Smash Court Pro Tournament Preview
Namco's arcade tennis game is on its way to the PlayStation 2. Read our hands-on report to find out what to expect from the game.
Tennis may not be the most popular sport in the US, but as is the case with NHL hockey, many people who wouldn't necessarily watch an actual contest on TV enjoy playing a video game version of the sport. With the adequate success of Sega's Virtua Tennis and Nintendo's Mario Tennis in recent years, publishers are finding it worthwhile to release more tennis games these days, and Smash Court Pro Tournament is the result of this way of thinking.
Smash Court began its life as an arcade game, but you'd never know it from the wealth of gameplay modes it offers. You can play exhibition games with up to three of your friends, attempt to defeat a tournament ladder of four players in the arcade mode, try to beat your opponent as quickly as possible in the time attack mode, or learn the ins and outs of playing the game in the challenge mode. But the primary gameplay mode, and the one that will likely receive the most attention, is the tournament mode. Here, you can choose from three licensed tournaments, including Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open, as well as a fictional tournament called Tournoi de Paris that allows you to play on clay. Eight of the sport's biggest stars are in the game, including Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Anna Kournikova, Pete Sampras, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Andre Agassi, and Patrick Rafter. And as you win tournaments, four hidden characters will be unlocked for play.
Choosing the correct shot for the situation, aiming your shots well, and using your opponent's momentum against him or her are the keys to success in Smash Court. Arcade games aren't normally known for their in-depth control schemes, but you'll enjoy more than an adequate amount of control over the ball in Smash Court. To toss the ball for a serve, you must press the X button. To hit the ball, the X button must be pressed once again for a soft strike, or you can take your chances with serving hard by pressing the circle button. Just as in real tennis, the closer you get to striking the ball at the top of its arc, the better the serve will be. Once the ball has been hit, you can control its trajectory to try and sneak it into a corner for an ace. When the ball is in play, each face button on the Dual Shock 2 represents a different kind of shot. The X button will trigger a cross-court slice shot, the circle button puts topspin on the ball, the square button puts backspin on the shot, and the triangle button triggers a lob. In addition to the rudimentary tennis shots, there are a few arcade-influenced strokes that add some pizzazz to the proceedings. If your opponent hits a high lob and you're able to get underneath it, you can unleash a high-velocity smash shot that is nearly impossible to return. Other special shots include the timing-based super shot and the power shot, which can be used when your opponent is off balance. Other interesting aspects of the gameplay include the fact that you can adjust how many sets are in each match and a feature that allows you to feel your player's heartbeat in the controller when you're on the brink of victory. One issue with Smash Court's gameplay is that players will automatically dive for a ball, and once your player has hit the court to make a return shot, it's nearly impossible to recover for the next shot.
Smash Court was originally developed on the PS2-friendly system 246 arcade board, and the visual improvements that have been made for the PS2 version of the game are minimal. The character models are the highlight of the graphics, and most of the players look fairly similar to their real-world counterparts. Anna Kournikova's trademark snakelike braid flops about while she plays, while Martina Hingis' forehead is just as large as it is in real life. The men also bear a close resemblance to the real thing. Andre Agassi's receding hairline is just about perfect, and Patrick Rafter's beard and headband have been included. The animations are also quite good, and it's easy to tell the difference between Agassi's stilted serves and Sampras' sidewinder style of striking the ball. The players' faces are fully animated, and they will actually react accordingly after exhaustive rallies, but a few more transition animations would be nice, as players only have a few different animations for the breaks in the action. There are just four courts included in the game, and while they're modeled accurately, a few fantasy courts would be a nice addition to a game of this type. On-court details like ball boys waiting to run across the court to pick up errant shots and polygonal referees add an authentic touch to the game, and real-time shadows chase each player around the court. With the exception of the special shots, the speed of the game also seems to be perfect, despite its arcade roots.
The auditory experience does the job but provides few extras. Players will emit the typical grunts and groans while playing, and the ball hitting the racquet sounds different almost every time. Other small audio niceties include squeaking shoes when players cut and a dry public address announcer that brings the game full circle. For an arcade-style game, Smash Court Pro Tournament has fairly subdued sound. Hopefully Namco will incorporate more ambient sounds into the game such a hecklers to spice things up a bit.
If you're looking for tennis action on your PlayStation 2 and are tired of waiting for Sega's Tennis 2K2 to be released, Smash Court Pro Tournament deserves a look when it's released next month. There's a wealth of gameplay modes to explore, the graphics are adequate, and the gameplay is already shaping up quite nicely. If Namco can spice up the sound and increase the recovery time for diving players, it might have a hit on its hands. Look for our full review of Namco's tennis game for the PlayStation 2 in the near future.