Virtua Tennis 2009
Developer: Sumo Digital
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1-4
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Virtua Tennis was made by Sega’s AM3 studio and was a massive, deserved hit both in the arcades and on the Dreamcast way back in 1999 and 2000. The 2009 update is an easy-to-get-into, arcade-oriented game from the start; you can either play exhibition matches or tournaments (singles or doubles) choosing from a number of the world’s top players (including Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Venus Williams, Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova) or go play online or enter the World Tour mode The player competes through tennis tournaments and various arcade modes.

Now 4 games into the series, the earlier sequels did little other more than add some new mini games and change the player rosters, and Virtua Tennis 2009 has changed little since its home debut on Dreamcast. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, as the game plays with the same fast action and believable ball physics, and retains the series’ control system and its fabled “pick up and play” intuitiveness. ‘A’ is your basic top spin shot, ‘X’ and ‘B’ are for slice, and ‘Y’ lobs the ball back in a high, looping arc. By charging (holding down) the chosen stroke button shots are hit harder, and the shot’s direction and depth are altered by directing the left stick as you hit the ball. It’s simple, effective and, for the most part, satisfying. A few problems arise for the tennis purist as running passing shots rarely seem to come off because, wrongly, if you hit the ball on the run the Virtua “law” always seems to dictate that a shot should be relatively weak and poorly directed. Just like Konami's Pro Evo series and the way it makes it ridiculously hard to score with a free kick (despite every Tom, Dick and Ronaldo being able to do it), and given the number of service aces you see in the modern tennis game it’s also still far too difficult to hit one in VT 2009 - regardless of how well timed or directed your serve may be, unless your opponent just misses their return. Most of the AI opponents will return even "max power" serves directed right in the corners more often than not, and sometimes with so much venom that you doubt the wisdom of hitting a fast serve at them in the first place! There are three camera views available but everyone seems to want to use the traditional TV-style view, simply because it's the one that works best and gives the best umm... view.

After a game playing as or against Federer, Nadal or Murray the World Tour mode is where most people will head, and it’s a quite an undertaking these days. You start by making your own male or female player character in a similar way to - but not as good as - the Tiger Woods golf games. The tour’s various events and features are accessed from a World globe, and as the week of a tournaments or an invitational event comes up they appear here. Getting from the starting rank of 100 to number one will take a more than a few hours play, and a lot of patience. Although VT 2009 seems considerably easier than previous games (which were notoriously hard when you got into the top 20) a new stamina feature means you have to rest your player regularly or risk injury and missed tournaments, but the new calendar marks everything clearly so you can plan your fixtures and rest accordingly. You can buy a “health drink” for a quick boost, or tale a week off to recover about a third of your stamina, or take a two-week vacation to recover it all, but this costs £1000 (and obviously passes the next two weeks’ events by). Weeks without scheduled tournaments can be used to play the various mini games or go to the tennis academy to improve your player’s groundstroke, footwork and serve & volley skills with coach Tim Henman (it’s nice that someone gave the old feller a job). Your prize money can be used to buy better equipment (shoes, clothing, racquets (or, because Americans can’t be arsed to spell properly, “rackets” as they’re known in VT 2009) shades, sweat bands etc) and to purchase court passes. As your World Tour reputation improves you’ll get invites to friendly games with various players, and if you beat them (they’re really easy) you can make them your doubles partner, and then enter the doubles at every tournament as well to boost your earnings.

There are two ways of playing VT 2009 online; either from the main menu in "player" matches using one of the real players, or by using your own player character from the World Tour mode. Online the game plays well… O.K. I suppose but, regardless of the connection speed, lag is still a huge issue in deciding games. VT 2009 hasn’t improved online tennis in this respect at all, it’s no better than when I played Microsoft’s TopSpin online on the Xbox 6 years ago. The fact that at the time of writing the top ranked player (in the World Tour mode) hadn’t upgraded his player at all speaks volumes about how much a fast connection and lag plays a part when winning online games, rather than outright skill or the amount you play the world tour and upgrade your player’s skills.

Visually things haven’t changed much either. Even with allowances for the HD generation, VT 2009 is no stunner. It’s colourful, well animated and pleasing to the eye but is inferior in the looks department to just about every top sports sim around at the moment, including last year’s Topspin 3. Player characters are recognizable and possess their real counterparts’ service actions, but are extremely rough and expressionless and look little better than the Dreamcast ones, and the way they’re drenched with a rather iffy, old-looking lighting bloom effect doesn’t help things either. Courtside the crowd, line judges, ball boys/girls et al have all been modelled in a very slap dash fashion; "last-gen" is the term that comes to mind, but VT 20009's underwhelming graphics have probably got a lot to do with the game being available on the graphically-challeged Wii too. The player animation is good though, and some effort has clearly been made with their clothing as it shows clay dust marks and sweat as matches progress. There are noticeable improvements in the animations department as players seem to get wrong-footed or stumble more often now, and it makes for more believable rallies.

As with the original Virtua Tennis, for me just playing matches soon gets tiresome and the mini games are what made VT 2009 fun, some old ones return but there are at least six new ones; Block Buster (like Tetris), Pot Shot (pool), Shopping Dash (pick up the groceries), Court Curling (curling, duh), Pin Crusher (10-pin bowling), Pirate Wars (sink the pirate ships), Zoo Feeder (hit the correct food at the animals), Meat Defender (chase crocodiles away from the food by hitting them with balls), Alien Attack (guess), Count Mania and Avalanche (pick up the fruit whilst avoiding the giant tennis balls). They all play well, add some variety whilst improving your skills and will have you addicted for a few hours, but there seem to be some horrendous difficulty spikes, a thing that seems to be getting more and more common in games, presumably to due to a lack of testing. There’s also no “retry” option at then end of a mini game so on completion you get dumped back out to the world tour map, and have to scroll around the globe to find it and load it again! It’s the very epitome of bad presentation and I expected more from Sega.

The mini games are all well and good but it's just another example of VT 2009 being the gaming equivalent of "The Emperor's New Clothes." If they wanted to move the tennis game genre on a bit, how about including dodgy line calls and the ability to challenge a call? How about including one of the greatest innovations to hit sport since television coverage itself? A Virtua Hawk Eye would have added greatly to the whole experience, and Sega would have been much better off forking out a few dollars for the rights to use it rather than including a load of dodgy likenesses of players that no one’s ever heard of, and will never want to play as. There are lots of courts and arenas (including one on a cruise ship), but no accurate Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Flushing Meadows or Melbourne courts to play on. There isn't even a replay mode, all you get is the winning shot of a rally (sometimes) played three times in quick succession. In the age of the console with hard drive, this kind of omission bugs me. Playing a game of doubles was fun but the ball movement becomes disppointingly jerky with 4 players. Ugh.

And oh yes, I can’t finish up this review without mentioning the inimitable SEGA in-game “music” which everyone with operable ears will turn down or, more likely, off. Do SEGA have a team of virtua-musicians who churn this stuff out? I think they must, as I’ve never heard anything quite like it anywhere else. Best described as guitar jazz/rock/rawk/ear abuse, the only other place you’ll hear anything even vaguely as bad as it is in a Namco or Capcom game. Honestly, you never hear music like this anywhere outside an arcade game, and most of it gets bunged in the Virtua games or Ridge Racer. God it’s awful, tooth-grindingly awful, and I’d rather not even speak any more about it as now I can hear it in my head. Arrrgh!

VT 2009 plays a good enough game of arcade-style tennis but its simplicity means that it also lacks subtlety, and rallies too often seem to end up in ground shot battles to the death. There’s not enough room for error and it’s really, really hard to hit the ball out, either wide, in the net or long. A player’s inability to finish off a rally is also often compounded by the fact that the VT 2009 engine simply won’t let you hit a shot with a sharp enough angle, and drop shots are really poorly realised as they seldom drop anywhere near the net. I’ve often won a rally and felt like I’d bludgeoned my opponent to death or simply outlasted them, rather than won the point with guile or skill. VT 2009 is another competent arcade conversion from Sega, but much like racquets with BIG heads and women that shriek when they hit the ball, it’s done nothing whatsoever to move the game forward at all. This is no 5-set classic like last year's Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer, it's a disappointingly unadventurous update.

Best Bits

- The World Tour and the mini games
- Same old fast, fluid tennis
- Roger Federer
- Rafa Nadal
- Venus Williams
Worst Bits

- The same old lack of variety in shotmaking
- Online lag
- Tour tennis gets boring quickly
- Poor design means unnecessary loading
- Uneven difficulty
- Doris Becker
- Manlie Mauresmo

by: Jensen Buttons

Copyright © Gamecell 2009