What’s this? An established sports franchise that doesn’t dilute its brand and marginalize their loyal fan base by releasing yearly installments of their game? We’re hooked already. The Top Spin series is back for its fourth set, bringing with it a more refined controls system, more players (albeit marginally so), and a more authentic experience on the grass and clay courts. But, with ever-increasing expectations from discerning sports fans, has the eight-year-old franchise really done enough in the year and a half since Top Spin 3 to really set itself apart? The answer to this and life's other unsolved mysteries can be found below! [Ed.—He's lying. It's just a review.]

By Troy Mounis

GAMEPLAY
No offense to fans of the sport, but tennis is probably one of the easiest major sports to recreate in a video game. There are only two or four players on the court (barring a brawl), the playing area is miniscule compared to the fields used in other sports, and most of the action takes place within the confines of the clay or grass court, relegating the crowd to simple cheering and hollering duties.

With that said, Top Spin 4 nails pretty much every important aspect of the game, with new intuitive controls that take some time to get used to, but emulate the nature and quality of swings very well. Every point was different, every run toward the ball felt genuine, and the reactions from both the players and the crowd were synchronized, with fans recgonizing fantastic plays and lengthy rallies with loud applause.

The game gushes with liveliness as developers made sure to address even the tiniest of details, down to the signature movements we've come to know and love—Top Spin 4 shoehorns more than 4,000 additional Signature Styles to make sure every Nadal fistpump and Federer look of disdain is captured accurately.


WINNERS
The requisite sports game career mode is a tough nut to crack, considering devlopers need to balance the maturity of the game with players' incessant need to be challenged. Top Spin 4's career mode is admittedly vanilla—it doesn't even have a fancy schmancy name like 2K's My Player in MLB 2K11 or My Career in NBA 2K11—but its simplicity is what makes the game shine. After all, tennis is a "simple" game. Once you saunter into the career mode, you'll be greeted with a create-a-player interface, which seems much more robust from Top Spin 3. There are only 25 brand name players to choose from in the game, but we can imagine that any number of players not included can be made fairly accurately. Also, if you can't find something you like to wear, the game allows you to unlock additional gear as you progress, so it's fahionista-friendly.

Your career is dictated, for the most part, by the experience points you get for completing tasks and the number of fans following you; additional fans can be procured as you advance and win tournaments throughout the year, unlocking the ability to play in major and grand slam tournaments to take on the likes of Roddick, Serena, and Nadal. Getting to that point will require lots of winning, but the two to three hours it takes to get to that point serves you well to prep you (and your character) for the crazy pace the champs play at.



That's not the only way to make it to the top: World Tour is Top Spin 4's version of online play and allows you to accrue experience points for your created character as well. It's essentially the single-player career experience, complete with tournaments and rankings, but competing against other warm-blooded humans instead of AI robots, our future overlords. There aren't too many bells and whistles to be found, but from the several games we were able to play through, it's simple, lag-free (for the most part), and fun. Can't really ask for more than that.

BREAK POINTS
Top Spin 4 is a complete gameplay experience, but where it lacks the most is in the content department. Frankly, it's pretty anemic. While the game boasts the largest roster to date for the franchise at 25 current players and legends, consider that only seven of them are female players and none, we repeat, none of the legends are females. Way to neglect the likes of Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Billie Jean King, guys.



Aside from that huge oversight, the game strays a bit from presenting the simple sport of tennis when it introduces 3D and Move motion controls for the PS3 version. Watching tennis in 3D is one thing, but having to interact with the sport on a three-dimensional plane and executing split-second moves is another. It's one of those things you show off once and never use ever again. Also, while motion controls sound intuitive on paper, its execution on the Move is a bit too wonky for the average user to really get into. It's not a one-to-one control scheme, so you'll be waving your hand expecting to hit the ball as your hand moves forward, but you're just activating one of the game's canned animations. Again, a good thought by 2K Sports to include, but the execution just isn't there yet.

Lastly (and we’ll make this brief since everyone brings it up every year): No Wimbledon? Ugh. We’re not sure if it’s 2K’s unwillingness to pay the Brits their licensing fee or Wimbledon dragging their feet on licensing their brand to video game developers, but not having one of the Grand Slam tournaments in a tennis game is like playing the Super Bowl with only three quarters.

GAME. SET. MATCH.
Top Spin 4 is a no-brainer pickup for fans of the sport and casual watchers alike. It's not going to set the world on fire with any kind of killer feature, but it sticks to simulating the game accurately and it does that well, albeit with some shallow roster content. We like the ambitious attempts to expanding the 3D and motion-control offerings—with some more work, 2K may have something truly innovative to show off in its next iteration. But it's the create-a-player customization and deep single- and multi-player career modes that are the real draw; they're well thought out and will keep you happily swinging for the baseline well into next season.

 

This game was reviewed for the PlayStation 3.