With its Virtua Tennis franchise, Sega has always presented us with an accessible tennis experience rather than a deep simulation of the sport. The foundations laid down by the first game in the series, the Dreamcast arcade-port of 2000, have changed little over time. Sure, modern console gaming has afforded us with the luxury of online play and improved visuals, but as far as gameplay goes, the franchise has always stuck rigidly to its embedded arcade roots. If you’re familiar with the mechanics of Virtua Tennis, then you can look forward once again to an indistinguishable on-court experience in 2009. A game where mastering the basic three button controls is more than enough to ensure that you’ll have all bases covered as you spin, lob and slice the ball across a variety of surfaces. Developer Sumo Digital hasn’t taken any risks with this latest iteration in the popular tennis series: it has simply stuck to what it knows best. And while that tried and trusted formula does undoubtedly offer a fluid and technically impressive game of tennis, it’s all beginning to feel a little stale.
Virtua Tennis 2009 boasts a solid, albeit predictable, range of game modes, including the return of some unique and surreal mini games. Alongside some impressive new entries, you can expect a range of familiar and popular games from past iterations, including ‘Avalanche,’ in which you have to catch fruit while avoiding the path of a giant cascading tennis ball. There are six quirky new additions to the roster, including ‘Pirate Wars,’ in which you have to hit and sink pirate ships while avoiding their cannon fire, and ‘Zoo Feeder,’ in which zoo keepers throw food at you, such as bananas, and you have to hit them back to the correct animal. The mini-games, both new and old, offer a diverse and entertaining range of activities away from the standard quick-fire tennis matches, but when you’re done with attacking aliens and defending meat chops from crocodiles, there’s still plenty of serious gameplay to get stuck into.
Exhibition mode allows you to choose from the comprehensive roster of real-world players, including the likes of Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams, alongside some new entries this year, such as Britain’s Andy Murray and ladies French Open champion Ana Ivanovic. However, it’s the World Tour Mode that provides the main bulk of single player content. Using a custom-created player you travel around the globe deciding on which singles, doubles and mixed doubles tournaments to enter. A calendar of events means that you can line one tournament up after the other, earning cash and rising up the rankings with each win. You can also spend time between matches enjoying a number of other activities, such as character customization via the well-stocked Tennis Store, or honing your character’s play style through training games, where you get to decide whether to focus your game on the likes of ground strokes or serve and volley skills.
By far the most impressive feature of World Tour Mode is the ability to access an Online HQ and jump immediately into a multiplayer ranked match, where you’re limited to using your custom player only. You can also jump effortlessly into the online tour, where you can earn tour points and rise up the leader-boards by playing competitive multiplayer matches throughout the course of a week. The superb, fully integrated online ranking system is arguably Virtua Tennis’ biggest selling point this year, as the transition between offline and online play is seamless.
Off-court, Virtua Tennis 2009 has a few new additions, including an increase to the roster that adds the likes of Britain’s Andy Murray and ladies French Open champion Ana Ivanovic. However, on-court the changes are more subtle and the arcade-paced gameplay appears to have changed little since the last installment. The basic three-button control scheme means that skill is therefore largely based on accurate timing, as well as your ability to anticipate the ball’s arrival and second guess your opponent’s movements on court. The fast pace and the intensity of the matches – a trademark of the Virtua Tennis series – are a highlight once again in 2009. Though it’s an unrealistic tennis experience, where you’ll see speed trails that follow your ball as it fizzes across court, or extraordinarily long rallies that you have to endure as you wait patiently for the smallest of openings to beat your opponent, it’s still very compelling. Fans of the series will instantly know what to expect from Virtua Tennis, while new players should get some enjoyment out of its high-octane gameplay.
You could argue: "if it’s not broken don’t fix it," but there comes a time in every franchise where you expect to see progression (see EA and its FIFA franchise for a perfect example.) Virtua Tennis 2009 does feel like Virtua Tennis v3.5 rather than a brand new iteration in the franchise. The majority of changes and refinements are aesthetic and don’t affect the gameplay. The one exception to that rule is the ability to switch to a new camera view. The option to zoom in over the shoulder of your player is a decent new addition that adds a new dimension to the gameplay. The new angle means that returning the ball becomes more difficult and matches feel slightly faster and more intense than when you adopt the traditional zoomed out view. That’s it though as far as real innovation goes. A new camera angle is about as daring as Sumo Digital has been on-court.
Enhanced audio gives the games a more immersive feel, with crowds whose noise grows in intensity during matches, and umpires that try and keep the peace. There are also a few small changes to animations, including the ditching of player dives from Virtua Tennis 3, which have now been replaced by the equally inelegant player stumbling. Overall though, there’s little that differentiates it from its predecessor; that includes the extremely average visuals. We’ve seen little evidence of the refined character animations of the real-world player roster that we were promised. The tweaks to animation were really supposed to showcase player’s individuality on-court, but there appears to be next to no difference between player’s on-court behavior, movement and mannerisms.
Pushing our feelings of déjà vu aside, and shrugging off our slight disappointment that the series still hasn’t evolved, Virtua Tennis is without question a great game of tennis, much in the same way that the original Dreamcast game was and every subsequent entry has been. The solid online component and smooth offline/online integration also makes playing against friends easier than ever. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the lag we’ve experienced online pre-launch isn’t a taste of things to come once the servers get busy. Providing the action does run smoothly, Virtua Tennis 2009’s online play should prove a near flawless experience. Offline, however, it’s not quite as exciting as it used to be. Matches still flow, cross-court rallies can be exciting and the speed of the game keeps you hooked, but we’re itching to see something different from a series that seems stuck in a time warp.