Reviewed: December 8, 2003
Released: October 28, 2003
Despite my passion for all things “sports” tennis has never been one of my strong suits, whether it be watching it on TV or playing it for real or as a video game. Even so, there was a time several years ago when the Sega Dreamcast dominated my living room and a little game called Virtua Tennis snuck its way into the system and my heart. That was the last tennis game I played and one of the few reasons I still have my Dreamcast sitting in a closet somewhere – that and the original Soul Calibur.
Microsoft obviously saw a glaring opening for a tennis franchise on the Xbox, especially in light of the their new XSN online system, and Top Spin was born. Combining complex and simple gameplay, a thorough single player component and a stellar online game, this could be the sleeper sports hit of this holiday season.
Top Spin offers a great mix of male and female tennis favorites including; Lleyton Hewitt, James Blake, Tommy Robredo, Jan-Michael Gambill, Michael Chang, Gustavo Kuerten, Meghann Shaughnessy, Sebastian Grosjean, Anna Kournikova, Daniela Hantuchova, Martina Hingis, Barbara Schett, Ashley Harkleroad, Elena Dementieva, and Amanda Coetzer just to name a few. If you aren’t a fan of at least once of these athletes then you probably shouldn’t be playing this game.
Unlike Virtua Tennis, Top Spin does a much better job of immersing you in the entire professional tennis lifestyle. You can create your own tennis player and take them from the practice courts to Wimbledon earning endorsements along the way. You will also develop their own unique playing style with post-shot taunts or boasts, and you can even argue the calls with the judges.
Perhaps the single most winning element in Top Spin is the unparalleled sense of control you have over each and every shot whether you are hitting slices, lobs, drops, spins, or even one of several trick shots. Even the various surfaces like clay, hard court, and grass are modeled perfectly and play an important part of each game.
Top Spin also offers a unique reward system that will increase your virtual “momentum” as you take risks and score big shots. The more you “get into the zone” the better you play. And gameplay has never been this easy. Each of the four face buttons performs a unique shot and you can also use the triggers to perform high-risk power and drop shots. The analog trigger offers plenty of room for error and missing the mark usually sends the ball out of bounds or into the net, but connecting with the ball results in an often-unreturnable shot.
The best part about Top Spin is that you can ignore all of these advanced controls and simply rely on the generic return button and try to out-match your opponent stroke for stroke, but what fun is that? Regardless of how you choose to return the ball the basic premise of tennis is always there – alternate left and right and short and deep to keep your opponent moving. As long as he is struggling to return your shots he can’t be playing aggressive tennis.
First timers will want to jump into the shorts or mini-skirt of their favorite player, but when you decide to tackle the career mode you will undoubtedly want to create your own tennis star. The creation engine for this game is bar none the best character creator I have ever used. You actually get to create individual facial features using a composite system much like the police use. Sliders allow you to adjust a host of options like height, weight, body proportions; you name it. Head to the pro shop and equip your player with more gear than you’d likely find in a Nike warehouse. Chances are slim of any two characters ever looking alike, which is nice when you take your game online.
Top Spin offers the traditional game modes of any sports title including Exhibition, Career, and Custom Tournament. The Career mode is the heart of the game and allows you to unlock (or purchase) new equipment as you rise through the ranks and acquire sponsorship and endorsements. All of these single player modes are sure to offer months of challenging gameplay, but as always, Xbox Live is where the true enjoyment of this game is found.
Whether you play with a System Link or online, you can now have up to four people playing at any given time. You can enjoy most of the single player style events online and you can even take your career player and enter them in official matches that will track your global rank. Serious gamers will want to explore the rich tournament features of XSN, and with the voice options you can talk smack to your opponents while you beat them up and down the court. The biggest kick for these online games is just getting your name (or alias) exposed for the world to see how good (or bad) you are. This was true in Links 2004 and even more so in Project Gotham 2 and it applies to Top Spin as well.
Top Spin has some excellent graphics considering the limitations of the sports. You won’t be playing in fancy decorative arenas, or lush seaside golf courses. You are confined to a relatively small court with a net and some bleachers surrounding you most of the time. Occasionally, you get to venture indoors for a more confining game. Regardless of the playing area, everything looks really nice whether it be the grassy textures, rough hard court, or reflective sheen off the indoor playing surface.
The players look great and we’ve already covered the amazing creation engine. Once you see these guys (and gals) in motion you will truly be in awe at the smoothness of each and every move and how each individual motions seamlessly transitions into the next. It’s almost as if the entire game was motion-captured and being played back. There are no visible breaks in the movement.
And as good as all this looks from the default camera when you zoom in and take a closer look during the replays you will marvel at even more detail that you never noticed before including some of the best hair I’ve seen outside of a Final Fantasy game. There is also plenty of peripheral detail including judges, ball boys, and a respectable albeit low detailed crowd.
There isn’t a lot of camera movement during normal gameplay, which equates to a solid framerate and there is support for HDTV 480 progressive scan so those with digital screens will get some stunningly crisp visuals. There’s even a surprising lack of special effects – no ball trails, starbursts, etc. that we’ve come to expect from console sports games. This gives the game a more serious and realistic mood.
Top Spin is a lonely game when it comes to sound. With no commentary you are left with the squeaking of sneakers, the thunk of the ball, and the strenuous grunts of the players. There is a modest selection of licensed music which is unnecessary in a sports game, especially tennis, and those of you that want music and more of it will be disappointed in the lack of custom soundtrack support.
What sounds do remain are all excellent and presented in Dolby Digital surround including some great reactionary crowd noises. At least with most of this game being played in silence you can engage in friendly banter with your friends, either in your living room or over the voice chat online.
Top Spin offers near infinite gameplay potential with fun and quick matches that you can pick-up and play on a whim or massive career modes that can occupy weeks of your game time. I would have enjoyed some mini-games or training exercises just to add a bit of diversity to the experience. Even some additional challenges would have been welcome, but what is present is more than enough to satiate any tennis lover’s craving for the sport on their Xbox.
Top Spin is without a doubt the best tennis game you can currently play on any console and the only one you can play on the Xbox. I have a feeling that will change soon as these trends seem to come in waves – just look at the rash of volleyball games earlier this year.
There is a level of complexity in the gameplay that makes this game challenging for experts, but those same controls can be ignored and even novices can enjoy a single-button return system for casually knocking the ball around. Bottom line – if you own an Xbox and are remotely interested in tennis then this is a must-own game. Even if you just want to prance around as Anna Kournikova in that tight mini – hey, I’m not here to judge.