Has it really been ten years since the release of the original Virtua Tennis? I could have asked legendary Sega producer Mie Kumagai that one question and be done for the day, stunned that a decade has flown by so quickly. The thing is, she can’t believe it’s been such a long time either.
With Virtua Tennis 4
, Kumagai-san’s team has taken a series of bold steps. Perhaps the biggest change - especially for the Millennium university-dwellers who would play the original games in their Union bars - is that this will be the first time that the colourful sports series has not seen an arcade release. “The arcade scene was a lot more lively ten years ago,” Kumagai said. “These days, video games as a whole has dropped in general popularity, and with that arcades have been affected too.”
But with the focus on consoles this time around, there’s a bigger emphasis on career and multiplayer features to offer players more value for money, she added. For instance, the World Tour mode has had a complete makeover, and looks to offer a much more compelling experience. You’re still taking your custom athlete on the road, but this time you’ll be dealing with a board-game style interface, using numbered ‘tickets’ to move around and experience various stat-changing effects.
Landing on the right square is crucial to levelling up your player and avoiding mishaps - events range from one-on-one matches to training games and charity donating drives. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get into an accident and will have to avoid certain bonuses, and you won’t be able to do anything at all if you’re not well-rested. If you’re tennis power is at the right level, then different career routes open up to you on the World Tour map and allow you to advance even further.
When it comes to the training mini-games, you can rest easy. All of these events are brand new, and aren’t yet more rehashes of the same games you’ve been playing for ten years. These include clay pigeon shooting, rally-keeping, collecting chicks (no, I don’t know either) and Poker (where you have five cards to change to build a Poker hand). I only got to see Wall Match in action, which involves pressing switches to raise barriers and block your opponents’ shots. Seems like an opportunity for many swears in the office during multiplayer.
Virtua Tennis 4
also takes advantage of the fact that all three platforms hosting it - Wii, PS3 and Kinect - have some form of motion control. So there’s a special option in the main menu to play exhibition games using the Wii MotionPlus, Kinect or PlayStation Move controllers. The idea is to make it feel like you’re hitting the ball - the game shows a third-person perspective throughout the match until the ball is in your half of the court. You then get a first-person view with a ghosted image of your racquet so you can see where you want to smack the ball.
Move Over Kinect
For Kinect, my experience was pretty poor because Microsoft’s hardware failed to register my increasingly exhausted, flailing arms. Then after two minutes I got a message asking me to take a break. Cheeky fucker.
The PlayStation Move worked the best, with the ability to twist your wrist in order to align your racquet for trick shots. And the game recognised my swings pretty accurately too.
Playing on a good old-fashioned controller is the way to experience the majority of Virtua Tennis 4
however, and for the most part you’ll be back in blue-sky Sega heaven. The only caveat here is in the inevitable tweaking of the timings and physics - for VT
veterans, it was quite difficult to ascertain where you needed to go on the court, and I ended up overshooting my return and moving too far in front of the ball when it came to returning a shot. It doesn’t seem as fluid as Virtua Tennis 2
- but there is time to fix this.
With everything else - including an extended online mode that I wasn’t able to experience at all apart from hear promises that it would be like tennis sex - it seems like everything’s evolving nicely for the Virtua Tennis
series though. But while the old guard may have returned, what about Sumo Digital’s time with the series?
Kumagai told me she was very impressed with the UK studio’s work on both Virtua Tennis 3
, adding that her team was still very much involved in the pre-production phase. “We later shared data and assets with Sumo, after our first time working together on Virtua Tennis 3
- it’s a good feeling when you are in the company of another team who understands your code.
“Of course, it is always difficulty for Japanese and Western studios to communicate properly, and there are lots of cultural hurdles to overcome when you’re in this situation - but I feel Sumo is a very capable studio, and they did a great job,” Kumagai said with a smile.
Virtua Tennis 4 will be releasing on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii this Spring.