News & Comment » News

The Player


by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Top Spin 3 & r & Rated Everyone; 360, PS3, Wii & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & don't know much about tennis, but I've spent my life listening to music. So I quickly turned off the volume for Top Spin 3's soundtrack and opted instead for a personal playlist heavy on Slick Rick. The music lent attitude to the tennis ball's thwacks (I kept the sound-effects volume on). It gave a righteous vibe to a tournament at the palatial, sand-colored court in New Delhi. And it totally grooved in Chicago, where traffic stopped and started a few feet away from the community court.

I don't know much about tennis, but I've stormed through my share of Mario Tennis. Top Spin 3's serious tennis intimidated me. With the same controllers used by first-person shooters to manage precise 3D combat, Top Spin 3 gives me exacting control over the power, placement and pacing of tennis shots. After a few lessons at "Top Spin School," I was able to drive the ball repeatedly into my opponent's off-hand corner. And I could keep them running until pit-stains dominated their shirts.

I don't know much about tennis, but I wear clothes almost daily. After creating a new, custom-faced character, I couldn't wait to ditch his generic shorts and shirt. To do that I needed to win some tournaments, defeating pros such as Bj & ouml;rn Borg (who, the game box assures me, is a "legendary figure," though I found him a bit weak at volleys). My victories brought me "Unlock Points" that I used to purchase a pair of bright-blue Adidas, forest-green Nike capris and a pair of lemon and orange striped socks. I wanted to clash with the game's role-playing "Career" mode, where my opponents tended to wear rather safe, corporate-coordinated ensembles.

I don't know much about tennis, but I've lost a lot of sleep to role-playing games. I enjoyed enhancing my tennis player's statistics with the experience points I earned in Top Spin 3's tournaments. I invested heavily in his speed and stamina. In the career simulator, I began climbing the Junior Tour rankings, playing in places like Dubai's posh indoor court and the Bahamas' fantasyland court with a waterfall backdrop and tufts of grass underfoot. But it's Top Spin 3's challenge -- the "Easy" opponents progressing to "Hard," the game-controlled players who volley viciously and serve at terrifying velocities -- that keeps me playing.

THE GOOD: I don't know much about tennis, but I've played Pong. All tennis videogames are essentially that ancient proto-game with new graphics. But the graphics in Top Spin 3 actually matter. In order to catch outbound shots, a player needs to be within animated-arm's-length. Subtle body animations offer quick clues to upcoming shots' direction and power. Even the players' graceful spins and exhausted staggers keep the match's situation clear, and make the virtual gameplay feel alive.

THE BAD: I don't know much about tennis, but I'm not easy to defeat. Which is to say, I'm hard to handicap. Between the low statistics of my newly created custom-character and the high statistics of Top Spin 3's computer-controlled pros, a fair amount of jiggery-pokery was required to devise fair matches. And the end results seldom felt matched -- either too easy or hard -- and rarely felt perfect.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A slick and serious tennis sim.