Wii Review: Virtua Tennis 4



Ahh, tennis. A game of champions. And all played with nothing but a couple of racquets, a ball, a net and…a coop of chickens? Though SEGA’s Virtua Tennis 4 bastes the familiar ball game with a liberal smearing of Japanese arcade minigame weirdness to make things more varied and fun for casual gamers, it thankfully doesn’t forget to hone the core tennis mechanics of the traditional game to near-perfection. Virtua Tennis 4 presents gamers with a fantastically fun fusion of arcade madness and surprisingly deep, engrossing tennis tour sim – two halves which mesh together more perfectly than you might expect.

The World Tour set-up is delivered as a mash-up of familiar tennis matches navigated via a somewhat Mario Party-esque board game layout. You’ll play through a very lengthy four-season tour across four continents, moving across board game spaces to make your way to tournaments and championships, earning stars along the way – the more stars you amass, the higher on the leaderboard you’ll climb. Each round on the map starts you out with a selection of differently-numbered move tickets in lieu of dice rolls, allowing you to wisely choose how many spaces you want to move to strategically make the most of your tour.
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That sentiment becomes even more important when you get to grips with what’s on each board tile. Some house training mini-games, which offer a fun, varied and distinctly arcadey way to level up your abilities, gain new styles and outfits and upgrade your stamina meter. Wind Match sees you trying to keep up a rally in extreme conditions and Egg Collector tasks you with running around the court tapping into eggs to hatch them, guiding the newborn chicks to their nests without letting incoming balls smoosh them. There are eight minigames to be found to test your accuracy and footwork, ranging from clay target shooting, completing poker hands to collecting coins on the court (with the PS3 getting an exclusive extra Pin Crusher minigame).

Other spaces hold practice matches where you can spar with your doubles partner, exhibition matches and small-scale tournaments where you can earn stars for success. The tour mode also factors in other facets of your tennis career, with spaces for you to sink money into charities or attend meet-and-greets with your fans to snag some stars and boost your fame ranking, but by the same token, unlucky spaces on the board see you bitchslapped by the hands of fate, causing you to lose your wallet or provoking sordid rumours to spread through the media about you, lowering your ranking.
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As you attend events and training, your condition meter drains as you get more tired. Attempting a match while in less-than-stellar condition isn’t wise, and playing on a shoddy ankle will mean you’ll control slowly and sluggishly on the court. Stopping at hotel spaces will recoup your health, while management office spaces allow you to spend money on new move tickets, health top-up cards and hiring agents to milk more stars from each PR event and match success. You’ll need to spend move tickets and navigate the board and its branching paths wisely to make sure you’re in peak condition before each match and gain as many stars as possible before championships – you’ll need a certain amount of stars to qualify for major tournaments, so piling up the stars before you hit them means you won’t have to endure the qualifying matches, which will sap some of your stamina before the final rounds.

Under the fun arcade-style minigames and wonderfully simple, streamlined and engaging board game presentation lurks some deceptively deep, tactical mechanics and mostly sharp, canny AI. As you level up your stats throughout the world tour, more famous players will want to buddy up to you and be your doubles partner, and you’ll unlock new play styles to bestow upon your player, augmenting their skills to make them more tuned towards, say, aggressive, powerful smashes or defensive countering. Each style also comes with its own special super shot, which steadily powers up with each rally as you play to your chosen strength, allowing you to unleash a powerful hit that could pull you out of a dicey pinch.
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The style system is a simple one which works incredibly well. You can only adopt one focused style at a time rather than jam every possible technique into your player’s brain and mould them into some superhuman tennis behemoth. You can, however, switch styles and doubles partners between matches in order to switch up your game. Opponents and partners have their own strengths and styles, too, and while you can make it through the tour with the same partner and style, it pays to learn, adapt and switch your technique to counter your adversaries’ if you want to gain the upper hand.

Forethought when it comes to technique is especially important since the game sports some sharp, intelligent AI, though there are a few moments of head-scratching. On a few occasions, opponents will simply stand in a motionless stupor as the ball sails by them. My AI doubles teammate Rafael Nadal carried me through a lot of matches, managing to be quicker and more on the ball than I was, aside from the time a shot sailed to an empty half of the court and I looked around to find the wily Spaniard standing over by the umpire’s stand, presumably having grown bored of the game and wandered off to flex his formidable biceps at girls in the crowd.
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Very rare niggles aside, the AI mechanics at play are refreshingly smart and satisfying, giving you plenty of fair, intelligent challenge. You’ll soon learn that while you can make your way through early matches by button-mashing and lobbing the ball as hard as you can, it’s a strategy that won’t yield high-grade fruit as things progress. Instead, the clever AI means that you’ll need to resort to more cunning means to win games.

You might try luring opponents to the edge of the court and back, letting them get used to a side-to-side rhythm before changing your routine and catching them off guard, or goading aggressive players toward the net, leaving the back court defenseless. AI opponents are smart enough to learn from your tricks, too, rarely falling for the same ploys a second time and there’s always the feeling that intelligent technique is rewarded. The basic tennis mechanics are fantastically tuned, and with sharp AI, the result is an immense feeling of satisfaction when your court smarts pay off, and some intense back-and-forth ball battles (ooh err) as you fight for that last Advantage Point.
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Strangely, if you start up the game without a MotionPlus attachment strapped on, the game defers you to playing with the Wii remote on its side, classic controller-style, without the benefit of motion controls. I use the word “benefit” rather loosely, as the classic controller oddly offers a much more comfortable control experience than the wave-and-waggle of a Wiimote. While the motion controls do their job just fine, the jump to a first person perspective to take shots is a jarring, disorienting switch that isn’t preferable to the more smooth and intuitive classic controller layout. Graphically, the Wii version is naturally no powerhouse, but it looks perfectly fine, though there is an unfortunate lack of variety in voice and celebratory post-match animations between even famous players.

While those striving for realism might be better served (no pun intended) with Top Spin 4 or, y’know, by grabbing a racquet and venturing outside into the harsh light of day, Virtua Tennis 4 offers a fantastic marriage of simple-to-grasp arcade presentation, excellent core controls and AI, and an engrossing, deceptively deep tour management system. It’s arguably the most enjoyable tennis experience on consoles and one which nails the mechanics of the game to a tee while still providing all the varied fun you’d want from an arcade videogame.

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Virtua Tennis 4 is available to buy on Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3 now.
Click here to order the game from Amazon.co.uk.