We were recently invited by Sega to a hands on session with the forthcoming Virtua Tennis 2009 behind closed doors. Even with our limited time spent with the game I am already sure that this could very well be the best iteration of the game yet.
AM3 and series creator Mie Kumagai are still playing a part in the game’s creation however it is primarily being developed by Sumo, a Sheffield based studio who are going down in history as one of the coding teams who can carefully handle classic franchises.
The majority of improvements have taken place off court with the World Tour mode now fully fleshed out and online functionality becoming near-ubiquitous throughout the game’s various modes. World Tour, just like before, sends the players through the ranks and follows their ascent from unknown club player to the top seeded player in the world.
The mini-games make a reappearance with five new additions joining the legion of eccentric activities available in Virtua Tennis 3, and they all have been tuned and tweaked considerably. Two of these new games are supplied by AM3 and they are immediately apparent with their offbeat nature. Zoo Feeder for example is one mini game that is offered as a rather weird experience. Exotic animals roam the far side of the court and various foods are thrown towards the player and the task is to feed all the animals with their preferred items until they eventually fall asleep. Yes, it is as bizarre as it sounds!
The mini games are a good way to level up players statistics and abilities and they can also be played with the focus more on a score-attack and will be served by online leaderboards with an in game ticker alerting players to other gamers record breaking attempts. Online is also fully implemented in other sections of World Tour, with a click of a button transforming the game’s tournaments into a selection of online hobbies and competitions. Unranked play is also available in a separate menu but in the World Tour success against online opponents translates into success with the game campaign, helping to facilitate the players meteoric climb to number one position as well as earning in game currency to spend on clothes and other items.
On the court the graphics have been improved to bring them fully into 2009. The detail is increased in all areas and even cloud shadows drift across the courts in an utterly realistic fashion. Even strong sun can reflect the green of the courts onto the players skins which is one of the few times I have seen such ambient and dynamic lighting employed in a sports game. Additionally the game runs in full 1080p on both Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 which results in a razor sharp image, even on the largest of screens.
It is not only the graphics that have received a dramatic overhaul because the audio side of the game has received attention to detail with some absolutely brilliant crowd noises which make you feel as if you are in the middle of the action rather than just a spectator in the distance. Crowds become more vocal as progression is made to larger stadiums with the umpire calling for quiet in the most tense of moments. Utterly captivating audio in all areas really bring the atmosphere to new levels.
So far I have mentioned the environments, the lighting and the audio aspects but the character models also deserve special mention. Virtua Tennis 3’s player roster has been given more animations, helping to further refine the characteristics of the individual players which is immediately noticeable. The characters have been modeled in-house at AM3 and the new additions take in Scottish Hero Andy Murray and Ava Ivanovic as well as classic hall of famers … Becker, Henman and Edberg.
The gameplay is obviously the most crucial element and Sumo have listened carefully to the public and forum chatter to make several key improvements to the play mechanic and on court action. The players inclination to dive for every shot for example has been tweaked – meaning that some of the silly acrobatics are now a thing of history. The slightly broken lob mechanics have also been given a trip to the workshop and have been adjusted to work more intuitively. The animations really enhance the overall appearance of the game as players run and stumble realistically stretching for backhands and forehands and the individual actions inject more life into the on court battles.
So far I have mainly discussed the High Definition console versions but the Wii iteration is the one that SEGA are keen to bring to our attention because all of the features I have listed today are present in the Wii version, while obviously running at a more realistic 480p. Therefore Wii sports players have something quite spectacular to look forward to this year, especially with the debut of such a high profile tennis game.
Wii Tennis is a good reference point for the mechanics of the game: if you hit early the ball will head to the left, hit late and it will head right … however Virtua Tennis takes this a step further by adding some helpful visual feedback, giving players an onscreen bar that details their timing to help improve their shots in the future. It is a simple idea but one that worked extremely well in our short time playing the game for this preview.
It would be fair to say that for sports fans, Virtua Tennis 2009 is set to be one of this years summer hits and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final build for review. Make sure to check back for more updates and a full review of the game on GamingHeaven in the near future.
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