decided that it was necessary for the female players to grunt as loudly as possible with each swing of the racket, presumably because someone thought that would be hot.

The controls were usually smooth, although I experienced some occasions where the controls seemed to lag. I enjoyed games in which my player ended up in a serious volley with his or her opponent, because the crowd really starts to get excited and loud whenever they see a real battle on the court. The crowd effects, plus beautiful renderings of large and small venues around the world, added to the illusion of realism.

Top Spin 4’s career mode is where the game seems to have a chance to shine. Although I personally view career modes in team sports games as inessential (I know some people really like them), the mode is better suited for an individual sport like tennis. The highly-customizable feature allowed me to create a mohawked fury of an athlete who has yet to win his first tournament.

Victory isn’t easy, but there’s enough trial-and-error to make the learning curve challenging, as opposed to maddening. There’s also a lot of different outfits to wear and a host of unlockables.. If GTA: San Andreas taught us anything, it’s that clothes make the game.

A feature that’s more relevant to gameplay lets players hire different coaches as their career progresses. The coaches issue different challenges during practices and matches, and success comes with experience points that players can use to enhance different skills. Over time, the RPG-like feature allows players to develop an individual tennis style as they attempt to climb from the world of small tourneys to Grand Slam events.

Top Spin 4 succeeds as a pick-up-and-play tennis title that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. I’ll be curious to stick with the career mode a little longer and see if my enjoyment holds up.

Top Spin 4
2K Sports
Nintendo Wii/PlayStation 3/XBox 360 (Reviewed on XBox 360)
Rated E for Everyone