When it originally appeared on the Xbox in late 2003, Top Spin was a bit of a revelation. Sure, at its core Top Spin was basically just a Virtua Tennis knockoff, but it was a good Virtua Tennis knockoff. It was also the first tennis game to appear on the Xbox, as well as the first console tennis game to feature online play. After two years and a change of management, Top Spin has arrived on the PlayStation 2. The gameplay still pops, and the career mode still has plenty to offer, but it's just not as exciting. The amount of solid competition on the PS2 has something to do with it, but mostly this just feels like a half-hearted translation.
Handling the way you'd expect a post-Virtua Tennis game to handle, Top Spin gives you a number of different groundstrokes, from standard forehands and backhands to drops and lobs. Serves are executed using a familiar two-tap power meter, though you can also try for a much more powerful serve, as well as a more powerful groundstroke, with the risk shot. Holding down R1 activates the risk shot meter, which oscillates up and down rapidly, and letting go stops the cursor. The closer to the center of the meter you get, the more powerful and accurate the shot--if you land too close to the edges, the shot is likely to fly wildly out of control. The speed of the risk meter is directly proportionate to how full your "in the zone" meter is, which increases as you make winning shots. So, the better you're doing in the match, the more likely you are to pull off a successful risk shot. It adds some flair to the otherwise familiar gameplay, but the chances of completely botching an otherwise simple, routine swing make it too risky to use in most situations.
Top Spin offers a healthy number of gameplay modes, though there's nothing that you couldn't anticipate. Exhibition and custom tournament modes are good for one-off games and elimination-style competition, respectively. Both modes let you choose the gender of the players, whether you play singles or doubles, the number of sets per match, and the skill of any computer opponents. Either of these modes can be played by your lonesome, or with up to four players. If you're looking for a strictly single-player experience, the career mode allows you to create your own custom tennis pro to travel the world, play in tournaments, earn sponsorships, and hone skills. The player-creation functionality is largely cosmetic, though in this regard it's also pretty comprehensive. Facial structure, body type, height, and weight can all be adjusted, and the game even has EyeToy support, allowing you to map your face onto your tennis pro, though our results with the EyeToy were consistently unsettling. You can also choose from a wide variety of apparel, right down to the type and color of your socks, and your gear selection will increase as you progress through the career mode. In addition to the aesthetic changes you can make to your character, you'll determine several character traits that will affect how your player plays, including whether you're right- or left-handed, whether you're a power player, a precision player, or a mixture of the two, as well as whether your backhand is single- or two-handed.
Once you've created your tennis pro, you have several options. You can compete in a tournament, though the number of tournaments for which you'll be eligible is limited at the start. You can try out for a sponsorship from companies like Prince, Reebok, Adidas, and Oakley, which can net you cash, fame, and some rather cool licensed gear. The cash is important because it costs money to train with the different tennis coaches, and you simply won't find success in the bigger tournaments if you don't increase your player's stats. The career mode is pretty shamelessly cribbed from that found in Virtua Tennis, right down to the training minigames. Unfortunately for Top Spin, Virtua Tennis had much more entertaining minigames, and a better variety, too. Here, all of the minigames basically boil down to using specific swings to place shots in designated targets on the court. The whole sponsorship thing is a cool touch, though, because it gives you the feeling that you're actually a real-world tennis pro who has more to do than just deal with the rigors of competition.
Online competition was a key feature in Top Spin for the Xbox, and it remains largely intact in the PlayStation 2 version, though the online environment simply isn't as thoughtfully assembled as Xbox Live. Online tennis games for the PlayStation 2 are a rare breed, with the less conventional Outlaw Tennis being the only other game in town, so a little clunky interface is tolerable. Once you get online, you can choose to search for a specific game type, or just jump in to whatever's available. The game's biggest stumbling block is the fact that there simply aren't that many people playing the game online as of this writing, making it hard to get a game going.
While some great presentation helped make Top Spin for the Xbox a superb package, most of that polish has been worn down on the PlayStation 2, and it's left looking kind of plain. Many of the smaller touches that impressed on the Xbox--dust getting kicked up, skid marks on the court--either look unimpressive, or are simply gone. Court textures seem to have picked up a hazy film, giving a lot of the environments a flat look. Still, it's nice that there are a variety of settings to play in--while most tennis matches take place in giant Wimbledon Centre Court-style arenas, Top Spin includes a wide variety of court types. You'll play in huge 20,000-plus capacity arenas, but you'll also play in an assortment of more-intimate courts--right on down to small neighborhood courts in public park-style settings, giving a broader representation of the sport of tennis rather than just focusing on the televised big-money superstar matches. The character models have been dumbed down a bit as well, leaving them with a boxy look, but the animations still come across as fluid and believable. The game also casts some nice-looking shadows, though the light sources for different objects in the environment don't always match up. What's more offensive than the rather bland visuals are Top Spin's cruel and constant load times. Transitions between menus are slow, and it can take nearly a full minute to just load up a regular court. The fact that the game isn't even showing you something that's particularly detailed or complex makes the loads that much more irritating.
The sound translation is less compromised, though it's not really going to blow anyone away. The ambient effects are appropriate to the venues, and the sounds of the racquet making contact with the ball, and the ball then bouncing on the court, are clean and crisp. Players will grunt and yell when they swing, though it's not unusual to hear the exact same grunts and yells coming out of players on both sides of the net--since there aren't that many of them, they'll repeat pretty often, too. The game generally goes au natural with no in-game background music, though there is some kind of bland electronic and guitar rock that loops over the menus.
Top Spin's big trump card is the inclusion of online play, so if you've only got a PlayStation 2 and you want to play some tennis online, it'll get you by without too much grief. Top Spin isn't a bad game of tennis. But when a game arrives two years after its initial release with no additional content and a lot of small compromises, it's hard not to be a little disappointed.