Top Spin Hands-On

Top Spin is back--this time for the PS2. We check out the career mode and controls in this updated hands-on look.

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The original Top Spin for the Xbox, released nearly two years ago, was a superb game that blended razor-edge controls with fine graphics and, more importantly, loads of fun. With the decline of the XSN brand of Microsoft sports games, licenses were sold off and the Top Spin license landed with the good folks at 2K Sports, who are now bringing the series to the PlayStation 2. We were able to play the game for the first time since our initial look back at E3, and we're pleased to report that it has made a good deal of progress since then.

Hingis, Sharapova, Venus Williams, Federer, Hewitt--Top Spin for the PS2 has a nice lineup of well-known tennis stars.
Hingis, Sharapova, Venus Williams, Federer, Hewitt--Top Spin for the PS2 has a nice lineup of well-known tennis stars.

Top Spin's menu of mode choices includes exhibition, custom tournament, career mode, online, and a tennis school tutorial. As you might be able to guess, exhibition matches let you create either a single or doubles match with male or female players, and you can choose the number of games and sets per match, as well as the difficulty level. Similarly, in the custom tournament mode, you design your dream tourney from the ground up. Just as in exhibition matches, you choose from either male or female players in single or doubles (though we couldn't find the option to play mixed doubles matches), the number of human players in the tournament, the number of tournament rounds, as well as the number of games, sets, and level of difficulty.

Top Spin's career mode is the heart of the single-player game. It's a mode where you create your virtual tennis likeness and then hit the courts (be they clay, grass, or cement). There's a lot to do in career mode and all of it is accessible on a fairly attractive-looking map that will have you flying to tennis locales throughout the world to compete in tournaments, hook up for endorsement deals, work on your game in coaching sessions, buy new gear in the pro shops, and even hit the salon to try out different looks for your created tennis player. Matches start out on the easy side--you should be able to blow your opponent away even without much coaching--but quickly ramp up in difficulty as you progress up the ranks a bit. Because of this, you'll probably immediately scamper back to the coaching sessions to improve your game.

The coaching sessions are graded by their difficulty--bronze, silver, and gold--and each focuses on one particular aspect of your tennis game, such as serve, volley, forehand, and backhand shots. Most of the challenges involve simply hitting the ball into specific areas of the court. While this sounds simple, it often isn't. The targets in the serving challenge, for example, shift after each attempt and you're never quite certain where they will end up next. Once you've passed a particular coaching session, you'll earn a star in that particular attribute and will see an immediate improvement in that area of your game in your next tournament. Considering the challenge that you'll face with some of the later tournament opponents--who are experts at crosscourt shots and rarely, if ever, hit a ball out of bounds--you're going to need every star you can get.

Don't fight, ladies. There's plenty of us to go around.
Don't fight, ladies. There's plenty of us to go around.

You start out in Top Spin for the PS2 as a lowly amateur and, once you've racked up a few tourney wins, you take your first step up the rankings, where you'll be known as a "young gun." The grand-slam tournaments, such as the Americans Championship and the Great Britain Championship (the Top Spin equivalents to the US Open and Wimbledon, respectively) won't open up until you've earned the title of "star." You'll eventually reach "legend" status once you've dominated the biggest tournaments in the game. The game includes a detailed list of all your accomplishments in your Top Spin career, including tournaments won, skills earned along the way, and trophies received; a ranking list that shows your precise placement among the players found in the game (including real-life pros such as Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer); detailed player stats that show things like serve games held, the number of aces you've pulled off, your total number of unforced errors, and, of course, your overall record.

Sponsorship Has its Privileges

As you progress through your career, you'll also have the opportunity to earn sponsorships by leading equipment and apparel companies like Prince and Adidas that will offer you branded clothing for your created player. It won't be all champagne and roses with your sponsor, however, as you'll need to prove your worth to the company by taking part in a preliminary match to see if you've got what it takes. Win and you will be asked to do a commercial for your company (which is essentially a skills challenge similar to the coaching sessions) and then move on to more high-profile matches. Should you switch sponsors in the game, you'll lose all your previous sponsor's clothing and you'll have to start over from the beginning with your new sponsor.

Your Top Spin will take you to tennis locales all over the world.
Your Top Spin will take you to tennis locales all over the world.

Controls in Top Spin for PS2 are organized into several different shot types, which are all tied to a different face button on the PS2 controller. Slices (used when you wish to approach the net) are controlled with the square button; topspin shots (perfect for pulling off dramatic crosscourt shots) are controlled with the circle button; lobs are executed with the triangle button; and standard volley shots are controlled with the X button. The controls for Top Spin don't end there, however. The game also includes risk shots, which are executed by holding down the R1 button. A meter immediately pops up that features a quickly moving cursor, and to successfully pull off the shot, you need to stop the cursor in the middle of the meter by letting go of the R1 button at the precise moment. It takes a lot of timing to get it right, thus the "risk," but the power such a shot carries often makes the gamble worth it.

You can also use risk serves, which utilize a similar technique to the risk shot. You'll typically only want to try these on your first serve, though, because otherwise you risk a double fault. The standard serve mechanic is a simple two-button press: the first fills up a power meter and the second lets the ball fly (you can aim your shot with the left analog stick). Finally, hitting a drop shot (a surprise shot that sends the ball just over the net) is controlled with the L1 button using the same cursor-timing mechanic as the risk shot. Risk and drop shots can be difficult to pull off in the middle of a match, especially when you're concerned with just getting your player in the right spot. But when used judiciously, these shots can be an effective weapon in your court arsenal.

It shouldn't be surprising that the PS2 version of Top Spin isn't quite as visually sharp as the older Xbox version, but that isn't to say the game looks bad. Players animate cleanly and feature a number of cool trick-shot animations that pop up if your player is slightly out of position. Top Spin also features a number of well-known tennis celebrities, such as the aforementioned Hewitt and Federer, and female stars, such as Martina Hingis, Maria Sharapova, and Venus Williams. The stars all look pretty good, though they are mostly recognizable by certain features or accessories (such as Hingis' prominent forehead or Federer's oversized headband) rather than any particular resemblance to the actual stars. There's also nice variation to the court surfaces and stadiums, and some above-average lighting and shadow effects that add some spice to the overall look. There's not a lot in the way of sound here, and as is typical of a tennis game, Top Spin doesn't feature any sort of voice-over work. But the sound of the crowd cheers ebb and flow nicely.

This is our created tennis player. Sometimes he likes to pretend he's the Statue of Liberty.
This is our created tennis player. Sometimes he likes to pretend he's the Statue of Liberty.

The original Top Spin for the Xbox created a lot of good karma for the series that is just now making its way to the PS2. With the all-important online play packed into this version, complete with matchmaking, sponsored tournaments, seedings, and player ladders, it seems like Top Spin should appeal to PS2 tennis fans who have been patiently waiting for another serious tennis game since mid-2004. The game is due for release in late September, and you can expect a full review once it hits stores.

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