2K's Top Spin series has always erred toward realism, and while that approach has been well received, much of it has come at the price of accessibility. Its steep learning curve made it difficult for more casual tennis fans to pick up, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by developer 2K Czech. Top Spin 4 attempts to address those difficulty issues with an improved tutorial and new shot assists while appealing to the hardcore player with in-depth character creation and tactical gameplay.
The new features start with the on-court assists, which are known as "helpers." They're designed to help with different aspects of your game, including timing, shots, and ball placement. The timing helper tells you how well you've timed your shot by placing an indicator above your character's head, with such ratings as good or bad displayed. The better your shots are timed, the more likely the ball will land where you want it to, making it harder for your opponent to return it. With practice, the helper is supposed to improve your timing to the point where it's no longer needed.
That same principle applies to the shot and placement helpers. The shot helper is displayed beside your character in the form of a circle that fills up to indicate the power of your shot. Holding down the shoot button fills it up, where it eventually turns into crosshairs to indicate a very powerful shot. The placement helper simply displays a yellow cross on the court where your ball is going to land, helping you to nail those lobs. Each of the helpers can be used in conjunction with a stamina bar, which is useful for knowing if you've dropped too many hard-hitting volleys for your character to handle. All of the helpers can be turned off at any time, so you can easily adjust them to suit your skill level.
If the helpers aren't enough to send you on your way to tennis stardom, Top Spin 4 also introduces an improved tutorial mode to teach you the basics. It starts with simple lessons, such as how to move your player across the court, the different types of shot you can deploy, and basic tactics. More advanced players can dig into a deeper tutorial that delves into different serve and volley techniques, as well as offensive and defensive baseline tactics. Tactics will play an important part in the game and tie in directly with your character's attributes.
The character-building features from Top Spin 3 make a return, albeit with a number of improvements. You build you player up in the same way, earning experience points in offline and online matches, which you can spend on different attributes of your character. These are divided into two types: technical and physical. Technical attributes are such skills as serves, volleys, and backhands; physical attributes are such values as strength and stamina. However, instead of applying experience points to each section individually, you can now change them based on one of three tactics you wish to improve. These include serve and volley, offensive baseline, or defensive baseline, depending on your style of play, and each of them automatically assigns experience points to your character's attributes.
There is a level 20 cap on your character, ensuring that you can't create the perfect unbeatable player, but you can continue to improve by using coaches. You can choose from a variety of coaches, each of whom can improve your character via attributes or by skills. Skills are earned by completing different objectives with your coach, such as performing 10 aces against your coach in a game. Those skills then give you boosts in matches, such as performing better serves when ahead or more accurate shots. You also have the option of switching coaches at any time to gain different skills, though your character's attributes change when you do so.
Alongside all of the gameplay improvements, 2K Czech is making enhancements to the visuals. These include better motion capture and enhanced crowds. In our brief demo, we saw Nadal face Henman in a match. The detail in each of their faces was impressive, and they were instantly recognizable. Stepping out onto the court, we also noticed the audience members, who were all individually animated, albeit not at the same level of detail as the players. Nadal and Henman looked realistic, with some of their signature movements implemented into the animation. Many pro players are included as playable characters, and such venues as Wimbledon and the US Open are officially licensed.
With more accessibility options, Top Spin 4 is shaping up to be much more appealing for casual players, though we've yet to have some hands-on time to see how well the improvements work in practice. Those aching for some motion-controlled action will be pleased to hear that Move support is included in the PlayStation 3 version, as well as on the Wii. However, there are no plans to include Kinect support, with 2K Czech blaming the difficulty on being able to move your character around precisely without buttons. Top Spin 4 is due out on the PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360 later this year.