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Top Spin 4: Game, set and match?

Hands-On: 2K promises it won't let us drown in tennis balls again...

The thing that's unfortunately left its mark in the memory about Top Spin 3 is the racket abuse-inducing difficulty of simply hitting a shot.

Based on timing and positioning - and the requirement of a fully-charged press of both the face buttons and trigger modifiers - returning that yellow, fluffy sphere was something of a science.

Although this control system made Top Spin 3 far deeper than Virtua Tennis, say, it also made it undeniably tricky. 2K Czech was going for a full sim and you only needed to play through the extensive tutorial to begin to understand just how much control you could exert. You really could hit just about any spot on the court if you had enough patience to train. Alas, few people did.

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Top Spin 4 offers a bit of a trade-off, then, between simplifying the control system and retaining the amount of shots, right? Actually, 2K Czech president Stéphane Dupas claims the team have managed to provide more shots - just on fewer buttons.

The trigger and shoulder button controls are out, now every shot is based solely on the four face buttons. Importantly, where Top Spin 3 required you fully charge a shot as well as timing the strike for a perfect return, Top Spin 4 doesn't punish late button presses. Instead, that's how you access the full shot spectrum.

NEW BALLS PLEASE
There are three parts to your shot meter; charging it up to the max before the ball reaches that sweet spot will see you release your most powerful shot - the quality of which is still determined by timing. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is the quick tap, which will suit beginners who tend to make returns at the last minute.

It means that no player is penalised outright from the beginning, but there's depth and room for court mastery for those that can combine timing, positioning and shot power.

The quick snap shot, for example, offers more opportunity for accuracy and placement but doesn't really pack much venom, whereas the power shot relies on just that to scupper your opponent. Stopping the power gauge in the middle compromises the two.

The face buttons still determine flat, top spin, slice and lob shots. But now, replacing Top Spin 3's 'Risk shot', smart use of the power gauge also allows for control slice shots, control flats, power slice, power flats and so on.

The new power gauge also provides another user-friendly function; not only illustrating how much punch your upcoming shot will pack but also complimenting you on the timing of your release or informing you of your premature or sluggish reactions.

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Giving players more guidance has been a foucs for 2K Czech this time around, and was much-requested by fans. According to the studio's Stéphane Dupas, the user reaction was: "Your thing is really, really good but at first it's a bit difficult to understand exactly what you expect from us. You offer us all those controls, it's super cool but where do we start?"

On the back of that criticism comes a new, more in-depth tutorial section. Top Spin 3's Tennis School was an encyclopaedia of shots, but in number 4 players will find everything, right down to the basics of tennis itself covered.

Most useful, however, is the tactical tuition, which goes beyond simply how to play certain shots and deeper into court technique - learning how to fatigue your opponent by making him or her run, for example. This isn't just a tutorial on how to play Top Spin 4, it's a tutorial on how to play tennis.

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