SEGA’s classic tennis series comes to Vita in blistering fashion, providing a technical feat that’s tonnes of fun to play.
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World-building & Story
Like many modern sports titles, Virtua Tennis allows you to craft your own story through a ‘World Tour’ mode that follows a player-created character from obscurity to victory over the course of a tennis season – it works just as well here as it ever has.
You’ll start as a nobody in the lower leagues of the Asian tournaments, signing autographs for fans and practising against similar level-players – who you can forge friendships and form doubles teams with (although inevitably one will be your Pokemon‘s Gary-esque rival as you both rise through the rankings). In a nice touch, you’ll receive emails from a particularly dedicated follower who forms your very own fan-club which grows as your fame does – until you’re rubbing shoulders with the likes of Federer or Nadal.
All of it provides a brilliant sense of progression – it genuinely feels like you’ve gone on a journey when playing, one that’s very personal and your own. I grew attached to my doubles partner (and eventual rival) as we competed across the world – it’s not anything special in terms of narrative, but it’s executed extremely well.
Interestingly although the tournaments are largely based on reality (i.e. French Open, Wimbledon) they’re given fictional names likely due to copyrighting issues. This has also allowed SEGA to experiment and add new competitions – including ‘England Tennis Futuristic’ which uses roomba robots as ball boys, which I found hilarious and unique.
Presentation & Sound
Despite being a Vita launch title, Virtua Tennis still stands out to this day as one of the most graphically impressive games on the console. An incredible amount of effort has been put in to craft a beautiful experience that – most importantly – runs extremely well.
Real player likenesses are used for stars like Federer, Nadal, Sharapova and Williams (it’s amusing how many are still playing at the date of publication) – the modelling is very impressive, with facial features all in tact and things like bespoke animations for serves (noticeable in legacy stars like Pat Rafter). The game likes to use a lot of close-up shots during transition scenes between points and these only serve to highlight how good the players look – the only thing I’d say is that certain ones don’t look quite right (but close enough for it not to be too jarring).
You’re also able to create your own player character with an incredible Sims-esque toolset, that allows you to customise everything from hair colour to eyebrow width. The character models created aren’t as impressive-looking as the real-world stars – possessing more of a doll look, but they still move around the court well and have fun little animations such as spinning their racquet after missing a ball or slamming it if you hit too many shots past them (the game generates random players for you to go up against using these same tools). In saying all this, they’re still lightyears ahead of most other models on Vita, let alone fully customizable ones and stand out as a big achievement.
Obviously environments are limited to tennis courts, but even then things are impressive. You’ll play on a variety of different surfaces from chalk to grass, with plenty of colour variety (particularly in the Asian leagues where you’ll only play on bright blue or purple courts often). The backdrops add to the sense of immersion – sometimes it’ll just be a crowd of people, other times you’ll be overlooking a sea of skycrapers on the roof of a building which is always highlighted by a gorgeous panoramic shot at the start of a match as well as others in between points.
It’s the little details on the courts that really make them special, though. If you serve a ball that hits the line, chalk will fly up into the air – that same serve will also trigger a speedometer in the background which tells you how fast it was. Things like ball boys (or roombas) shuffle around collecting stray balls, while linesmen move out of the way if you hit the ball in their direction. Shadows are also impressive, with some of them taking up half the court and moving as the match progresses as they would in reality. All these little features do wonders to add to the immersion and make Virtua Tennis feel like it’s taking place in a real environment.
Sound effects are your standard whack of a tennis ball, cheering of the crowd and other associated noises that aren’t anything particularly special. There’s no music to speak of other than the odd sting between different points – meaning the overall audio package is functional, but nothing special.
Gameplay & Content
A more arcade-y take on the tennis formula, Virtua Tennis is a satisfying product that rewards placement and anticipation as much as it does choice of shot. It blends difficulties well and contains a sea of content to sink your teeth into, making it an impressive overall offering that you can easily get lost in.
As I just mentioned, the actual moment-to-moment gameplay is a satisfying blend of realism with arcade sensibilities. Obviously, you’ll control your player over half of a tennis court (a number of camera angles are available from TV view to over-the-shoulder) and you’re given a number of shots from lobs to top spins, the combinations and placements of these is left up to you via the face buttons and analogue stick. Oddly I found the game easier to play with the d-pad, but it played havoc with my thumbs after a while so I had to stop this.
Unique features include different playstyles – such as all-rounder, ground strokes or serve and volley – which change the way your player performs and the manoeuvres they’re capable of. By using shots that match with this playstyle, you’ll fill a meter that allows you to use a flashy slow-motion shot that’s more powerful that others, helping you win decisive points in rallies you were otherwise losing. Serving is handled by a power meter that’s easy to get to grips with and allows tactical play too, allowing many different ways to customise how you play to your liking.
What’s most unique about Virtua Tennis is that it encourages you to focus on your court placement more than anything else – as you ‘power up’ shots, the longer you’re in position to do this the stronger shot you’ll hit. This along with the customisation options for your playstyle gives the gameplay a brilliant flow – it’s fun to experiment with the different shots, placement and styles and it never gets old (particularly when you throw in a variety of court surfaces each with their own ball physics which has a large effect the way you’ll play).
You can test the gameplay across a variety of game modes – there’s arcade which (as the name suggests) throws various opponents your way in an escalating series of challenges; while exhibition allows you to choose your player, opponent and court in a custom match. By far the most meaty mode is World Tour, which allows you to guide a player-created character to victory across a whole tennis season.
Your starting point is the character creator which is impressively detailed, allowing you to customise everything from eyes to clothes to your liking. You’re then assigned an agent and thrown into the Asian tour track – which takes the form of a pseudo board game where you move a set number of spaces every turn by using randomly generated movement cards. Your goal is to reach the Grand Slam tournament in each area and make as many fans and much money as you can along the way, although a strict time limit means you can’t spend too long fooling around.
As you move you’ll land on squares and each has a different feature – some will be shops which you can purchase bonuses from, while others will be charitable donations and interviews. By undertaking publicity work you’ll be awarded stars, which are used as a measure of how famous you are and are needed to enter the various tournaments dotted around, as well as grow your adoring legion on fans who will email you with periodic updates about the size of their fandom.
There are also squares that have physical challenges such as practice matches and smaller tournaments where you can hone your skills (which again award stars if you perform well). More interesting are the mini-games which range from guiding chickens into coops while protecting them from incoming tennis balls to playing a match against another player while wind machines randomly turn on and off affecting the direction the ball goes. They’re bonkers, but all pretty fun and a good way to mix up the standard tennis gameplay with something more unique – that also teach you various gameplay skills such as movement or shot direction.
The mini-games award cash but also hone your skills in four areas including net play and tactical thinking and by levelling these up you can unlock more of the aforementioned playstyles – meaning they have a practical influence on the upcoming tournament aside from just being fun to play. These along with the matches award various items of clothing and items that your player can equip, which is a nice bonus to keep you engaged.
Quite frankly, I found World Tour mode to be brilliant and highly addictive. The time management aspect encourages you to plan ahead (encouraged further by a ‘condition’ meter that diminishes over time and affects the way you play, forcing you to plan in landing on relaxation spots) while the sense of progression I got from going to a nobody to three-time Grand Slam champion was brilliant. The fact it mixes in the tight tennis gameplay at the same time just made it that bit better (although honestly, I’d just as happily play a tennis management game based on the World Tour mode).
There are a few extras here, many of which highlight the fact that Virtua Tennis is a first-generation Vita title that sought to make use of all its unique inputs. You can play first-person tennis (decent), two player touchscreen tennis (poor) as well as a mode where you use the gyroscope to rotate a ship while you take shots at it (bizarre). They’re harmless additions, but don’t really do anything to beef up the package and reminded me of the extras in another 2012 SEGA title – Super Monkey Ball.
At the end of the day, this is still a tennis game and there’s an inherent level of repetition to the gameplay which sets in after a while, but Virtua Tennis 4 does a remarkable job of staving that feeling off for as long as possible and provides an addictive and meaty product overall. While Vita owners aren’t exactly inundated with titles in the genre, it’s hard to imagine any that come close to measuring up to this – making it a brilliant game to have in every fan’s library.
A content-rich sports game with an arcade-y base, Virtua Tennis is as much a standout Vita title now as it was at launch. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better looking game on the handheld, but it substantiates its graphics with addictive and deep gameplay alongside an incredible World Tour mode – making it a complete package that’s easy to dip into whenever you feel like blasting some shots over the net.