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Old 10-30-2003, 09:16 PM   #1
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Top Spin Review

Top Spin Review

Best tennis game ever. We promise.


Allow us to forewarn you that there will be numerous Virtua Tennis references and comparisons in this review. It would be impossible not to as the game set a standard that has yet to be surpassed (well, at least until today).

We weren't sure what to think of Top Spin, one of Microsoft's XSN Sports titles, when we first heard about it. Sure, it sounded great - being an online tennis game with tons of players and features - but with Virtua Tennis out there, was there really a point? The answer is a resounding yes.



Gameplay

The easiest way to describe Top Spin would be to say that's it's like Virtua Tennis only deeper and more refined. What makes it so? Well, it all comes down to control. In Top Spin, each of the face button corresponds to a different type of shot, immediately giving you a larger array of moves than in Virtua Tennis which only used two buttons - one for lobbing and one for normal hits. You could use the stick to put top or back spin on the ball, but sometimes pulling off a move like putting backspin on a ball while trying to hit it in the far right corner could be difficult because you're pulling back on the stick and can't really aim to the correct part of the court. In Top Spin, because putting top and back spin are assigned to buttons and the analog stick is free for aiming, you have more immediate control as to where the ball will land.

The left and right triggers are also used for hitting the ball. When pulling either trigger, a rising meter will appear by your player. The goal is to get ticker right in the middle before letting go of the trigger. Doing so will make your character perform either a high-power shot, or a sudden drop shot depending on which trigger you use. The risk, however, for attempting one of these more deadly shots is that if you miss the mark on the meter, the ball will more than likely fly out of bounds, costing you the point. This is a great risk vs. reward mechanic that adds a level of depth and skill to the game. But even without using these shots, the game can be theoretically be played using only one button - the A button, which is an all-around generic shot - making the game just as accessible as Virtua Tennis before it.

Another parameter during the course of play is the In The Zone (ITZ) meter. The way it works is, the better your character is performing in the match the more your ITZ meter will fill up. The fuller it is, the more on-point your character will perform according to his/her stats. Conversely, playing poorly will result in your ITZ dropping/staying empty, potentially giving your opponent the upper hand in the match. When both players have their ITZ meters maxed out, the bouts become hectic indeed.


When it comes to pure numbers, Top Spin is still on top of the game. With 16 playable male characters and just as many female characters, you should always be able to find a character that suits your tastes. We wish there was a better selection of real world athletes, but just having Anna Kournikova in the game keeps us content. The number of courts is also plentiful, with five different classes, each with several different locations and ground types. But if for some reason you can't find a character that doesn't look just the way you want, or has the stats you prefer, you can create your own in the game's robust player creator.

The character creation system in Top Spin is second only to Tiger Woods 2004. The first thing you do is choose a gender and DNA sample (skin tone). After that, you're thrust into a new menu where you can literally sculpt your player's head and body. What do we mean by sculpt? Well, first you pick a part of your character's face. That can be the chin, jaw, face, brow, ears, nose (which has sub categories of shape, hook, break, tip, and nostril width), lips or cheeks. After selecting the part you want to modify, a slider will appear letting you morph the character model in real time. The number of physical combinations is boggling, and if you're good enough, you could probably make a virtual version of yourself if you took enough time.


After sculpting a head to your liking, you can then sculpt their body. Parameters include skin tone, height and weight, and muscle mass. Then there's the salon, where you can modify you player's hair cut, facial hair, and eyes, and also add earrings. After that, you just head into the Sport Shop and outfit your custom character with a top, bottom, shoes, socks, racquet, and any gaudy accessories you see fit. The whole creation process is simple to use and the results are shown in real time, making it almost as fun as playing the game. Your custom character can then be used in the game's different modes.

When it comes to modes, Top Spin offers up Exhibition, Custom Tournament, Career, and multiplayer modes, the big single-player mode being the Career. In the Career mode, you take your character from the bottom of the ranks to becoming a world-famous pro tennis player. Along the way, you'll earn money, sponsorships, new clothes and equipment, all while flying around the world to exotic locations. As good as the career mode is, though, this is one area where Virtua Tennis one-ups Top Spin. The basic format and structure is similar, and Top Spin does offer some features that Virtua Tennis doesn't, but when it comes to those great mini-games found in Sega's tennis game, Top Spin just can't compete. While there are similar timed point challenges in the game, the best of them still are not up to par with Virtua Tennis' worst. Still, the Career mode is competent and enjoyable in its own right. Just don't expect the fun and often humorous games from Virtua Tennis.
With the single-player experience covered by the Career and standard Exhibition modes, we're left with multiplayer. The multiplayer aspect is essentially divided into online games and not. As a bonus, Top Spin does support system link play for those who care. Now, you can play up to four players online or off, though you can never mix male and female players - a feature sure to be missed. Going back to online games, after signing in to Xbox Live, you have several matches you can choose from: exhibition match, official match (for your career mode), or XSNsports.com match. Also available are detailed statistics that show players Gamertags, ranking, rating, skills, and career data, a friends list that displays their online status, if they're using a microphone, and what game they are playing. Lastly, you can view recent players, and set options for voice masking and your online status.


For the record, playing multiplayer games online or off is more or less the same. With no split screens to worry about, and the mandatory shifting of court sides, playing online doesn't mean so much when it comes to screen and visibility advantage. Where online play really works its magic is in the leader boards and, of course, the number of opponents available for play; seeing your name on the real time boards does wonders for your motivation level to play against others and get better rankings.

In our online tests with the game, we experienced only a few stutters in gameplay that were trivial to gameplay and may not exist when playing on the Live network. Overall, we're very pleased with the online aspect of the game, though some new original modes like point challenges would make the online component even more fun. As is, you're getting multiplayer games online, and that's it, though there is the benefit of Top Spin being part of the XSN Sports network.



Graphics

Assumingly, most of you will be playing Top Spin with the camera zoomed out, much like the standard camera in Virtua Tennis. From afar, the character models look just as good, if not better than they did in Sega's tennis masterpiece - smooth, round, and animated incredibly well. The animation is actually one of the stronger points of the game's graphics. The players dart around the court with realistic visual momentum, and there are numerous swinging animations that create a very believable presentation. You could say it's about as lifelike as could be without actually being video.

But even with the camera up close, or in replays, the visuals are impressive. Again, the character models have no visible edges or seams, and each and every texture is crisp and colorful. Then there's the hair. While not as noticeable on some players, the hair in Top Spin is some of the best we've seen. Yeah, it's a minor if not silly remark, but the first time you see Pete Sampras' facial hair up close and personal, you will become a believer. It's that good?really.

There are plenty of other details in Top Spin that make it a visual success. For example, on the court, the ball boys will shake their heads back and forth as the ball travels from one end of the court to the other. Also, the scoreboard in the background will change in real time as you or your opponent gains points. And yes, we finally get fully polygonal crowds and not those flat 2D sprites found in the majority of sports games. Granted, the models are incredibly simple, and the level of detail is at the low end of the scale, but it's really only noticeable during close shots. Most of the time the crowd will be in you periphery vision and/or distance-blurred so you don't really notice their basic features.

The little details, like the ones mentioned above, do wonders in making the seemingly static environments more interesting and subtly more alive. Another great example is a court found in Australia. With no crowd to be had, it appears to be just you and your opponent on a desolate course. But if you're playing with the camera zoomed in, you'll see joggers pass by every once in a while. It isn't much, but you'll be surprised at how a simple jogger in the background makes an empty, sterile match feel like a relaxed day at the courts.

Ok, so Top Spin looks great, right? Fantastic models; a variety of environments; flowing hair and clothes; a rock-solid framerate; what's not to like? Not much really. The likenesses of the character models could be a little better, and a little more flash and zing wouldn't hurt, but graphically, Top Spin does almost everything right.



Sound

Audio in sports games is typically very narrow in scope. You've got your ambient environmental sounds and the sounds of the players/ball. Sometimes you'll have a commentary track, and if you're lucky, a few tracks of licensed music. Well, Top Spin fits this bill exactly, minus the commentary. In terms of music you get some friendly radio rock tracks such as the Vines, which is can be good or bad depending on your musical taste. Unfortunately, the game does not allow for custom soundtracks. Why? We have no idea, but we're bummed.

We mentioned the lack of a commentary track, and most of the time it's a feature we could live without. However, with Top Spin, we miss not having a commentary track. At least the sounds of the court announcers and the ball hitting the rackets and court are well done. Also, the fact that the crowd response is actually representative of how well you're playing on the court is very cool. In the end audio doesn't play a huge role in the game, but what's there will suffice. Next time, though, we want more of everything.


Closing Comments

Simply put, Top Spin is the best overall tennis game out there. While Virtua Tennis and even Mario Tennis are great games, Top Spin's added depth, online play, and beautiful graphics make it the tennis game to have, no questions asked.
That doesn't mean it's perfect, though. The career mode could use a bit of beefing up, there could be some more online modes, and we'd love to see mixed-gender matches, but as is, Top Spin serves up a tennis package that's currently the one to beat. And the best part is, even gamers who aren't tennis fans should be able to pick this one up and thoroughly enjoy the wazzoo out of it.

If you own an Xbox, it should be mandatory to own this game.

-- Kaiser Hwang



Ratings: Description:
out of 10 click here for ratings guide

9.0 Presentation
Tons of modes, a healthy selection of players and courts, and, um, Anna Kournikova.

9.5 Graphics
Beautiful models, smooth framerate, lifelike animation, and plenty of small details make this one looker of a game.

7.5 Sound
It's a tennis game with tennis sounds. Nothing bad, but nothing great either. Where's the commentary and custom soundtracks?

9.5 Gameplay
Easy to pick-up but with plenty of depth. Beginners and veteran gamers can both enjoy this game from the get go.

9.0 Lasting Appeal
Sports games have almost unlimited replayability, and an online component only helps. We'd like more funny unlockable next time.

9.3 OVERALL:
(out of 10 / not an average)


9.5 Average Reader Score
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