Virtua Tennis 3 Hands-On

What do avalanches, panic balloons, and curling have to do with a tennis game? Find out in our hands-on look at Virtua Tennis 3 for the PSP.

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Virtua Tennis made a strong debut on the PlayStation Portable in 2005 with Virtua Tennis: World Tour. Now the series returns with Virtua Tennis 3, which will be released not only on the PSP, but also on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in mid-March. Hot on the heels of playing the PS3 version of the game, we got a chance to check out the PSP version at a recent Sega PSP event in San Francisco. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the handheld game plays very similarly to the PS3 game, which, in this case, is a very good thing.

Maria Sharapova stopped accepting our calls in November. Why Maria, why?
Maria Sharapova stopped accepting our calls in November. Why Maria, why?

The Virtua Tennis series has come to be known for its approachable controls and smooth gameplay, and both were in full effect in the version of the game we played. Player animations are smoother than ever, and while you won't be confusing the player models in the PSP game for the ones in the next-generation versions of the game, they still are recognizable.

You have a number of different shots available to you in Virtua Tennis, from the lob shot to the slice, and all are controlled with the four face buttons on the PSP. By moving your player into position quickly and pressing the shot button early, you can put more power and angle on the shot than you can with a quick press of the button. Indeed, in both the PS3 and PSP versions, there seemed to be a greater emphasis toward getting your player's feet set in position before winding up for the shot, unlike in previous efforts where there seemed to be more "cheat room." It makes for a slightly more demanding game of tennis, albeit one that still has the same pick-up-and-play qualities you've come to expect from the series.

In terms of modes, Virtua Tennis 3 for PSP has all the same modes as the PS3 version of the game. In addition to exhibition and tournament modes, as well as a quickplay mode that lets you get straight into a game from the main menu with a simple press of the square button, the game has the world tour mode, which acts as the centerpiece of the single-player experience. You start the mode by creating a male or female tennis star and then move on to your career, which is organized on a week-by-week basis. For each week that occurs, you have three options: rest, compete, or train.

Competing in tournaments is all based on your player rank, and the majority of tournaments will not be available to you in the beginning stages of the game. You can use that free time, then, to train by taking part in a number of minigames that focus on different areas of your game. All of the minigames featured in the PS3 version of Virtua Tennis 3 will be found in the PSP version, including some of our favorites such as Avalanche, which has you dodging giant tennis balls and picking up huge fruit; Panic Balloon, which will challenge your anticipation by popping plastic balloons filled with arrows that show where the ball will head next; and Court Curling, which, as you might imagine, combines tennis with the Canadian sport of curling.

All of these minigames improve various aspects of your created player's attributes, such as footwork, volley ability, and serving. In addition to the minigames, there's the tennis academy, which will focus on specific aspects of your court game. The academy challenges start out easy--such as hitting three crosscourt shots--but quickly ramp up in difficulty.

You'll always want to keep an eye on the calendar in the game to keep track of when tournaments you qualify for are coming up. The early tournaments are, as you might expect, cakewalks, and it is odd to be rolling over world-class opponents like Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt early on, but as the game progresses, so too will the level of competition you face. As you rank up, you'll have access to more tournaments, as well as different kinds of tournaments such as doubles matches. All that training and match play will take a toll on your player's stamina, and because of that, you'll want to mix periods of rest as you move through the year--just make sure your stamina isn't too low before a big tournament.

Different court surfaces make for plenty of variety in the matches.
Different court surfaces make for plenty of variety in the matches.

In our PS3 preview of Virtua Tennis 3, we experimented with only the normal difficulty level and found the artificially intelligent opponents to be not much challenge. For the PSP demo, we cranked up the difficulty to the maximum level and were pleased to find out that it's practically a whole new game. Instead of letting you chase them around the court, the AI opponents will mix up their shots brilliantly, hitting deadly accurate crosscourt shots with ease to turn the tables so you're the running monkey. It's a promising sign that the game will have a good amount of replayability.

Another feature to extend the life of the game will be the four-player ad hoc multiplayer capabilities. You'll be able to play wireless doubles matches with three others, as well as your standard one-on-one matches. The game will also feature a rival records feature that will let you keep track of who you've beaten in previous wireless matches.

The roster lineup for Virtua Tennis 3 is impressive, with well-known players such as Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova, and Martina Hingis featured alongside up-and-comers like Gael Monfils, Mario Ancic, and Nicole Vaidisova. Virtua Tennis 3 is due on store shelves March 20, and we'll bring you a full review of the game once it's released.

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