Virtua Tennis 3 is a great-looking tennis game that is easy to get into and hard to put down.
If you just want to play some tennis, you can quickly and easily set up exhibition matches and join tournaments from the main menu - but the career mode is where the meat is.
After creating your own custom player and picking a base of operations, you're given a choice between training minigames, tournaments, and, as the game progresses, friendly matches with fellow pros. Each season passes as a succession of turns representing weeks, and you must decide whether to build your reputation on the courts or level up your player in training.
The training system lends a certain RPG vibe to the game. Depending on which training disciplines you favor, your player will improve his or her game in different areas. You can hone your skills as an explosive server, a precise net player, or an agile all-rounder. The minigames range from downright wacky (collecting fruit in the middle of an avalanche of giant tennis balls) to traditional academy training, and there's an immense feeling of satisfaction when you excel at any of them and your player jumps a level or two in the post-training breakdown.
This is where the game sinks its hooks in you. In your race towards the coveted number one world rank, clearing increasingly challenging minigames in the weeks between the grand slams can become quite the addiction.
The tennis itself feels really solid. The controls are finely tuned to give you a real feeling of command of your player, while assisting you just enough to make the game uncomplicated and fun. Force feedback is used to good effect when connecting with the ball, and stronger vibration when you hit a power shot home makes you feel suitably powerful and awesome. Somewhat surprisingly, there's real depth to be found as you become familiar with the nuances of the game.
Most of the courts in the game look great, and the localized announcers contribute to the international atmosphere. There's a good flow to the player animations, however the backgrounds are a little on the static side.
Your fellow pros all have their own distinct playing styles, and the toughest opponents read your tactics as the game progresses and keep you on your toes. Teaming up with a fellow pro in doubles tournaments is also a lot of fun. The only minor weak point is that the same opponents you beat handily at the start of the game get tougher as the game progresses. You'll find yourself struggling to wrestle a player like Federer off the top spot in the final "King of Players" game, although you might have a perfect record against him from previous tournaments.
The ability to take your created player online to face off against other custom players is a nice touch, but the overall online experience is somewhat weakened by the way the game deals with lag. When the connection needs a second to catch up, the ball hangs in the air directly in front of your opponent's racket. The shot is released when the connection is back up to speed, and this can totally throw off your timing in tight exchanges.
The achievement points in the game are sensibly distributed. You'll get some achievements early on, more and more as you progress through the career mode, and there's a good selection of longevity-based achievements for the persistent player.
Between the crisp graphics, smooth animations, immersive career mode and solid controls, Virtua Tennis 3 has got a lot going for it - but the real strong point is its infectious love for the game of tennis.