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The Wii Remote and MotionPlus together have demonstrated potential to act as a tool for all sorts of sporting situations - boxing, archery, bowling and the like - with the age old game of tennis being one of the strong contenders on the system. Up until now the sport has been attempted, but left with a half-baked experience from those who've tried, causing enthusiasts to make a lot of compromises to get any enjoyment on the system - that or settle of the timeless casual classic in Wii Sports’ tennis. With SEGA's renowned arcade tennis sim making a long-awaited comeback this year in Virtua Tennis 4, there is a glimmer of hope for fans. Have SEGA served up an unstoppable ace or tripped, stumbled and walked into a double fault?
The return to the mainline numbered entries also sees original developer SEGA's AM3 taking the helm after allowing the UK based Sumo Digital craft a handful of tennis sims, including Virtua Tennis 2009 and SEGA Superstars Tennis. It's also the first time SEGA's team have worked on the Virtua Tennis series on Nintendo's platform, resulting in a very mixed affair. Familiar with the likes of Top Spin and Mario Tennis? Yes? Great. Simply forget everything you know about a decent tennis game and prepare for a bumpy ride.
Let's start off with the good. There's a whole host of familiar faces returning to the court - the likes of world champion Roger Federer, beefy muscle cake Rafael Nadal, Serbian pro Novak Djokovic and Britain’s number one Andy Murray. There's a handful of female pros on offer too, lead by Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and the recently inducted British hopeful Laura Robson. It's an overall meaty roster that could have benefited from a few more veteran faces, but it does offer enough variety and covers most bases for tennis fans. We're also treated to their strengths, and ultimately weaknesses too - Federer's the all-round precision beast whose strokes generally send balls where you’d like them to go, Nadal's a powerhouse who's a touch clunky on his feet and Murray climaxes after half an hour on court, offering a greater contrast between players compared to past iterations.
Our tennis stars have the opportunity to battle on a range of courts based on top global locations: you'll be honouring the Queen in the lush finely cut lawns of London, brushing dirt across the heat-strained clay courts of Paris and duelling on the more secluded training grounds. Whilst in theory it all sounds like the tranquil dream for a tennis fan, Virtual Tennis 4 isn't the most visually appealing game. Levels aren't much of a leap from the last Wii entry, murky ground textures and lifeless crowd scenery resulting in a generic and slightly dull feel. Player models aren't terribly exciting either, vaguely resembling their real life counterparts albeit apparently taking inspiration from the undead. On a more positive note, the basic level of detail surely helps it all run as smoothly as it does - animations are slick, convincing and in some instances replicate a player's signature stance, pass or serve well.
Playing the game feels like the signature Virtua Tennis that's been built up over the years, at least on the core level. The pace, format and modes are all extracted from the well brewed formula. Where it falls apart is in the game's control and responsiveness, and without that you're left with a horde of zombies in shorts tossing balls. With MotionPlus approaching its second birthday and facing competition from Sony's PlayStation Move, you'd expect there to have been some progression since Virtual Tennis 2009, but controlling your player seems far clumsier and fiddly than 2009’s release. Ponder this: you're one of the ballboys - or girls - in the Wimbledon final. It's the championship point, the crowd's on the brink of a momentous celebration and you trip up, falling flat on your bum. That's how the control feels like here, for you'll find yourself constantly flopping about, missing balls though you're in the right place as the timing is completely different to other tennis games. It's far less flexible than Mario Tennis and past Virtua Tennis games, with the tolerance for each shot being tightened to the point where it may even require tapping a button as your opponent is making contact with the ball, just to give enough room for error. It makes for a heavily unpredictable and awkward experience, and to top things off the game lacks full MotionPlus integration, and even Nunchuk support, leaving just the sole Wii Remote held horizontally for just about everything - including the D-pad for movement. Omitting Classic Controller support is understandable given a stronger push towards the Wii Remote, but skimping out on analogue control in favour of simplicity is yet another flaw in a fairly long list.
D-pad for movement has worked in tennis games before, in particular in the well received Mario Tennis: Power Tour and even to an extent in EA Sports: Grand Slam Tennis, but the combination of moving, aiming and shot selection is tricky given the use of the A and B button alongside 1 and 2. If that wasn't enough, shots oddly enough aren't consistent. The slice shot for a low pass can occasionally throw a higher lob or top spin, even failing to clear the net entirely despite it working perfectly previously. This, coupled with the lack of analogue movement and any motion control in the main modes results in a step back for a game designed to be a ‘true’ sequel.
There are some changes that offer something new, including the World Tour mode. In past Virtua Tennis games, one of the highlights was the ability to navigate the world as part of the tennis season, training, resting and competing in tournaments for fame and money. Here it's a similar setup with an element of the unexpected thrown in for good measure. The solo campaign again lets you build a character, play around with some of his or her body parts and set your rising tennis star upon a large board game stitched together with different activities. Most you'd expect - training, exhibition matches and tournaments. There's also a space dedicated to accidents to eat up your time, working with your PR team to boost publicity and popping home for a nap or two. It's all controlled by a series of cards that determine how many spaces you'll travel. It's a neat approach, allowing each campaign to be unique and less predictable than going around in an endless circle. That said, you aren't able to replay events, so if you enjoyed or didn't pass a particular training session you'd have to wait until the next cycle before attempting it again. It is linear compared to the past Virtual Tennis world campaigns, but the randomised days do give incentive to keep playing.
Those who simply want to jump into the mini games can pop on the Party mode to play the handful of training games at your disposal. Again, all are controlled using the D-pad and Wii Remote, though there is one that's motion driven revolving around mummies and Egyptian artifacts, eerie! All the games have been designed to test your footwork and aiming skills, from hitting footballs - yes, footballs - into a goal, collecting scattered eggs across the court, to stacking up cards in a poker formation and using bombs instead of tennis balls. For the most part the games are enjoyable and certainly varied, working their way well into the randomised single player campaign. We probably wouldn't play them continually in a party situation, though.
Motion play - crucial, especially during this point in the Wii's lifespan with a market increasingly dominated by motion-controlled sports. Virtua Tennis 4 has as much support for Nintendo's Wii Remote as Roger Federer loses Grand Slams, i.e. not very much at all. There is a dedicated mode that's essentially Exhibition play in first person, plus a sole mini game. Playing tennis in first person is a novel approach and quite literally has you playing from the eyes of your favourite stars, or your own created character. Serve the ball and your viewpoint quickly gazes towards the sky as a powerful 130mph shot is unleashed toward the opposite side of the court - it's quirky and in itself an experience of its own, but limited and unreliable. The on-screen hand between shots is far too distracting and essentially all appears to be a bolted on mode when the developer realised that the whole idea of motion control could be exploited. It's a huge shame that standard third person motion control couldn't be implemented within all modes.
Finally, online play. SEGA have included support for Nintendo Wi-Fi connection for public and friend play that's surprisingly inviting and competitive. Players were quick to find, within minutes, and often seconds and lag kept to a minimum during our tests. As usual I was trounced by over ten different competitors, but that’s a fault of my own! With a fairly solid community, online play is certainly a redeeming feature that will keep Wii players coming back for more.
The core tennis setup is in place, but is held back by sloppy, unreliable controls. The lack of analogue stick support is a bizarre move, especially as it was included in past Wii tennis sims by SEGA. Motion play is an interesting effort, especially in first person, but it's sloppy and feels tacked on. An unfortunate step back for the franchise.
Standard art direction that falls in line with past Virtua Tennis games. It isn't the best looking game by far, but does do an acceptable job. Smooth, realistic animations but just not varied enough, especially during longer rallies.
Ambient backing tunes with the classic SEGA vibe. Nothing particularly standout, but still relevant and working well with the style.
Certainly depends on how much you're willing to invest in the game. From a features standpoint there is a lot to work with - regular exhibition matches, a randomised solo campaign, party and online modes but the limited motion play and unreliable controls hinder this.
A disappointing effort from the series veterans and creators - it feels as if the Wii version was considered last, with faulty controls and a blatant lack of planning when it came to motion control. There are plenty of features to dig your teeth into, but the lack of care makes it difficult to tackle without many compromises. Worth trying if you're a fan of the sport or Virtua Tennis, but only worth buying if you can become accustomed to the controls.
This website makes thnigs hella easy.