In the relatively small world of tennis games, the Top Spin series has carved its niche as a realistic but playable interpretation of the sport. However, given that the last game hit the Xbox 360 near the beginning of the console's life cycle, fans have been waiting nearly two years for a bona fide sequel. 2K Games is going to answer those calls with a game that aims to take advantage of the graphical and technological advancements that have occurred in the meantime. We got to take a first look at the game on the Xbox 360 ahead of its release in early 2008, when it will also be hitting the Wii and PlayStation 3 for the first time.
Although previous Top Spin games have been quasi-realistic, the aim of the French developer has been to increase this facet of the game for the third outing. The general idea has been to treat the sport with the same sort of respect usually reserved for football games, and the control system has been substantially modified to reflect this. Now, instead of simply pressing the face buttons to take a shot, your presses have to be timed to relate to the position of the ball. The four buttons each relate to a different type of shot, but you now press the button to pull your racquet backwards and release it to take the shot. If you get into a strong position and let go at the optimal point, you can play a strong and accurate shot. However, if you're in a bad position or let go at the wrong point, your player will be forced to adapt and will lose accuracy as a result.
This system appears set to offer you more maneuverability, and will undoubtedly allow more control for advanced players than ever before. However, without being able to try the system out at our demo day, we were still concerned about its impact on Top Spin's more casual fans. The developer claims that the system doesn't alienate these players, but instead adds depth for serious players. 2k claims that people will still be able to pick up a pad and play, and as they uncover the advantages of timing and position they'll become more advanced at the game.
Another aspect of the control system that's changed is the advanced shoulder-button shots, which have been dropped in favour of "risk shots" on the same buttons. Whereas before, the triggers were used to pull off trickier but more effective shots, now the right trigger is used to apply risk to the shot played on the face button. The resulting shot will teeter closer to the line and may end up going out, but it will have more power and may wrong-foot the opposition. The real skill in using the risk shot lies with positioning yourself and timing your swing correctly.
However, not all of the changes lie in the control system. The graphics look suitably enhanced, with superb animation effects combined with a silky 60-frame-per-second running speed. Characters feature full cloth deformation, and even more impressively, sweat that makes clothes clingy and dirty. Thankfully, players don't have that slightly plastic look to them, either; both real-life and player-created models are highly realistic. Twenty-five licensed characters such as Federer and Sharapova will be making an appearance, although you won't be playing against such highly ranked players until quite some way into the single-player tournaments.
Although many of the world's biggest tennis names have made a return in Top Spin 3, the developers have made a conscious effort to push people toward its advanced player-creation tools. The system still lets you create big-nosed, comedic monstrosities, but the customisation options mean you can actually create a character that looks as polished as the ones built by the original development team. All the usual options for eyes, mouth, and skin exist, but you can also adorn your character with a variety of tattoos, accessories, and makeup.
One of the biggest advancements in the sports genre has been the introduction of online leagues, and Top Spin 3 is no slouch in this area. There'll be the usual ranked and unranked match options for quick play, but the two-week seasons will be the main focus for serious players. These seasons will be a fortnightly challenge for people to take part in over the Internet, with a separate ranking board determined by the overall performance of each player. The exact details are still being worked out at this point, but it will be an area where experienced players can flex their muscles against the best players in the world. The single-player care career mode will be slightly different this year. You'll start at the local level and will build up your skills to play the continental challenge and junior tour, until you get to the major players as part of the pro tour. There'll also be a local co-op tournament mode for up to four players, as well as a legend mode where you'll face a series of individual challenges.
We got to see only the Xbox 360 version of the game at our preview, but the team assures us that the PlayStation 3 version is being developed in parallel, is definitely not a port, and will also run at 60 frames per second. Furthermore, the Wii version will work with both the Wii Remote and the Nunchuk, with the remote replicating swinging and the analog stick handling player movement. The team isn't making any announcements on a multiplayer online mode for the Wii version, although it's clear from our conversation that they've been looking into it. We'll hold our breath for more on the game ahead of its release in Q1 next year, and you can be sure that we'll pass on any information we hear.