While the core content itself is still plenty good, this port of an Xbox 360 game is weighed down by stability and performance issues.
- Fun, responsive gameplay
- Engaging, varied career mode
- lots of great, subtle detail in the sound design
- Maria Sharapova
- surprisingly deep player creation.
- Menus plagued by the same three generic tunes
- facial features can be eerie
- less-than-optimal camera angles
- Animations look choppy
- Occasional texture dropout.
PAM Development delivered a high-quality game of tennis when it originally brought Top Spin 2 to the Xbox 360 a year ago. It wasn't particularly revolutionary, but it offered a flexible character creation system, a playful career mode, first-rate production values, and most importantly, some of the sharpest, most nuanced tennis action to be found anywhere. Aspyr has now brought Top Spin 2 to the PC, and although most of what made the Xbox 360 version great remains applicable here, the passing of time and some sloppiness in the translation make it a less impressive package all around.
First off, you should know that this is a game that simply demands you play it with a gamepad, and unsurprisingly, the Xbox 360 controller proves to be ideal. This necessity is driven by the fact that Top Spin has always offered a slightly more technical game of tennis than Sega's standard-bearing Virtua Tennis franchise, though it's still quite easy to pick up. You've got four basic swings, including the aptly named safe swing, which will never go out of bounds, though the other three shot types require a bit more finesse to keep inside the lines. The slice shot flies low and fast and is great for crossing up your opponent; the topspin shot flies straight and bounces high but moves fast and can slip right past opponents who aren't on their toes; and the lob shot, which should be used sparingly, can be very potent against aggressive opponents apt to ride the net.
While the four basic shot types can be used at any time, eight additional swings require some portion of your momentum meter. Momentum is gained and lost naturally as you score points and are scored on and can be used for either risk shots, which take up big chunks of your momentum, or advanced shots, which eat up a more modest amount of momentum. The advanced shots are high-powered versions of your standard swings. Risk shots are even more powerful, but as the name suggests, they're rather risky, too. Holding down the assigned modifier button before you start a swing will bring up a rising power meter, which you need to stop right at the top. If your timing is off, you'll botch the shot and likely give your opponent the upper hand. If you nail it, the ball moves hard and fast and can be difficult to return.
As potent as they can be, though, risk shots are usually worth taking only during your first serve, when you have a free pass to hit the net. Otherwise, the stakes are too high, and it's prohibitively difficult to keep an eye on the meter and your opponent while also keeping your player in motion in the middle of the match. While the risk shots still don't have an optimal risk-to-reward ratio, they've been refined a bit since the first Top Spin, and they don't have any ill effect on the rest of the gameplay, which is consistently responsive and, thanks to some aggressive and skilled artificial intelligence, regularly quite intense.
Digesting all of the tennis jargon in Top Spin 2 can be a bit much if you don't know the sport, and hopping right into the game's exhibition or tournament modes may give you a bit of a rocky start. It's best, then, that you go into the game's career mode, which does a fine job of casually acclimating you to the nuances of the gameplay as you play. Before you start mastering your smokin'-fast ace serves and humiliating dump shots, though, you'll have to create your own custom tennis pro.
In addition to offering basics like gender, age, and nationality, the character creation system in Top Spin 2 gives you rather impressive control over the facial features and physical build of your player and is almost comparable to the character creation system found in 2K Games' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion--though, as far as we could tell, there's no option to create a crazy magic-adept lizard-man tennis pro in Top Spin 2. Maybe next year! There's kind of an "uncanny valley" thing going on with the facial features. The skin tones often have flat, mannequinlike sheens to them, but the player models still feature a good amount of realistic detail. Despite the support of higher screen resolutions, it can be tougher to make the tennis pro you want in the PC version, as the work-in-progress model you're shown during the creation process is blurry and indistinct, making some of the finer details hard to make out. It's odd, because once you're actually in the game everything is crisp and clear. The animation has also suffered in the translation. There's still some nice subtlety to the players' movements, but the smoothness of the Xbox 360 version has been replaced by erratic choppiness. This isn't just a minor aesthetic problem, as it can affect the timing of the gameplay as well.
Once your player is created and dolled up in some appropriately fresh gear from major tennis apparel companies like Adidas, Nike, Wilson, and Lacoste, you'll start your career at the bottom of the barrel with a rank of 200 and a low-level sponsorship. Your goals over the course of your career are to build up your player's skills, rise in the ranks, and rake in an obscene amount of coin. The game progresses a week at a time, and each week has room for one training event, one tournament event, and one special event. The training events should be your primary concern when you first start off--you won't qualify for most of the tournaments when you first start anyways, and even if you did, the competition will more than likely eat you alive.
Training is handled much the same as in the original Top Spin, and the Virtua Tennis games before that, turning the tennis court into the stage for a series of skill-building minigames. Sometimes your task is as simple as hitting specific spots on the court a number of times, but more often than not, you'll be hitting balls into rows of giant dominoes, bowling balls, gigantic tennis balls, and towering walls made out of translucent bricks. The variety of training games you'll encounter over the course of your career has increased since the first Top Spin, and it's a change that helps make the career mode here much more compelling--while training has been a little tedious in the past, the variety and the novelty of the minigames here makes training something to look forward to. Successfully completing a training event nets you stars that you can apply to up to three of the 11 different attributes, techniques, and skills that define your player's performance.