It's going be difficult not to compare Virtua Tennis 4 with the recently released 2K Sports title Top Spin 4. While both are (obviously) tennis games, they approach the sport from seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum. One strives to recreate an authentic tennis experience, the other foregoing realism in favor of a more lighthearted, arcade-like approach. In essence it's the difference between a sim and a game. It isn’t exactly comparing apples to oranges, but it's probably not a stretch to suggest we're comparing Granny Smith's to a Golden Delicious.
Virtua Tennis 4 gives you plenty of options in how you can choose to play. Firstly, there is a handy "Practice" mode that will teach you the fundamentals. In "Exhibition" mode you pick either your user-created character or one of the 18 pros who lent their likenesses to the game, including Federer, Nadal, Murray, Sharapova, Williams, and Ivanovic. "Arcade" mode allows you to play the pseudo-Major titles (there is something to be said for shelling out the money for licensing rights, playing the "England Tennis Classic" just doesn't have the same panache as Wimbledon). In "Party" mode you can compete against friends in any of the plethora of fun mini-games. The "World Tour" mode (not to be confused with the online 'World Tour' of Top Spin 4) lets you create a player and engage in a series of mini-games and tournaments, juggling your time to lead him/her to the top of the world rankings. You can also play online if you so desire, testing your skills against other players around the world.
While most of the standard modes are what you'd expect, Virtua Tennis 4 has an interesting structure to its career mode. In truth, it's a little odd. Part board game, part strategy game, part mini-game, part... tennis game, the 'World Tour' offers an eclectic yet strangely addictive mix. It works like this: there are a series of linked nodes on which you can land designating a specific activity. It might be blank, host a tournament, allow you to rest, play short matches against "Special" opponents (real life pros), make a public appearance or play certain mini-games. You have three movement cards that allow you to move one to four nodes. It's pretty clever as you're forced to pay attention and plan ahead, but at the same time it's a bit limiting since you'll miss out on a fair bit if you don't have the correct movement cards. The goal is to gain enough 'Stars' from all of these to qualify for the next tournament, all the while keeping an eye on your conditioning level (you don't want that to dip too low!).
I would be remiss not to focus on the mini-games which are... goofy. There isn't really another word for them. Having said that, they are fun and a lot less monotonous than those in Top Spin 4. You have plenty from which to choose: be it running over eggs and guiding the hatched chicks to their mother, all the while avoiding a barrage of incoming balls from the other side of the net (teaching you mobility and defensive skills), to shooting at moving clay targets on a conveyor belt (improving your shot technique) to hitting balls at giant playing cards to make the most valuable poker hand (teaching you tactics and awareness). These are just a few examples…there are a number of others as well.
Although the player creator is a bit limited, you can create your own custom player and dress him or her up however you see fit. While I love playing dress up, the fact that there are no name brands is a bit of a let down. Oh, and their choice of fashions is a bit... dated. I wouldn't be caught dead in the shorts you start your career in! What is this, 1974? But they make up for it by allowing "Fancy Dress" events where, if you've purchased some of the more bizarre (and funny) clothes available, you can play "in costume." I played a match with a giant sunflower instead of a racquet whilst wearing a top hat, camo vest, bluejeans, and cowboy boots. Of course, we won the match (how could we not?)!
One weird thing with the career mode is that while you get the feeling you're improving, it's hard to tell if you actually are. There isn't a real clear-cut stat tracking system. Basically, if you play the aforementioned goofy mini-games then you raise your ability in one of four categories: Stroke, Defensive, Tactical, and Net-play. Once you gain enough experience in each stat (every ten levels), you gain a specific "Play Style" which essentially serves as a special power. By achieving certain tasks on court you build up a 'Match Momentum' gauge which, when full, allows you a super powerful, virtually un-returnable shot with a cool graphical interlude.
What's odd though is having a specific trait doesn't necessarily define the type of shot you need to hit once the gauge is full, only how you fill it in the first place. For example, if you are a "Hard Hitter" you need only hit full strength shots from either wing to fill the gauge quickly, whereas a volleying or serving specialty only grants you bonuses if you play those particular shots. Once the meter is full, the finishing shot with all the extra mustard can be hit from anywhere with any stroke. Tactics come into play as to when is the right time to unleash said awesomeness, but I'll tell you, it's pretty sweet to uncork a bullet, turning a losing rally around with one shot!
The controls are fairly standard, but I felt like I didn't have the same level of control as I did with Top Spin 4. They just aren't as tight or responsive, especially when it comes to movement. Your player doesn't seem to respond as quickly to sudden changes in direction. I began to notice whoever gets the first good, hard shot in will control the rally and eventually win the point (mind you, that's pretty much how tennis is in real life). Once your opponent is on the defensive it's simply a matter of maneuvering them around until you can finish the point with a clean winner. This is only exacerbated by the fact that once you realize that holding down the shot button until after contact is made doesn't incur a penalty (such as loss of accuracy or over-hitting), the game suddenly becomes much easier. Timing, an essential and integral part of actually playing tennis, seems less important.
The more you play, the more you start to see cracks in the facade. Virtua Tennis 4 is plagued by the same inconsistencies in gameplay that always seem to pop up with tennis games in general. As seems to be the norm, unforced errors, or perhaps more accurately forced errors, seem too infrequent. The computer AI especially seems guilty of returning every shot no matter how acrobatic their efforts. If they get their racquet on the ball, it'll always manage to land back in the court. Diving for shots is the rule, not the exception (trust me, I've done it, and it hurts!). And once again, using the serve and volley strategy will almost always get you out of a tight spot, although getting the time just right on volleys can be difficult.
Graphically, Virtua Tennis 4 may be a touch better than it's 2K counterpart, but I'm simply going on the characters looking far less waxy. But there is a trade off. I didn't feel like the animations were as good, nor as fluid. They also get a recycled early on.
The sound is... well, there isn’t much to it. The techno beats that play in the background during matches are nice at first but get old pretty quickly. Otherwise it's standard 'tennis' sound effects: the ball on the racquet and the occasional grunt. I feel like some commentary, even a little bit to begin and end matches, wouldn't be remiss. As it is, we're still stuck hearing "Advantage, Player 1" after every deuce and the rest of it is all text based. Seeing as most other sports games have veritable libraries of quotes to spout off after every play, the complete lack thereof seems almost dated to me.
Then there are a few random issues about Virtua Tennis 4 that left me scratching my head. First one is that you can't save in the middle of a tournament. Really? What's up with that?! The other thing I found rather bizarre is apparently the designers don't actually play tennis because they don't keep score properly. When you play in a tournament and you serve first, you're supposed to win by two. The point being that everyone has a chance to serve an equal number of times (going under the assumption that the server has the advantage). In Virtua Tennis 4 the matches are best of three, but there is no tie-breaker. If each player wins his/her own service games then the player who serves first wins the match. That's just not the way it works. I was surprised and rather disheartened by this. Couldn't they take the time to learn the rules?
This has been an interesting exercise in comparative reviewing. Both Top Spin 4 and Virtua Tennis 4 are good games that have a lot to offer tennis fans. Part of me wishes there could be an amalgamation of the two, but as it stands I'll end with this: Top Spin 4 is a better game overall, but Virtua Tennis 4 would definitely be more fun to play for the casual fan. It's almost as if it's striving not to be taken seriously, what with the over-the-top mini-games and fancy dress events. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Absolutely not. Depending on what sort of experience you want, the choice is really up to you.