Game, Set and Match for Arcade Tennis
Since its debut on the Dreamcast, Virtua Tennis as a franchise has actually changed very little. Sure, there have been shakeups to the format every once in a while, but as a whole, the key structure and gameplay of the series has remained rock solid over the past 12 years - and to its testament, this is because Virtua Tennis still offers up the best example of Arcade style Tennis, and Virtua Tennis 4 is no exception.
Like any other entry in the series, Virtua Tennis 4's key areas of gameplay are one off Exhibition matches, Online play, Party Mode (to play through the variety of training minigames the series is famous for) and, of course, the World Tour. World Tour mode has been given an overhaul in VT4, favouring a board game-esque linear progression compared to the more open format of its previous iterations. Set over 4 tennis seasons, players use tickets to progress along a board fill with many different squares - Exhibition matches, Public appearences, tournaments, management clubs (to purchase bonus tickets and star-enhancing Agent contracts), recovery and training minigame squares - in order to earn Stars and currency. Currency is used to purchase extra movement tickets at club houses, as well as purchase gear to customise your tennis player with - ranging from traditional shits and shorts, to sillier fancy dress items like clown shoes, a Top Hat, or a Baguette for a Racket (seriously!). On the other hand, Stars are essentially the ranking system for the game, earning you the right to enter tournaments (as well as earning higher seeded placements in tournaments) as well as placing you higher and higher up the ranks amongst the pros. Stars are earned based not only on performance in matches and tournaments, but also on how many 'Public appearances' your player makes over the course of a season. The board game format, whilst restrictive at first, lends to a much quicker and exciting progression through the career mode, with ample variety between matches and minigames to keep you attentive over the 6-7 hours it takes to run through. Replayability is also high, not just to try and earn more stars to beat your previous ranking, but also because there are multiple branching areas on the board over the course of the 4 seasons based on your performance, offering a little freshness each time you play.
Whilst presentation has dramatically improved since the last numbered iteration of the Virtua Tennis franchise, there are still some slightly weird dips in quality at times. As ever, the menus and interface are crisp and clean, but the facial features of the Tennis players are severely lacking in cases, especially next to the hyper realism of the Top Spin series - strangely, this is predominantly an issue with the Pro players, who range from rather good likenesses to terrible, early next-gen monstrosities, whereas the character customiser-generated amateur players you meet over the course of the World Tour look much better. There has also been a vast improvement in the quality of the animations, as well - movement and shot hitting are much more fluid this time round, giving a fantastic sense of momentum and strength to the play. There are also some nicely detailed victory animations as well - including a brilliantly cheesy jumping high-five for doubles partners! - however, there is a distinct lack of variety amongst them, so be prepared to see the same triumphant fist pump again and again, no matter who you play as. Whilst abandoning the guitar riffs and general rock undertones of the likes of Virtua Tennis 3 in favour of a more electronic vibe, the soundtrack is still resoundingly 'Sega Arcade' - plucked right from the early 2000's, it manages to be both incredibly cheesy at times and yet still rather appropriate to the action on screen, adding to the speedy momentum of the arcade Tennis on offer and highlighting the overall brevity of the game. And lets face it, you wouldn't want the soundtrack to be any other way!
It would be both unfair and completely apt to say that Virtua Tennis 4 is more of the same. There are some minor changes to the tried and tested formula, but Sega seem to be taking the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach to the franchise - and once again, VT4 offers the best arcade style tennis you can find in a video game. If you're looking for something a little more realistic, Top Spin 4 would be a better suited choice, but if you're looking for simple, fun Tennis that's easy to pick up and put down, Virtua Tennis 4 is a must-buy title.
N.B: Also included in the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Virtua Tennis 4 is a motion-control option, limited to exhibition matches played from a first person perspective, making use of either Kinect or the Playstation Move Wand. As this reviewer does not own a Kinect Camera, this review does not cover that gameplay option, instead focusing on the rest of the game, played with a Gamepad.