It's hard to believe that two years have passed since Virtua Tennis 3 came out on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The tennis landscape has certainly changed a lot since then. 2K Sports updated its Top Spin franchise with Top Spin 3 last year, and EA Sports is about to enter the market with Grand Slam Tennis. Clearly, the onus is on Virtua Tennis to up its game, and Sega has dusted off its tennis whites to return with Virtua Tennis 2009, the first of what we assume will be an annual update. Does it have what it takes to remain the number-one seed? Let's find out.
The first thing that we noticed when jumping back into Virtua Tennis was the gameplay, which still feels incredibly fluid. More than ever before, this game is about moving your character into the best position to receive each shot, which allows for optimum position and power for the return. Players of the previous game will be overjoyed to hear that characters no longer dive around the court like they're practicing in swimming class, which makes the game much more fun to play.
The most obvious new additions to the game come in the form of the new minigames, given that developer Sumo Digital went all out to make them as wacky as possible. One of our favourite games is Zoo Feeder, in which you have to direct food into the right animals' mouths. Then there's Pirate Wars, wherein you have to dodge cannon fire from the seafaring dogs while using tennis balls to sink the ships. Pot Shot is basically pool, except the cue ball has been replaced with a tennis ball and you have to combine power, accuracy, and positioning to pot the balls. Finally, Shopping Dash serves to help your running skills as you collect shopping items while dodging an onslaught of large tennis balls. All of these minigames are fun, and the charmingly named Meat Defender also makes a return from previous games.
The major component of VT 2009 is the World Tour mode. You start off by customising your own player, and then you head off into the world with your new coach, Tim Henman. The structure is pretty much the same as before, though: You compete in games around the world, build up your player's skills in the minigames, and buy new tennis equipment with your winnings. The difference in VT 2009 is that online functionality is integrated right into the World Tour, so you can enter online tournaments and play ranked matches as part of your career.
Virtua Tennis 3 was a bit of a technical marvel when it was released two years ago; it was one of the first games to support true 1080p graphics, and it had a great online mode. The same is true of the sequel. It still looks great and moves fast, and the online mode suffered no slowdown in the matches that we played from the office. It doesn't look as if it will rewrite the rulebook, but Virtua Tennis 2009 puts the series back at the forefront of the genre. It's out now on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and we look forward to seeing if EA can challenge its dominance with Grand Slam Tennis 2009 in a couple of weeks' time.