February 8, 2007 - Tennis is one of those games that's easy to learn, but very hard to master. Incredibly, for the past seven years, Sega has managed to strike the balance between a series that's easily accessible for novice tennis gamers, but deep enough for hardcore tennis fans. The latest installment of the franchise, Virtua Tennis 3, looks like it will uphold this tradition nicely by making its transition to the next generation consoles with striking visuals and a large roster of athletes. We recently got a build of the game into the office and came away with some new impressions.
Unlike the last Virtua Tennis title that came out on the PSP and featured sixteen professional players, Virtua Tennis 3 boosts that number up to 20 of the best athletes and up and coming stars. 13 athletes from the ATP take top billing, such as star players Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, as well as up and coming players like Taylor Dent and Gael Monfils. Seven WTA members step onto the courts as well, with Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams and Martina Hingis amongst the female roster. Gamers aren't limited solely to the 20 professional stars; you have the opportunity to load up customized athletes and put them up against these competitors at any time in Tournament or Exhibition play. Initially, players will have 7 courts available to them, ranging from the red clay of Barcelona to the hard courts of Milan and the revered grass of London. However, you'll be able to unlock additional stadiums as you play your way through the World Tour mode.
What has always been surprising is just how accessible the game is. The formula hasn't really changed since the Dreamcast days, so players can easily jump in and be comfortable with playing either a singles or doubles men's or women's exhibition or tournament match. Regardless of which game mode you choose, the control scheme is still very simple: Players have lob, slice and basic top spin shots, which you can use in combination with the angle of the ball to determine whether you'll hit it with your forehand or backhand. Depending on how long you press the button and whether you're in the right position, you can perform other shots like drop shots or overhead smashes with incredible accuracy. Even better, Virtua Tennis 3 provides a way to get accustomed to these mechanics with engaging mini-games.
There are ten new mini-games within Virtua Tennis 3, as well as two returning classic games. However, unlike previous Virtua Tennis titles, these are broken up into two categories: Court Games and training mini-games. The training mini-games can only be played within the context of the World Tour, and improves your created players stats when it comes to the various skills you need on the court. Court Games, on the other hand, are available at the main menu, but are strictly multiplayer affairs. You can't play a single player game against the computer, which should provide a lot of fun for up to four players to go against each other.
The first two are mild variants on each other. Pin Crusher is essentially bowling on a tennis court, with pins placed on the opposite side of the net. You've got ten frames to get as many spares and strikes as possible. Tricky Pin Crusher, on the other hand, is a bit different because instead of the standard pyramid configuration, the pins arrange themselves in different shapes, which makes it a bit harder to get strikes or pick up spares. Avalanche tests your fast footwork, as you attempt to grab fruits that bounce on the court without getting squashed by larger tennis balls. To test your reflexes, Panic Balloon sets up a number of bubbles on the other side of the court with arrows in them. Whenever the ball makes contact with the bubble, it will ricochet in the direction of the arrow, which will definitely keep you on your toes.
The last three are perhaps the office favorites. Super Bingo provides all players with a bingo card and a scrolling set of numbers. By hitting the tennis balls into various numbers, you claim them for your player and the first person to get four numbers in a line of the card wins. Alien Attack is somewhat similar to Space Invaders, except instead of dodging shots, you're trying to send tennis balls into the machines constantly descending towards the net. Finally, there's Court Curling, which is just like the sport on ice, except on a tennis court. Players can use the oversized tennis balls to propel their stones towards scoring areas, while trying not to send them out of bounds. Definite strategy can be involved when you knock your opponent's stones into yours for points, or try to push their rocks out of bounds. We'll have more on Virtua Tennis soon, but for now, check out these screens and movies.