Virtua Tennis 4 First Look

We pull on our tennis shoes and take to the court to hit a few balls around in our first look at this motion-driven sports game.

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There is an unspoken rule in the video game development industry. All motion-sensing minigame compilations must include at least one title on the disc that simulates swinging a racket. Interestingly, despite this secret handshake, to date no publisher has stepped up to the service line to bring motion to a tennis game on current-generation hardware.

Virtua Tennis 4 marks the latest return of the long-running and much-loved franchise, and celebrates its 10-year anniversary by making the royal sport more interactive within your lounge room. The game supports both stereoscopic 3D technology and Sony’s Move camera-based peripheral, and you will be able to step into the shoes of some of the world’s biggest stars. Our brief hands-on with the title gave us the chance to take to the court in a match between Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

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Walking onto the court--which appeared, at least for demo purposes, to be locked to clay and hardcourt surfaces--we looked around to admire our legions of adoring fans. The game’s 3D implementation looked reasonable, with the net protruding from the foreground. Leaping straight into the action, we spent our first game on the serving side, lobbing the ball into the air with a single wrist flick and using a quick downstroke to indicate we wanted it to rocket towards our opposition. Nothing in the basic service and returning mechanics should be foreign to anyone who has played Wii Sports previously. Faster wrist snaps from the peak of our arm arc put a bit more force into our serves, while an onscreen speed indicator gave us the chance to track how quickly we were getting it down the other end.

Our game included only the primary Move peripheral, with no Navigation (formerly called the Move Subcontroller) attachment present. As a result, we didn’t manually move our character around the screen as we would with an analog stick, but the game did a good job of automatically shifting our character to keep us within striking distance without cramping our style. Returning the ball was as simple as swinging as you would in real life, though we noticed that while late swings were punished by usually missing the ball, early arm extensions were much more forgiving, getting it over the net but missing the crucial power to make the other player really work for it.

Once we had nailed the timing, matches were slugged out from the baseline with neither player venturing towards the net. You will be able to get closer by simply taking steps towards the PlayStation Eye camera. Like in previous games in the Virtua Tennis series, the action is from a third-person perspective, though in this title, when you wind up for a shot, or attempt to return service, the game will drop into first-person mode with the racket becoming your only visible element as it hovers in midair.

Ironically, while the title represents a natural extension of the real-world abilities most people are likely to have experienced at some point in their life, the learning curve on returning balls felt a little bit steep. Advanced players will be able to add slice, backspin, and other tennis stroke mainstays simply by aiming in the intended direction and using the wrist movements associated with the shot

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All of the gestures we used to play the game felt natural, though we are concerned about the potential to knock over household items around the lounge room or give doubles partners black eyes with errant flailing. Virtua Tennis 4 is currently slated for a summer 2011 release.

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