Not only does Top Spin 4 succeed at being one of the most accurate tennis simulations available, but its new training modes and shot assists make it accessible for newcomers to the sport too. Whether you're playing a simple exhibition match, shooting it out in a grand slam, or showcasing your skills in online tournaments, each and every match is full of the drama and thrilling spectacle that make tennis such an exciting sport. There's a heap of content to explore, with a deep career mode and an improved character leveling system that ensures your hard work never goes unrewarded, letting you compete in online matches with a player you can truly call your own.
Character customization lies at the heart of Top Spin 4, since your creations can be used in both online and offline modes. You choose the gender of your character, along with a number of attributes, including height, facial features, and clothing. There are also settings for tennis style and behavior, which change the animation of forehands, backhands, and serves. You can even select the type of grunt shouted during shots and the type of victory celebration at the end of a match--which is great if you want your character to throw down his racquet in disgust when losing a point or act nonchalant when winning a match.. If you're especially creative, you can use the advanced features editor to sculpt your character's face precisely using a number of control points, though it's fiddly to use and more often than not results in some scary-looking creations.
Once you've created a player, you're sent to the Top Spin Academy, which teaches you the basic controls. Face buttons perform flat, top spin, slice, and lob shots, while the triggers and shoulder buttons act as modifiers, allowing you to perform adventurous drop shots or dash to and from the net. By tapping a button, you perform a control shot, which is accurate but slow. Holding it down performs power shots, which are faster but are more likely to go out if you hold the button down too long. Meanwhile, the left analogue stick moves your player around the court and aims your shots. It's a lot to take in, but the tutorial gently guides you through each type of shot individually so you can master the basics quickly. It also teaches you about timing, which is critical during a match. If you press a shot button too early or too late, your shot might go out or lack power, making it easy for your opponent to return the ball.
While previous games in the series expected you to perfect timing based purely on your own intuition, Top Spin 4 introduces a number of on-court assists known as "helpers" that make connecting with the ball much easier. For timing, your shot is given a rating of perfect, good, too early, or too late, which is displayed over your character's head after you've hit the ball. Shots get a power meter so you know how hard you're hitting them, while a first bounce helper shows you where the ball is going to land when an opponent returns a shot. There's also a fatigue gauge that shows you how tired a player is getting, either from hitting power shots or from running around the court. You can use this to your advantage by hitting wider balls, which are much more difficult to return when your opponent is fatigued. If you're feeling confident, you can turn off the helpers.
Further tactics are taught in the advanced lessons of the Top Spin Academy, so you know exactly when to deploy a deft slice or catch your opponent off guard with a drop shot. You learn about the three fundamental play styles of tennis: the fast power shots of baseline offensive; the accurate control shots of baseline defensive that move your opponent around the court; and the quick plays of volley. Even if you're well versed in tennis, these tutorials are great for learning the many techniques that professionals use, helping you identify what kind of players you're up against and what moves to use against them. Mastering these techniques takes time, but with the addition of helpers, it's much easier than before. The controls are very accurate, and the physics are spot on, so you never feel like the game isn't responding to your actions, which makes each match a lot of fun to play.
With skills in hand you can start to play through one of Top Spin 4's many game modes. The simplest is an exhibition match, where you play a one-on-one or doubles game against a CPU opponent or with friends online or locally. You can choose to play with your created player or select from 25 professionals, including contemporary stars such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Serena Williams, or all-time greats like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Bjorn Borg. The meat of the game lies in the career mode, though, where you're restricted to using the character you've created. You start as a lowly amateur aiming to rise through the ranks to the level of star and take on the greats in grand slam tournaments.
You get there by playing in smaller tournaments and training matches that earn you experience points to spend on changing different attributes of your character. However, rather than leveling up individual statistics such as your forehand or speed, you have three categories based on play style to choose from--serve and volley, offensive baseline play, and defensive baseline play--and your points are spread out automatically. Though it's much easier to distribute your points and get a good result from it, more technical players may lament the inability to divide them up themselves. Bonus skills can be added by using coaches. By completing different objectives with them, such as performing 10 aces during a game, you gain permanent performance boosts like better serves or more accurate shots. If you don't like the skills you've earned, you can switch between coaches at any time, though you have to complete a whole new set of objectives when you do so.
As your player gets better, you can win more matches and thus enter more tournaments. A calendar shows you a list of upcoming events, as well as training matches and bonus special events that you have to take part in before each game. These range from exhibition matches for sponsors, through to spa days that earn you extra experience points. Your efforts aren't just rewarded with experience points, either; new clothing, hairstyles, and accessories are unlocked for your character as you progress. There are also a number of branding opportunities to take part in, such as endorsing energy drinks or putting in guest appearances on TV shows. By attending branding events, your character gains fans, which you also earn when playing in tournaments. Each season you're given a number of objectives to fulfill, such as earning a certain number of fans and competing in a certain number of matches. If you reach your objectives, your career status is upgraded, and you can compete in bigger and better tournaments next season.
There are a whole host of events to compete in, ranging from big tournaments such as the US Open, through to smaller ones such as the Auckland Grand Prix and the California Cup. Each is a joy to play, thanks to the tight controls and a crowd that reacts to how you play. Oohs and aahs are heard at aces, while tension is built up in long rallies by an increasing crowd murmur, culminating in a rapturous round of applause as you land that perfect drop shot in the corner of the court. With all the tournaments on offer, as well as special events and training opportunities, there is a lot of content to play through, and that's before you even get to the online multiplayer.
If you'd rather compete against human players from the start, you can skip the offline career mode altogether and take your character through the online World Tour. Much of the single-player career is replicated, with special events, training, and tournaments on offer. Instead of progressing up a fictional leaderboard that contains players such as Nadal and Federer, you now compete on a live leaderboard with players from around the world. Challenging real players is more difficult, but it's ultimately more rewarding as you see your character progress up the world rankings. You earn experience points online too, as you do in the single-player, so you could feasibly build up a character and never have touched the offline modes. If you'd rather play with famous players, there's the online 2K Open, which lets you choose any player you like and compete for points in each game, with a separate leaderboard giving you a player ranking. And if that's all too much for you, then you can play simple exhibition matches online, where you can choose from several options, including the level of players, the court, and whether helpers are on or off.
Whichever mode you play in, Top Spin 4 is a great-looking game. There's a lot of detail in each court, such as the turf that wears down to brown patches as you play, and the advertising billboards surrounding it. Each member of the crowd is a fully rendered character, along with the ball boys and umpires that sit around the court. Though the players themselves sometimes look a little off when viewed from certain angles, they're instantly recognisable, with their animations looking incredibly lifelike, adding to the drama and realistic feel of the game. There's stereoscopic 3D support too, though it noticeably decreases the resolution of the visuals. Judging where the ball is going to land and the position of your player on the court is easier thanks to the added depth, but it's certainly not a requisite to get the most out of the game.
Top Spin 4 is tennis at its best. From the off, you're never in any doubt as to the authenticity of its simulation, thanks to the tight controls, great visuals, and in-depth online and offline career modes that make you feel like a professional tennis player on his or her way to the top. Though it sticks to its simulation roots, the new helpers make the game much more accessible, while improved tutorials teach you about different styles of play, making matches tense and strategic and as much fun to watch as they are to play. This is the standard by which all future tennis games will be judged, and as close as you can get to the real thing without picking up a racquet.