I bought Virtua Tennis 3 alongside my PSP Camera a couple of weeks back now, so I’ve put quite a bit of time into the career mode thus far.
Positives are that it delivers quite a fun game of tennis, if a little predictable at times. It can be quite challenging to fathom out what your opponent is doing to counter your tactics and work out an alternative strategy to beat them. Sometimes it’s way too easy, though – even matches against opponents in the top 100 will have them serving to the same places and falling for the same set-up play every time.
The way you’ll play the game depends on the way you develop your player, although early on it’s not like you’ll need to extend yourself to beat the AI. Initially I went for the mini-games that would give me strong serves and ground strokes, at the expense of my footwork and volleying. However, when I started closing in on the top 100 rankings it became apparent that I’d need to improve the skills I was lacking in order to progress.
As each mini-game to improve your skills takes a week out of the calendar, it’s difficult to progress, enter tournaments, and rest every now and then. You need to rest to restore your stamina and ward off injury – something I neglected to do in my first year and ended up missing six weeks with a pulled muscle. I’ve since done it again, due to trying to squeeze in just one more activity before resting, so it’s clear you need to pace yourself.
As you progress through the mini-games they get more difficult. For example, the serving game where you knock down bowling pins ups the ante by moving the pins to more challenging areas, while the game where you have to dodge giant tennis balls to improve your footwork gets all the more frantic as you level up. Eventually you’ll compete against other players in the mini-games, trying to outscore a big serving AI player in the bowling pin game, for instance.
One completely bonkers mini-game has you trying to defend a selection of chops from some alligators by volleying tennis balls at the reels the alligators are chained onto. Hit the reel and the alligator attached to it gets dragged back away from the chops with an accompanying weeeee! sound. It’s not exactly realistic, but it does show the game designers were willing to throw some creativity in there.
In order to concentrate on improving my skills without having to juggle playing and resting, I opted to avoid competing in tournaments for a year as, strangely, your ranking doesn’t drop through not playing. This meant that following year I hit the ground running with a much improved all round game. In the event I think this has proved to be a bit of a double edged sword, since, although it’s good fun ripping folk to shreds with my now powerful ground strokes, I think I might have bypassed some of the challenge by taking a year out.
As you gain ranking points you’ll get challenged by other players on the tour, and by playing them you’ll improve your skills, although not to the same degree as completing a mini-game. You’ll get all comers, either male or female, and occasionally the matches can be quite tough – I had a real problem returning Andy Roddick’s serves early on, so it was good to get the practice against him outside of a tournament without risking any ranking points.
Unfortunately the title suffers from the same ills that afflict almost every single game that Sega has had ported to any of the PlayStation platforms; Graphically, it’s abysmal. The players look like zombified burns victims up close, and you can see the joins in the textures on the players disturbing symmetrical faces, which flicker horrifically in the cut-scenes between points. It’s not so much uncanny valley as valley of the damned. It just looks horrid, although not as horrid as the buildings in the background popping in and out of existence during pre-match scene setting.
It really is inexcusably poor at this stage in the PSP’s lifespan – this is a second generation game and, although it’s a marked improvement from Virtua Tennis World Tour in terms of loading times and playability, it really is shoddy port rather than something Sega and Sumo Digital could take any pride in. I find it odd that plenty of other developers are raising the bar quite considerably on the PSP, while Sumo Digital are content to punt out a flicker fest. Having played Driver 76 it’s clear that the expertise of Sumo Digital is to be found more in their ability to port existing code onto the PSP, rather than in creating a refined product for it.
For my money, it’s a real shame they couldn’t have gone the extra mile as, gameplay wise, Virtua Tennis 3 is great fun and very hard to put down when you’re on a roll. I’ve played the demo of rival tennis title Smash Court Tennis 2 and, on the surface, it doesn’t offer the kind of rewarding playability that has kept me coming back to VT3. It’s just a pity I have to endure sloppy graphics when I do.
Given the scandalous graphical glitches I think a six out of ten is about all Virtua Tennis 3 deserves, which ultimately sells the excellent gameplay short. To finish on a tennis related pun, it has solid game in there, but isn’t the smash it could have been.