The Wii ruined tennis games for me. I played a lot of Top Spin 2 on the original Xbox, even though I didn't have much interest in the sport it was based around. Then we entered the waggle generation, where precision and sharp reflexes were replaced with flailing of the wrists. Tennis games became "party games" that played themselves. Also I heard Top Spin 3 was pretty awful.
So I'm glad to say Top Spin 4 has come around, for the joy of its layered and weighty mechanics. The player is given a great amount of control in the sort of shots and tricks he can pull off on the court, but it's all anchored by an avatar that can't suddenly change direction in mid-run when an opponent fakes you out. Planning your shots is what wins the round, not flailing with the sticks.
Top Spin 4's got all the major pros, and gameplay that feels as close to the real sport as a video game can get.
Despite the depth of the gameplay, Top Spin 4 is pretty easy to get into, even for people who have never played a game in the series before. Shots are powered up holding one of three face buttons, and they are directed with the left stick. Timing is key, but you just need to watch the ball to know where your racket and your feet need to be. There's an extensive tutorial covering everything you'll need to start swinging against the pros.
As a lapsed fan, I couldn't just skip ahead to the advanced lessons. For some reason, each lesson after the first is locked until you complete the one before it - a restriction that is a bit alienating since even the basics can end with some fairly hard shots. The on-screen instructions will also occasionally block sight of the ball, making it difficult to get the timing down.
Career is the meat of the game, where you take your tennis hopeful and make him into the next Federer. Pretty standard create-a-guy/gal options, such as choosing the build and clothes, except for the extensive facial modeling features . . . which is odd because if the game has one problem with visuals, it's the "uncanny valley" look of the faces of all the tennis players, including the pre-modeled pros. They have that Polar Express effect of being not quite right. The visuals of the court and the crowd, though, are richly detailed with a realistic lighting model that made me instinctively shield my eyes when I stood on the bright side of the court. Sound effects are spot-on too, though the music selection is low key and limited.
In Career, you'll be holding practice sessions and competing in various tournaments, with more options unlocking as you improve your skill and standing. There are a lot of stats for your player, but cleverly the game gives you three options to focus your improvements on. So you can still be mindful of your abilities without being overwhelmed by them. These numbers have an impact you can feel on the court.
When I upgraded my player's speed, I actually lost the next match because I was still compensating for the slowpoke he used to be. When I played against a friend, he pointed out my backhand sucked. Raising its stat helped my game immensely against tougher AI opponents. You can also hire coaches to give you a helping hand, and get a set of bonus objectives to earn additional experience.
There's a quick play option against friends or the AI, letting you choose your created player or from an extensive roster of pros. There's even a tournament mode for four people offline, and a suite of online options. Besides the quick play and tournament modes, you can have an online career against real opponents or play games with your friends in Xbox Live party mode. Lag is rare. Most matches were just as smooth as shutting down a friend on the same couch.
Niggling problems keep Top Spin 4 from being ideal. There's a lot of loading involved in whatever you do. Even starting up the game, it loads up a practice mode whether you want it or not, leaving you with yet more loading just to get to the main menu. There are also rare moments when the ball just goes vertical and disappears. Most of the time this is off a bad hit that would have gone out anyway, but once the AI scored a point on me for a ball I couldn't return because it had just vanished. A bit more common are serving problems. The game will call fault when there clearly wasn't one, the AI will make a bad serve it'll get a point for, and sometimes my guy will not return the serve, even though the ball practically grazes his shoulder. These aren't common problems, but if you plan to sink into the career, you'll see your fair share.
If you like tennis, Top Spin 4 is your game. It's got all the major pros, and gameplay that feels as close to the real sport as a video game can get. If you don't really care about tennis, but want a fun game to play with friends that still has a level of depth and skill to it, it's a welcome change from gunning down terrorists. Both versions support stereoscopic 3D, which I was unable to test. The PS3 version even supports the Move . . . but I can't recommend it. Waggle has no place in a real tennis game.