According to historian and author Russell Lynes, "Tennis is an addiction that once it has truly hooked a man will not let him go." Based on time spent with a near-finished version of the game recently, it appears that Namco Bandai is hoping to achieve something similar with Smash Court Tennis 3 for the PlayStation Portable. The upcoming game not only promises to offer an enjoyable match of tennis, but also adds some quite detailed character progression and a number of inventive minigames to the mix.
The well-presented menu that greets you the first time you play Smash Court Tennis 3 has plenty of gameplay options for you to choose from. The best place to start is a series of 24 tutorials that do a good job of familiarizing you with and letting you put into practice many of the game's subtleties. Smash Court Tennis 3's responsive controls aren't radically different to those in other tennis games you might have played, but they're a little more challenging in that anything but a straightforward serve or return shot requires precise timing on your part. To use the game's own terminology, "easy shots" that afford you very little control over the ball can be performed simply by pushing a face button when you want to hit the ball, but "nice shots" and "hard hits" (so any shot that you want to direct or hit with some pace, essentially) require you to hold and release your chosen shot button at exactly the right moment. Topspin shots, flat shots, lob shots, and slice shots are each assigned to one of the PSP's four face buttons, but simply mashing those buttons and hoping for the best is not an option.
After playing through as many of the tutorials as you feel you need to, your options will include playing exhibition matches, the tournament-based arcade mode, the lengthy pro tour career mode, or one of three minigames. Ad hoc multiplayer is also supported, and the game-sharing option lets you play with limited options against friends who don't have their own copy of the game. The exhibition match and arcade options let you play as one of 16 licensed top professional players, but the pro tour mode--which is where we've spent the vast majority of our time with Smash Court Tennis 3 thus far--forces you to play as a custom character. The customization options available to you when creating a new character give you the freedom to determine their name, gender, nationality, height, weight, hairstyle, facial features, and equipment choices very easily, and after settling on all of that stuff, you'll get to choose a playing style, favored hand, backhand style, service motion, and receiving stance--really making the player feel like your own unique creation. The only other option you'll need to worry about at this stage is who your main rival is going to be, and depending on the characteristics of the player you created, you'll have up to three to choose from for your first year on the tour.
The tour-calendar screen on which you can plan out your year is divided up into the 52 weeks of the year, and you can choose to spend each week playing training minigames, negotiating contracts with potential partners or sponsors, competing in whatever tournaments are going on, or simply resting up to recover stamina. The fact that you don't automatically recover all 100 percent of your stamina before entering a new tournament or starting a new training exercise adds an element of strategy to the proceedings, because there's little point entering the US Open against the world's best players if you're still exhausted from competing the week before, for example. With that said, in the early stages of your career when winning the US Open would be a tall order, your ranking and financial interests might be better served by winning a smaller tournament that most of the higher-ranked players aren't even bothering to take part in. Doubles tournaments with a strong partner are also a relatively easy way to earn cash, and we were pleased to find that it's possible to assign net, baseline, normal, or I-formation roles to partners at anytime simply by pushing the directional pad in one of four directions.
At the end of each tournament, assuming you weren't eliminated in the first round, you'll be awarded a number of experience points that can be used to enhance your player's skills. Initially you'll need to spend most of your points on improving basic attributes that lend themselves to certain styles of play, such as ground stroke, technical, footwork, and serve and volley. As you improve those parameters, you'll unlock new skills that can be purchased in exactly the same way--many of which unlock new moves for your player. Some of the skills that we've put to good use so far include additional stamina, stronger forehand shots, and a sneaky underhand serve. The improvements that you make to your player are instantly noticeable the next time you take to the court, so it's really only a matter of time before the top-ranked players who feel unbeatable at the start of your career get what's coming to them.
If you feel like taking a break from the busy tournament schedule of a professional tennis player, Smash Court Tennis 3 has three (that we know of) minigames in which you can hone your skills. Bomb Tennis drops bombs that can be detonated with a well-placed shot on your opponent's side of the court every time they miss a shot. Galaga Tennis tasks you with destroying spaceships and rescuing abducted tennis players while playing an otherwise quite conventional match. And Pac-Man Tennis challenges both players to avoid ghosts while running around the court and using the ball to collect Pac-dots. We've had a lot of fun playing all three of the aforementioned minigames, and we're hopeful that one or two more might be unlockable as you progress through the game.
Smash Court Tennis 3 is currently scheduled for release this summer. We look forward to bringing you more information as soon as it becomes available.