Top Spin 4 Review

By Darryl Kaye on March 23, 2011

Despite their being a plethora of tennis games down the years, many have struggled to really capture the dynamic nature of the sport. On the surface, it might seem like a very repetitive endeavour, but underneath, you'll realise that every single point creates its own independent battle. And this is what many games in the past have failed to replicate as more often than not, players are forced to use the same plays time and time again in order to win. Top Spin 4 looks to alter that though, offering options to keep the action much more dynamic, and it really pays off.

Before you get sucked into the action, the Top Spin Academy should be your first port of call. The development team over at 2K Czech decided that not only would they help you to understand the game's different mechanics, but at the same time, they would instil a bit of tennis knowledge into you too. Here, you'll be able to tackle the various shot types and also learn when to use them.

After going through all of that, you'll be greeted with a few standard offline modes. You have Exhibition, Career and King of the Court. Exhibition is fairly self-explanatory and King of the Court is a fun variant whereby the winner stays on, until they've won a certain amount of matches. They're quite fun to play if you have some friends over, but the bulk of the experience will take place in the game's Career mode.

After creating your future tennis star, you'll have to work your way up the ranks by winning the various tournaments that are thrown your way. These start off in minor venues, but the game essentially replicates your arrival on the ATP Tour, not what comes before that. In other words, it doesn't delve into the realms of Futures or Challengers, and goes straight for smaller ATP tournaments like Estoril.

To simplify things further, the season is split up into months. This means you can only take part in one tournament per month, but you can also do some preparation for the tournament. This might be in the form of a sparring session, which you'll likely do at the start of your career, but this will quickly move towards taking part in special events. Special events can range from, attending an interview session or taking part in charity matches, but they will always give you something back in the form of either experience points or an increase in popularity. It's nice that the developers actually paid attention to this side of the game too; professionals don't spend all of their time training.

As you progress through your career, the game will give you objectives to meet. In an interesting choice, you'll have to fulfil these objectives to be able to enter harder tournaments, not by rising in the rankings. Sure, these will go hand-in-hand if you keep winning events, but in the real world of tennis, you can get extremely high in the rankings by being consistent - you don't have to win everything. This means that you might be more than eligible to say, enter a Masters event, but since you haven't won enough minor tournaments, the game won't let you. It's not a massive hindrance, but it would have been nicer if tournament entry was based purely on rankings, and your "status" affected something else instead.Overall though, the career mode is a nice touch. It's perhaps not as fleshed out as it could be, but all things considered it does a good job. Playing matches nets you experience, which you can use to upgrade your tennis player. You can also hire coaches to boost up some of your stats. They won't initially do much for you, but after you complete some of their objectives, they will significantly improve your character and give you special talents - like making you stronger as rallies go on.

The best part about the game though, is its gameplay. Top Spin 4 does a fantastic job of making every point completely dynamic through a combination of different features: shot selection, fatigue and timing.

You can perform the standard shots that you'd expect: a flat shot, a shot with top spin, and a slice. There are also options for lobs and drop shots. This is standard fare for any tennis game though, as it's the bread and butter of the sport. However, most tennis games, leave it there. They allow you to perform these different shots, but they don't really give you any reason to do anything other than spam top spin shots. And this is what separates Top Spin 4 from the rest of the pretenders.

Through the addition of different timing elements and fatigue, performing different shots can make a huge different to how matches go. You can't simply rely on thundering down powerful flat shots at your opponent, as they can soak up the pressure and wait for you to make a mistake. They actually feel natural too, unlike other games that have tried to implement unforced errors.

At the start of the match, each character has a fatigue meter. Throughout each point, players will get fatigued depending on what they do, and it becomes a big facet of the game. Not only because players will run slower as they become tired, but because their shots become less accurate, and they become prone to mistakes. Finally, Top Spin 4 has made playing like Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray, a viable tactic. But this is only the case when taking a look at the game's timing mechanics too.

With each shot, you can achieve varying results for timing. You want to aim for "good" or "perfect", as these will allow for the best results, but it's not a lost cause if you manage to get "too slow" or "too soon". It must means that you won't hit the shot as well as you might want to, so it won't have as much accuracy, or the power won't quite be there. The game implements two timing points too, one for the defensive side of the game and one for the offensive side. If you want to control play, you can opt for a quick hit, which is performed by tapping the button. However, if you want to go for a winner, or hit an amazing approach shot, you can opt to hold the button down and gain some power - this causes more fatigue though.

There's one aspect that the gameplay falters on though and that's volleying and general net play. Getting even good timing is rather confusing, as no matter what you do, it never seems to be good enough. Sometimes, hitting the button when your opponent has struck the ball will give you a "too late", which is just puzzling. Even connecting with the ball can be troublesome sometimes. It's not so bad in singles matches, but in doubles matches, where you need quick reactions at the net, it can be a bit of a pain.Playing against the AI doesn't necessarily allow the system to shine, but playing against other humans is where each of these mechanics come into their own. You can easily identify strategies to beat another player, and due to the fatigue system, which comes into play a lot more, there will be just as many unforced errors as there will winners. It makes for some thrilling action.

And this is where quite a lot of the fun should be had with Top Spin 4, online, taking part in the different community aspects. Unfortunately, the experience can be plagued by some bad lag issues, and if there's one game you don't want lag with, it's a tennis game. Getting the right timing on a serve is difficult enough, but as many of Ivo Karlovic's opponents find out, it's difficult to return something you can't even see. And when timing is such an integral part of this experience, even a small amount of lag can ruin it entirely.

There's nothing wrong with the developers wanting to employ online play, in fact, it's actually really great. However, they need to find some way to prevent gamers with lag from getting online - it just ruins the experience for everyone else.

In terms of presentation, the game actually does a good job. While the players themselves aren't perfect spitting images of their real-life counterparts, they're still recognisable. What's good about the presentation though, is how it captures the essence of what tennis is all about - it's the little things that matter, after all. For example. when you're playing on clay, the ball and your player's feet leave marks on the court. The dynamic range of shots is also rather impressive, as players will even slide on the clay to reach difficult shots. Overall, it actually feels like you're watching a tennis match, not like you're playing a cut and paste video game.

It's also nice that they have quite a good selection of professionals in the game, although there are some notable exceptions. There are only really seven or eight top-tier players from the men's game, with James Blake and Bernard Tomic seemingly thrown in to make-up the numbers. The women's side of the game also has a very scattered representation of the field - no Venus Williams or Maria Sharapova, for example. It's nice to see some of the older players appearing though, so you can square Pete Sampras off against old rival Andre Agassi.

Final Thoughts

Top Spin 4 does a fantastic job of representing the modern era of tennis in video game form. It succeeds in representing the dynamic nature of the sport where so many others have failed. The combination of shot selection, timing and fatigue really win out here, and it makes for an unrivalled gameplay experience from the baseline. There are some niggling issues though, like the less than convincing net play. And the Career mode, while offering a nice representation of the modern game, also feels a bit shallow. These issues aside though, Top Spin 4 is leaps and bounds above the competition. It's arguably the best tennis game ever made.

Fantastic representation of the sport
The implementation of fatigue and proper timing
Career mode highlights modern day affairs
Less than convincing net play
Career mode could do with a bit more depth
The roster could have been more fleshed out
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