MIAMI--James Blake is sliding around on the clay court at Roland Garros Stadium like he's skating on ice. A perfectly timed slice shot from Roger Federer is heading his way, aimed at the rear corner of the court. Blake speeds his way across the baseline, plants his front foot with his sneaker skidding across the clay, rears back with his racquet… and whiffs on the ball. What's going on here?
Welcome to Top Spin 3, or at least Top Spin 3 as played by us for the first few minutes of gameplay during today's 2K Sports press event here in Miami. From the outset, the new Top Spin game has little to do with the series entries of the past. Oh sure, it's still all about making the right shot at the right time, but the factors that go into making that "right" shot have gotten more complex, resulting in a game that feels more realistic, but not necessarily pick-up-and-play anymore.
As with previous entries in the series, you have several types of tennis shots at your disposal, all of which are controlled with the various face buttons on your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller (the Wii controls are a different matter entirely. More on them in a bit). Shot types include normal, slice, top spin, and lob. The difference this time around is how you pull them off. In Top Spin 2, an accurate shot required just a press of the button. This time around, you have to hold the button down (which begins your backswing) until the ball gets close to your player and then let go of the button, which completes your swing. The longer your hold the shot button down, the more power you can add to your shot.
The simple act of holding the button down to power up a shot adds a subtle layer of complexity to the game, and really changes its feel. For one thing, you've got to find your spot and plant your feet early in order get the maximum effectiveness out of your shot. If you wait too long and try to hit the ball while off-balance, you'll hit a less powerful shot, one that might not even make it over the net. Furthermore, because you need to get your backswing started so early, the new system gives you less time to evaluate what kind of shot you want to hit next. Instead, you sometimes find yourself thinking a shot ahead instead of reacting to the shot as it comes off your opponent's racquet.
Player movement in Top Spin 3 feels more realistic than ever; player momentum seems to play a larger role in how quickly a player can get to a spot or change direction. Also, while you can move your player and prepare your shot at the same time, you won't be able to move at full speed while initiating your backswing.
Your players will also tire out in the game. A heartbeat meter is located just above a player's head and the more a player moves around on the court, the higher his or her heart rate will go. As a player begins to wear out, you'll see his or her expression change, his or her hair become tousled and sweaty, and, most importantly, his or her reaction times become more lethargic. Interestingly, fatigue doesn't seem to affect a player's ability to get to a ball but rather the speed and timing of your player's swing.
It took us a while to get our heads (and thumbs) around the new control tweaks in Top Spin 3--which have been designed specifically to make the game more like a simulation. Still, with a little time, we were right back in thick of things, nailing long rallies and choosing the right time to go for the kill. With some practice, we even managed to work in some of the new advanced shot modifiers using the shoulder buttons. Holding the right trigger, for example, will add power to a shot, while holding the left trigger will aim your shot at the line--you can even use both triggers simultaneously if you like.
Aggressive players will want to take advantage of the net shot. Here, you hold the right button (or R1 on the PS3) and your player will hit the ball and then continue his or her momentum forward towards the net; a great move when you're looking to up the pressure on your opponent. The game also makes use of the right analog stick for shots; you can use it for serves (pull back then push forward). You can also flick the right stick to make drop shots but we had a good deal of trouble making that work on a consistent basis.
Beyond the a full single player campaign, and a flexible player creator (which will let you modify the features of your created pro with a system that's similar to that found in last year's Tiger Woods PGA Tour game, though without the camera support), the feature that will probably have most life in Top Spin 3 will be the online tournaments. Here, players will be able to battle it out in a series of matches, with a new Top Spin online champion crowned every two weeks. After that, the online tournament results will reset and the battle for supremacy will begin again. It sounds like a fun feature and here's hoping there's an Xbox Live achievement waiting for players who manage to capture the championship.
While we spent most of our time with Top Spin 3 trying to tame the Xbox 360 version, we did have a chance to play a few sets with the Nintendo Wii version of the game. As you might expect, this is a much friendlier version of the game, one that's quicker, and easier to pick up and find success with. You move your player with the analog stick on the nunchuck, hit the ball by swinging the Wii Remote, and can modify your shots with the various buttons on the two controllers. As with the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game, the Wii version will include more than 20 real-life tennis pros (including legends like Björn Borg, Boris Becker, and Monica Seles); the Wii version will also include some mini-games that will be unique to that console.
With both its sim and arcade bases covered on various platforms, Top Spin 3 looks poised to appeal to as many tennis fans as possible when the game is released in May. We'll be curious to see how the new control tweaks hold up over the long term and will be bringing you more on the game in the coming weeks.