March 20, 2007 - It's a surprise Didier Drogba didn't make it into Virtua Tennis 3. The Chelski striker, infamous for falling on his face at the slightest touch, would fit perfectly in this game, because many of the world's greatest tennis pros, including Federer, Nadal and, um, Tim Henman, spend more time diving for shots than they do whacking the ball - something Drogba does week-in-week-out. In fact quite why there's so much diving in Virtua Tennis 3 is a mystery - sure, throwing your player across the court to reach a ball has always been part of the game, but here it happens every couple of shots, especially in the multiplayer game. It wouldn't be so bad if you scored points for style and finesse while falling, like figure skating in tennis whites, but all you get are grazed knees and a bruised ego when your opponent slogs another cross-court winner.
There are loads of cool practice mini-games to enjoy in the World Tour mode.
Let's put that criticism to one side for a moment though and focus on the positives Virtua Tennis 3 has to offer. Firstly, anyone familiar with the previous two will get the grasp of this sequel in an instant, because SEGA has brought its much-loved brand of pick-up-and-play arcade gameplay back to the court. Secondly, it's as authentic as any EA Sports game, boasting 20 world class pros including all the major male and female stars, as well as tournaments and stadiums from all across the globe. And finally, because Virtua Tennis 3 is a sports game with surprising depth, there's much more to it than hitting a ball around court.
Indeed, you only need to play the World Tour mode - the equivalent of a career option - for a couple of hours to get an idea of how much there is to the game. Here, players can create their own star and take them out onto the tennis circuit, playing through the lower tournaments to up their ranking before they take on the big guns. Designing your rookie ball-whacker is a fun and, because the creator is extremely flexible and easy to use, it doesn't take more than a couple of minutes. What's more, you can fiddle around with the clothes they wear and racquet they use, although you're presented with more of a choice the more you prove yourself out on the court.
Players are recognisable but have that familiar next-gen waxy sheen.
Similarly, you don't really choose the strengths and weaknesses of your player. Instead you develop their skills much like you would in an RPG, playing through a handful of refreshingly oddball practice games designed to develop the different areas of your game. Take your service for example: you can improve the strength accuracy of your serve by picking the bowling mini-game, in which you must knock over the skittles with hard, well-placed shots. The more you knock down, the more experience you're awarded and so your player levels up. It the same process for developing your stroke and volley play, although here you're bursting balloons, hitting targets and even fending off hungry alligators, all in the name of progression. Finally, to improve speed and agility around the court you face an avalanche of giant tennis balls, which need to be avoided while grabbing fruit at the same time.
The mini-games are both varied and fun, with over a dozen different challenges to get stuck into. What's more, they really add another dimension to the game, because while all you really do is smack a ball (at a group of advancing aliens, at oil cans, at skittles - pretty much anything, really) each one really does feel different from the next. It's also clever the way they're incorporated into your training schedule, which then fits into the tennis World Tour calendar. Each practice session takes up a week of your calendar, so you only have a certain amount of time to work on different areas of your game before the next tournament. Of course, you're not forced to enter tournaments and can instead keep on practicing, but your seeding only increases when you win competitions and some of the later challenges - like doubles games and playing against the best opposition - can only be entered if you're a high-ranking player.