Hitmaker has made it a habit of living up to its name, with high-profile games such as Crazy Taxi and Virtua Tennis, its surprise hit tennis game for the Sega Dreamcast. The game did so well for Sega that the company decided to include its sequel, Tennis 2K2, in its Sega Sports line. But while the other games in the Sega Sports line religiously pursue perfection in sports simulation, Hitmaker's tennis game is more about lighthearted, arcade-style gameplay. Although Tennis 2K2 has improved upon its predecessor in a variety of areas, judging from our near-complete build of the game, it is essentially a more polished version of Virtua Tennis and retains its fast-paced play mechanics.
Tennis 2K2, although a bit faster than last year's game, controls virtually the same. A two-button configuration is used to control standard swings and lobs. Pushing back on the analog stick performs a drop shot, while pushing forward while striking the ball results in scorching ground strokes. The player's proximity to the ball and the angle at which the racket makes contact with the ball can also yield a variety of shots. This year's game also features improved animations. For example, players reach and dive for the ball, shift their weight more realistically when changing direction, and hit the ball between the legs with their back turned toward their opponent. The quicker gameplay and the smoother, more realistic animation combine to create a more robust visual presentation.
Further in the graphics department, the player models are truer to their real-life counterparts in Tennis 2K2. Gone are the zombielike player faces. The 3D facial models in this year's game are much more emotive, as their eyes and mouths move to articulate a variety of expressions. 2K2 features a lineup of eight female players, joining the returning eight male pros. Each one is easily identifiable. For example, Lindsay Davenport stands tall and has her signature serve windup, while Serena and Venus Williams sport their stylish tennis gear. Several high-profile pros, such as Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis on the women's side and Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras on the men's side, aren't in the game. However, the player creator, which lets players customize a variety of physical characteristics, is always available to create replicas of the missing pros.
The courts themselves have also received a substantial makeover in this year's game. Because the courts are fictional, Hitmaker was able to put its collective imagination to work in creating some outrageously elaborate venues. For example, the Tokyo-based tennis tournament is placed on top of a skyscraper, with helicopters circling overhead and searchlights illuminating the night sky. The general look of the game, considering the more realistic player models and ornate tournament venues, is much more impressive compared with last year's.
You can play Tennis 2K2 in three different modes--exhibition, tournament, and world-circuit. World-circuit is the most robust and involved of the three basic modes of play, like in Virtua Tennis. It is also the gameplay mode that has changed most dramatically in the sequel. Also like in Virtua Tennis, a large world map, which features singles and doubles tournaments, tennis pro shops, and training locations, serves as the primary interface for the world-circuit mode. However, unlike in last year's game, you must create both a male and female tennis pro--this mode no longer lets you select one of the existing pros--to begin your run for the world number one ranking.
The Quest for World Number One
The world-circuit mode now progresses chronologically through several tennis seasons. Each time you take part in a training session or plays in one of the scheduled tournaments, a week in the season passes. So you must constantly keep track of the tournament schedule and train during off weeks. Complicating matters further, although physical characteristics such as facial features, hair style and color, clothing, and height and weight can be customized for the created players, there are no options to tweak their skill ratings. Therefore, a created player begins his or her career ranked dead-last and devoid of any real skill. The created players must be trained constantly to improve such categories as serve speed and control, backhand and forehand power, foot speed, and more--the various training sessions are designed to increase specific skill areas, which lets you focus on the areas you want to develop.
The result of all this is that the world-circuit mode is now much more methodical and progresses at a slower pace than last year's. The first couple of seasons are usually spent training and improving the created player, rather than taking part in many actual tournaments. By the third season, the created pro is skilled enough to enter a few tournaments and can earn money to buy better equipment and gear, contract doubles partners (from a pool of the actual tennis pros in the game), and purchase tennis courts to use in the game's exhibition mode.
At this point, Tennis 2K2 is feature complete, which means that all the gameplay modes and options, as well as players and courts, are already in the game. In our latest build, there are some bugs in the graphics department, like a fluctuating frame rate, that are supposed to be ironed out before the game's final release. However, after our lengthy play test of the game, it seems that Tennis 2K2 retains all the charms of Virtua Tennis and even manages to improve on the winning formula set forth by the original in certain areas.