This review will be entirely pun free. You will not hear any jokes about how much I “love-love” the game, nor will you hear me discuss this game’s many “advantages”. Get it? Advantages, like the score after deuce? Anyway…
The thing is, there really isn’t any need to fall back on puns and cheap rhetoric. I may anyway, but Top Spin 4 is a game that speaks for itself. It will keeps fans of tennis happy for a long time, and may even have some crossover appeal — if it can convince players to try it. The latter may be difficult, because it doesn’t offer much in way of features that will appeal to non-tennis aficionados, but the gameplay is worth a look for any fans of sports games.
Where Top Spin 4 aces — sorry — bests its predecessor and other competitors, is that it retains the intricate play controls that make mastering the game an achievement. At the same time, it also offers a style that is accessible to new players.
Top Spin 4 is a game that anyone could pick up and have fun with. There is even a party game mode for four people that caters to first-time players. And yet it will keep players coming back to attempt to master the system, which will not be easy. That variable level of difficulty, along with a ridiculously deep career mode make Top Spin 4 the best tennis game out right now, and a great overall sports game in its own right.
Hit a button! But with feeling
Top Spin 4 features a decent list of current and historical players, several real-life and imagined courts, and an incredible amount of customization for your created character. All are nice, but none of it means a thing if the gameplay doesn’t satisfy.
Tennis games can be a tricky beast to capture. On paper you might think it is a simple matter of hitting the ball, running, and hitting the ball again. It is pong, just prettier and with grunting. And in the past, many tennis games did just that. You hit the ball, you move, and you hit it again. Fun!
Top Spin 4 has managed a balance of making the game fun for anyone to play, and offering a level of intricacy to the way you hit the ball that makes it worth the time of people looking for depth in their tennis games. When you line up for a hit, you have the standard options of a flat shot, top spin (naturally, or the title would be awfully stupid), slice shot and lobs. Then you have the amount of power you want to use. If you hold down the button, a circle will begin to fill. The longer you hold it, the more powerful (and potentially more wild) the shot will be. Tapping the button gives you precision at the cost of power, while something in between will give you a normal shot.
The thing that makes it difficult to master is the timing, which you need to judge based on your character’s animation. You don’t need to be perfect, but if you time it to release just as your character is striking the ball, you will vastly improve the speed, location and trajectory of the shot. When you do strike it, you will receive a quick grade of sorts, telling you if you were too early, too late, good, or perfect.
These shot mechanics are simple in theory, but in practice take a long, long time to perfect. You don’t need to master your shot to enjoy playing the game, but the intricacy will keep you coming back to try to improve.
Serving is also handled in the same way, which is good and bad. It keeps things consistent, but it takes away the sense that the serving is a unique and vital component to the game. You expect a quick mechanism when you are returning a ball, but for serving it feels like there could have been more to it.
Top Spin 4 serves up — sorry, sorry — offers up several game modes including a four-person round robin, training, and of course an exhibition (AKA “play now”) mode, but the real bulk of the game lies in the career mode.
Creating a character offers detailed options, bordering on insane. You can customize just about every possible facial feature you could imagine, and choose among a huge selection of clothes, racquets, hair styles, even tattoos. It doesn’t end there. Once you have created your avatar, the career menu will give you so many options that it can be overwhelming at first. Thankfully the tutorial recognizes this and gradually introduces you to the things you can do.
At first, you are a lowly grunt on the tennis circuit, perhaps fresh out of a country club where you taught soccer moms the proper way to backhand. As you play through matches, exhibitions and tournaments, you will earn experience through simply winning, as well as through completing specific objectives that pop up, like winning a point with a drop shot, or serving an ace. These aren’t necessary to complete to advance, but they help you level up faster.
Once you have enough points, you can increase your skills. Rather than just choosing the obvious stuff like more power, speed, or better service, you unlock classes that suit your play. If you want to become a serve-and-volley player, there is a choice for that, just like there is a choice to become a better baseline player. You choose the type of style you want to use on court, and from there you will be able to customize your player to suit your actual gameplay style.
As you advance through your career, you will begin to eventually see some familiar names, but if you want to beat Rafael Nadal, you will need to prove you belong. Entering tournaments with players like Nadal and Roger Federer requires earning your way up the world rankings first.
Top Spin 4’s career mode is the most impressive of any tennis game’s career mode, without question. You won’t be able to create the uber-tennis star that sets the ball on fire with every stroke due to his tremendous awesomeness. Instead, you will have to find a balance that accentuates your advantages while minimizing your weaknesses. It isn’t quite as deep as some other career modes that have you doing things off the court, like signing appearances, but it’s more than enough to keep you playing for a long time.
Agassi and Sampras return to snipe at each other digitally
Many players will venture to the exhibition mode the first time they turn this game on, where the list of possible players to choose is impressive. The top names are all there, but that is expected. The real fun is being able to play with some classic players, like Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, and even Bjorn Borg to name just a few.
Each player looks realistic, and the character animations are top notch, but most of the characters seem to be interchangeable when it comes to those animations, and you won’t see too many unique styles of movement in the various players. That is an admittedly minor complaint.
A few things are noticeably missing from the game — almost certainly due to legal concerns — which is a shame. Names you might hope to see, like Arthur Ashe or John McEnroe, are absent, but most notable is the omission of Wimbledon. There is a stand-in for it, and it really shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is a shame.
Although Top Spin 4’s career mode offers the most depth, the multiplayer options are also worth checking out. You and your friends can join together to play a doubles game or tournament, which are surprisingly well honed. In the past, most tennis doubles games were a matter of both players running and trying to hit the ball. Frequently, this resulted in a point for the other team as you and your friend look back and forth at each other and begin to plot the others death, but in a friendly way. The doubles mode in Top Spin 4 allows only one player at a time to begin their swing, preventing this conflict.
Playing against your friends is also an option, but it (like doubles matches) are somewhat minor parts to a bigger game. The online multiplayer, however, has been revamped with a ranking system, as well as unranked matches. It is something that will be fun for the casual gamer as a distraction, but hardcore fans of the game might find themselves obsessively watching the rankings to see where they stand. The online isn’t the focus of the game, but it makes a welcome addition.
For as much good as the game offers, there isn’t a lot that will win over non-tennis fans. 2K Games of late have either been amazing or average. They are always well made, but where NBA2K11 deservedly won several sports game of the year awards, MLB2K11 is just a good game. Top Spin 4 falls between the two. It is the best tennis game out there (although the upcoming Virtual Tennis 4 will try to challenge that), but it isn’t a game that will win over sports fans from other genres, as NBA2K11 did.
That might sound unfair, but Top Spin 4 doesn’t really offer any surprises. What it does, it does very well, but it doesn’t create anything new and exciting. The inclusion of some tennis greats is also cool, but the missing players and the absence of Wimbledon hurts the game.
If you are a fan of tennis, then you will love Top Spin 4. If you are a sports fan in general, Top Spin 4 is worth a look, although it may not have enough to keep your attention.
The game looks great, and the technical features, including the sound, camera and animations, are all well done. The online mode is also appealing, although you will need to already be a fan of the game to really enjoy it — it won’t win you over on its own.
In general, Top Spin 4 is a game with a lot to love. The advantages are easy to see, and although there are some faults along the way, the title serves up a powerful offering that will have fans returning to it. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by 2K Sports)