The last few years have seen developers of sports games become increasingly obsessed with the notion of realism. Despite the annual FIFA game outselling nearest rival Pro Evolution Soccer every year, licence-guzzling giant EA talks openly about trying to emulate the realism that its closest rival offers. So it’s ironic that Virtua Tennis 3 – a sports title that flaunts its arcade style at every possible opportunity, with its players diving all over the shop and its mini-games bordering on lunacy – currently sits pretty as the first, some might say only, great sports offering on the new generation of consoles.
By simplifying the sport down to its most basic form, Virtua eschews any notion of reality. Its control system borders on crude, with the three face buttons used to hit lob, topspin or slice shots, and the left analogue stick in charge of player movement and shot direction. That’s it. No using the shoulder buttons to add extra spin to the ball like old Super Nintendo favourite Super Tennis. No option for the player, even, to decide when to smash or volley or dive. The AI makes those decisions for you contextually, depending on the position of your character.
Yet this simpleton approach actually enhances Virtua Tennis 3’s charm. Ask someone who’s never played a football game to play Pro Evo and it would take them months to learn every strange nuance, every tactical possibility, every intricate skill. Plonk a Henman-hater in front of Virtua and they’ll be serving aces and drilling passing shots within minutes. Like past titles as varied as Sonic The Hedgehog, Guitar Hero and God Of War, the key is its ‘easy to pick-up, hard to perfect’ approach. And like those titles, its masterful usage of this method earns it a place in gaming’s upper echelons.
But it’s not the only factor for which it deserves grand praise. Visually, it’s as good as just about anything we’ve seen on PS3 or 360 to date: from Tim Henman’s ever-familiar rabbit-caught-in-headlights expressions to Maria Sharapova’s luscious golden locks to Lindsay Davenport’s fascinating belly, players are almost threateningly lifelike, and multitudinous crowds in the game’s myriad arenas from around the globe look the part, too.
The cuckoo mini-games that have become a Virtua tradition cement its lofty standing. Found within the game’s plump career mode, in which you transform a cack-handed also-ran into a John McEnroe clone by completing training exercises and winning tournaments, they’re an integral part of the Virtua experience because they are the training exercises which have to be completed if your player is to make it on the world stage.
Some are favourites from Virtua Tennis’s past, like Pin Crusher. Working to the same scoring system as ten-pin bowling, you serve balls towards skittles in the opposite half of the court, trying to earn spares and strikes and improve your player’s service attributes in the process. Others are completely novel ideas. Feeding Time sees you protecting oversized meat chops from the chomping jaws of a hungry group of alligators. Each reptile is attached to a rotating panel via a chain; smashing balls into the panel causes the respective ’gator to be dragged backwards a few feet, keeping the meat intact for just a precious few more seconds. Almost as surreally, Avalanche sees you improving your character’s movement attributes by collecting fruit while guiding him out of the way of the oversized tennis balls that come hurtling off a giant conveyor belt.
Seven of Virtua Tennis 3’s mini-games are also available to play in multiplayer, and the impact of this can’t be underestimated. In previous titles, there was little to do once the created character had reached number one in career mode. Multiplayer was fun, but with matches limited to a single set it felt limited. Virtua Tennis 3 – in one of its few concessions to reality – now features three- and five-set matches, and with those barmy mini-games also factored in, it packs one hell of a swing in group play.
The biggest surprise with Virtua Tennis 3 and its predecessors? That no one has yet come close to emulating it. Sony’s Smash Court Tennis titles on PS2 were excellent tennis sims, but their starchy-around-the-collar feel made them inaccessible to anyone looking for a super-immediate game in this particular genre. For as long as that remains the case, Virtua Tennis 3 will reign supreme as gaming’s answer to Roger Federer: an all-conquering beast, yet one that moves with beautiful panache and majestic grace. Those other sports games endlessly searching for something called reality could learn a lot about fun from this particular arcade-bred example.