“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the guiding design principal for Sega’s classic Tennis series. While the graphics change and game modes come and go, Sega hasn’t really meddled much over the series four iterations (six if you include the Virtua Tennis 2009 entry and Virtua Tennis: World Tour on the PSP), to the extent that those of us who started playing Virtua Tennis on the Dreamcast can pick up Virtua Tennis 4 and find that it’s pretty much like getting back on an old bike. Muscle memory takes over, and the game plays with the same fluid grace it’s had since the beginning.
Whether you’re an old-hand or a newcomer, this is actually good news. Virtua Tennis 4 isn’t the most in-depth simulation of the sport - see Top Spin 4 if you want to go there - but it is the most enjoyable. The controls are simple and responsive, and the emphasis is more on anticipating where serves and shots will land and timing your return than on match strategy or complex power moves. The AI in single-player mode is smart without being unbeatable, and it’s easy to pick up but very, very difficult to put down. Few sports games have this much “just one more go” factor.
VT4 is a bit more realistic when it comes to last-minute dashes and players than hurling themselves around the court than the sometimes ludicrously acrobatic VT3, but the only real addition to the basic gameplay is a new mechanic, where you fill up a gauge and - at some slightly unpredictable point - a shot will become a “Super Shot”, viewed close-up in slow-motion, that’s impossible to return. These don’t pop up so often, and the effect is so cool that when they do, it puts a little cherry on the icing of the game.
If Sega hasn’t messed with the foundations, however, then it has produced the best-looking and most feature-packed version of Virtua Tennis yet, though with some idiosyncrasies that might not appeal to the masses. We get a larger selection of real players than ever before, with new faces like Fernando Gonzalez and Caroline Wozniaki joining the established stars: Nadal, Federer, Murray, Sharapova and the rest. The graphics are much-improved on the 2009 edition, with plenty of between-rally close-ups that almost go to into too much effort in rendering the sweat on Murray’s grumpy brow, though the lighting and cloth simulations are very nice indeed. The PS3 version has an additional 3D option, though sadly we weren’t able to test it.
In terms of play modes, VT4 still harks back to the series’ arcade heritage. Beyond basic exhibition matches we get an arcade mode where you play four games across four tournaments - still modelled but sadly not actually licensed from the real Grand Slam events - online multiplayer and one of the most peculiar career modes of any modern sports game. Character creation works as you might expect, but instead of a straight series of tournaments interspersed with realistic training, we get a bizarre board game affair, where each turn takes you to an event or mini-game as you build up the stars that will let you enter the next major cup.
The mini-games, each one boosting a different facet of your game, see you smashing targets, playing through a series of pop-up barriers which you can activate with your feet, or leading baby ducklings to their mothers while balls fire at them from a nearby launcher. It’s lengthy, deep and entertaining, but a bit confusing and the sort of thing that might not go down well with those who are more into their tennis than their video games. Still, this is classic Sega, and some of us wouldn’t want it any other way.
The most dramatic addition - and probably the game’s major selling point - is the addition of a new mode designed specifically for motion-controlled play. This is limited to one or two-player exhibition matches and mini-game party play, and the focus is more on simple fun than on trying to make Virtua Tennis work with motion controls. There’s no control over player movement, and in fact your players seem practically tied to the baseline. What’s more, the game has a slightly odd effect where you serve in third-person but return service in a first-person view, which proves unsettling until you get used to it.
Predictably the PlayStation Move version fares best; while there’s not quite as much finesse as there was on EA’s Grand Slam Tennis with MotionPlus on Wii, the action feels fast and responsive, and you can angle shots and add spin in the way that you might with a real tennis racket. It feels good. The Kinect controls are much harder to get to grips with; forehand and particularly backhand shots are harder to hit and angle with the hands, and you have to effectively learn the timing involved, or constantly miss your return. Oddly enough, the game is easier to play with a real racket (or vaguely racket-shaped object). It’s impossible to say whether the game picks it up or not, but it certainly improved gameplay while we were testing, to the extent that it was actually fun.
It’s a little disappointing that the motion controls don’t provide a killer reason to buy Virtua Tennis 4 - particularly as they’re limited to just the one game mode. However, in all other respects this is a superb and furiously addictive game of arcade tennis, which gives the established Virtua Tennis gameplay a new shine. Right now, it might not seem essential, but once Wimbledon kicks off it’s the game that we’ll all want to play.