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Top Spin

Developer: Pam Development | Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Players: 1 to 4 Player Game | Release Date: 10/28/03 | Genre: Sports

For someone who hasn’t played any tennis games in the last ten years outside of Mario Tennis and Virtua Tennis, it’s very hard to imagine a tennis title that isn’t fantastic. That said, any tennis game that comes across my hands from this point on has some lofty expectations to live up to. So now that I have such snobby expectations of tennis games, I was very skeptical of Microsoft’s tennis debut, Top Spin – especially after I learned that model/tennis hobbyist Anna Kournikova would be gracing the cover. But unlike the lady who was beautiful enough to make Enrique lose the mole, Top Spin has style and substance.

Whether the developers of Top Spin want to admit it or not, a great deal of thanks needs to be attributed the successful formula of Dreamcast smash, Virtua Tennis. In fact, after playing through the career mode of Top Spin, most aspects of the game made me feel like I was playing Virtua Tennis again: simple but amazingly tight controls, amusing training games that improve your overall skills and the goal of become the number one ranked player in the world. This gave me the impression that someone at Microsoft said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix…but tweak the hell out of it.â€?

And tweak Microsoft has. While retaining the ease of play found in Virtua Tennis, the game isn’t the two button game its Dreamcast influence was. In addition to the standard face shot and the lob shot, the face buttons on the Xbox controller are rounded out by the option of using a slice spin or top spin shot. The trigger buttons also play an important aspect of the game. Using the L trigger, gamers can perform a drop shot near the net to throw off their opponents. To perform an accurate drop shot is easier said than done, however, as a quickly moving meter similar to what you would see shooting free throws in a basketball game appears which you need to time right to get the best possible shot. Similarly, with the R trigger, gamers can perform risky serve shots and face shots, but timing is even more essential than it was with the L trigger. Shots that aren’t hit perfectly will likely hit the net or go outside of the lines. Sound confusing? It’s really not that bad, and if you don’t want to try risky shots, you can generally get by using the standard shot.

The other notable gameplay aspect of Top Spin that seems to be a spin-off with improvements over Virtua Tennis is the game’s career mode. Here gamers must take their player from a low ranking no one to the top player on the tour. To make things more interesting, however, that no one is you. Unlike Virtua Tennis, where gamers have to play through the game with past-their-prime tennis stars like Jim Courier, Microsoft’s career mode begins by having you create a player from the headband all the way down to the tennis shoes. Easily one of the best aspects of the game, the create-a-player options are possibly the best ever – save for maybe Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004. Gamers can tweak faces models, body models, etc in so many ways that you will undoubtedly be able to create a player with an uncanny likeness of you or one of your friends.

Once your player is created, you will have various gameplay options across a map of the world – including tournaments, tennis shops, training centers and sponsorship visits. The tournaments range from minor pro matches in obscure places to mock Grand Slams – you know, the ones that look like Wimbledon and the French Open, but lack the license. These tournaments are the meat and potatoes of the career mode, as you only move up in the rankings by winning tournaments. The only disappointing aspect of this is that it does not run like a normal tennis season. Rather than moving through a season of events, you play in the tournament when you want to; and if you lose, you simply re-enter the tournament until you win.

What’s actually more fun in the career mode is the game’s sponsorship and training. With the sponsorship stops, gamers visit sponsors like Oakley, K-Swiss and Adidas to get more money and clothing by taking on challenges of the sponsor – which include skills tests intended for commercial shoots and challenges from other players sponsored by the same company. The training modes, which are comprised of targeting games similar to Virtua Tennis (of course!), are intended to improve and build up your tennis skills. What makes Top Spin unique, however, is that the game has implemented RPG elements to make the development of your character more interesting. At the start of a gamer’s career, you are given 14 stars – which can be distributed into four different ability areas with as many as five stars. The ability areas are serve, volley, backhand shots and forehand shots. What makes things more enticing is that there are five different training areas for each ability (allowing you up to five stars for each ability), but with only 14 stars to use up, certain abilities will never be as good as others. Additionally, after a player has used up a certain amount of stars, they are given a choice of several special skills, such as spin serves and increased defense, to add to their repertoire. By the time a player has used up all 14 stars, the gamer will also find their player to have 4 different special skills. This makes for a wide variety of player types that can be created, which serves for more interesting match-ups – especially when playing against someone online.

Yes that brings us to the game’s online gameplay – a first for videogame tennis. As expected, Top Spin plays beautifully via Xbox live. For fans of competition, online gaming doesn’t much better than Top Spin. For starters, showcasing your created player against created players of your friends is very entertaining. It’s really great to see how the players improve online based on your improvements in the career mode, especially when involved in an XSN sports league. Of course, you don’t have to play with your created player online. If you want top tier match-ups from the onset, you can always select players like Martina Hingis, Pete Sampras or one of the other 14 professionals found in the game. While most of the online components of Top Spin are top notch, the only minor flaw is that in doubles matches, you can’t find three buddies on three different systems – you need to have two players to a system. Hopefully this will be adjusted with next year’s addition of the game. Of course, for gamers without Live, Top Spin still offers single player and system link multiplayer.

As you can see, the gripes with Top Spin are few and far between, as the game is truly the best tennis game ever made. Add all the mentioned attributes of the game together and top it off with the fact that the gameplay is silky smooth and as good to look at as its cover girl…all you can say is “Game, set, match Top Spin!â€?

By Matt Grandstaff - 11/11/03
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Screenshots for Top Spin

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