It’s been the best part of a decade since I played a tennis game, with the possible exception of Sega Superstar Tennis. It was so long ago in fact that I can’t even remember what franchise, let alone which version it was, had a bomb-styled game mode had me entertained for hours on end as a child. As for the sport itself, it’s one that keeps me thoroughly entertained when watched but has never presented itself as a sport that required my attention in the videogame world. Though, with the recent release of the PlayStation Vita and the accompanying launch title, Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition, it was time to lay that long absence to rest.
Other than the general gameplay, what to expect was rather unknown on my part. It’s important to point out before we start that the World Tour Edition is not is vastly different from the ‘standard’ console release. Essentially a port of the release from spring last year, Virtua Tennis 4’s is the same, focusing on the World Tour mode. Acting as the primary campaign, you create your own character with a passable but rather poorly designed creation system, before moving through a career featuring the big four Grand Slams.
Designing your own character always brings a fresh outlook on a game, and its effectiveness in sports games in unquestionable. Therefore, the ability to do so in a game that revolves around a single player – rather than a team – is all the more apt. The creation mode does provide a wealth of options to design your own player, but the layout and user interface of components could have done with some work. Not to mention the obvious oversight of failing to take advantage of the touchscreen at hand for more than just clicking left and right. If you so wish, you can use the front camera to map your face to a character; but with such horrific results it’s probably not worth it.
In polarity to the character creation, design of the World Tour is certainly a clever and enjoyable one, almost mimicking a board game approach to progression. Selecting one of three movement tickets, you can choose how many positions to move along on your journey to the Grand Slam. Along the way you’ll partake in singles and doubles matches, earn stars in order to move up the world rankings, purchase items at stores and ensure you rest up to avoid your fatigue. There’s also a selection of mini-games – each to test a particular attribute, used to improve your player’s abilities depending on your success; and whilst they undoubtedly offer some immediate enjoyment, they begin to tire after a dozen outings or so.
Planning your route effectively is also vitally important, with negative stops dotted around and the necessity to earn enough stars to participate in the tournaments, all of which adds a tactical element to the mode. One of the main problems though is that the difficulty spikes during said tournaments. You begin as an unranked up-and-comer and by your first Grand Slam you’re still only just classed as “Promising”. Oddly entering a tournament at the quarter-finals stage, you proceed to challenge two similarly ranked players before being pitted against one of the top four players in the world. As such, you never stand a chance and the leap in difficulty was rather off-putting.
One thing’s for certain though; Virtua Tennis 4 aims to showcase the power of the Vita effectively with its crisp menus, fluid animations, and impressive environments and character models. Most of the greats make an appearance: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic – even legends like Becker, and their likenesses are suitably believable. It may not be the best looking game on Sony’s new handheld, but it’s clearly a contender. However, the same cannot be said for the Vita specific controls. Touch screen controls feel unnatural and unnecessarily difficult, and ultimately a poor substitute for standard button-based control.
A core facet of any sports title is the smoothness and precision of the gameplay and its mechanics. It’s here that Virtua Tennis 4 offers somewhat of a conundrum. Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with either the controls or smoothness of the game, it lacks a spark, a sense of flair to set matches alight. Far too often they boil down to hitting the ball from one side to the other, rarely going out of play until one player makes a mistake. There’s little inventiveness from the AI, scant option to mix up play and things become monotonous and dull too swiftly. That said, when you do pull off a particularly sweet shot, connecting perfectly on the bounce to score a much-needed winner, it’s an incredibly satisfying experience and one that almost makes the other, more droll periods worthwhile.
Amongst the usual spattering of Arcade, Exhibition and Practice modes, there are a selection of “VT Apps” which attempt to provide more unusual options for gameplay, including a first-person mode, a two player touch controlled match and a motion sensor mini-game, all of which have little success. The online portions work well, when they work, as connecting was occasionally a challenge, but be prepared to come up against some stiff opposition.
It may be a solid outing but it’s nothing overly special and therein lies the snag with Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition. Whilst it brings a glossy appearance and an inventive World Tour mode, there are problems that lay beneath the surface, with the most obvious being the lack of any sort of “wow” factor. It manages to do what it does rather well, but don’t expect it to win any awards for style.