July 5, 2007 - The great Stefan Edberg once said that many people think of tennis as a game of hitting, meaning that the player with superior strokes, skills, and overall tennis talent would rule the day each and every time out onto the court. Edberg, in all his great serve-and-volleying wisdom, instead said that tennis was a game of speed, a game of running and movement, and more importantly, footwork. Sadly, Mr. Edberg didn't have his hand in the development of Namco's latest tennis title, Smash Court Tennis 3, which has professional tennis players moving at a snail's pace. Even still, the tennis action is functional and reasonably fun, just so long as you aren't expecting the next installment of the fast and furious Virtua Tennis.
Circle gets the square.
On its outermost layer, Smash Court Tennis 3 (SCT3 for short) has all the trimmings to be a solid tennis offering. There's an arcade mode where you can set up a sequence of matches between your favorite pro players, an exhibition mode for a one-time matchup, and a challenge mode where you can play tennis variants like Pac-Man, Galaga, and Bomb tennis, all of which provide an excellent distraction when the sim action gets a little dull. The list is rounded out by an Ad Hoc multiplayer option, and Pro Tour which is the focal point and real meat of the game.
As with any good career mode, things begin with you molding your own tennis pro. The customization options aren't exactly deep, but you should still be able to match up a few set pieces to form something that looks a bit like you, or at least one of your family members. After you've finished creating your prodigy, it's time to take to the court. Sadly, this is where things go slightly awry.
It's clear that Smash Court Tennis 3 is trying to deliver a simulation-based experience, at least when compared to Virtua Tennis, which features pro players diving across the baseline - something that never happens in the real thing - and having endless rallies with no errors in sight. SCT3 on the other hand brings much slower, more methodical action. Players slowly maneuver around the court, carrying what feels like too much momentum, thus making them slightly unwieldy at times. This does improve as you enhance your star's parameters (attributes) and skills, but still doesn't feel anywhere close to the real thing. A tennis player ranked in the top 300 in the world - the initial ranking in SCT3 - flies around the court, but not here in the Smash Court world. Now, I understand that there has to be some kind progression and disparity between the movement of a number one player and the 300th ranked player in the world, but it's nauseating watching the way you'll lumber around the court when you first start out.
If there's no grass on the field, play on the clay.
The same goes for hitting power and precision which is totally confined to the center part of the court, even when you strike up an exhibition match between Federer and David Nalbandian. Roger Federer can put the ball anywhere on the court in reality, but none of that translates into the game. Now I'm not saying that you'll be lobbing the ball down the center through your whole career in Pro Tour mode, but it takes a very long time until you can concoct anything that looks like actual tennis. When that match finally does come, it is rewarding, even if your player does feel a bit heavy when sprinting around the court.
Being that the gameplay is more simulation than arcade, you might be wondering where the smashing comes in during Smash Court Tennis 3. Essentially the only time you'll get to smash the ball (read: perform an overhead) is when you're playing the net. So, like many other tennis titles, players are urged to rush the net as much as possible, taking some attention off of the ground stroking portion of tennis. It's odd because today's game is played largely from the baseline, but videogame tennis continues to paint the net as the most advantageous position. While it is true that coming to net is the quickest way to put your opponent away, it would be nice if some "smashing" could be done from the baseline.