Virtua Tennis: World Tour Hands-On

We get an exclusive look at the upcoming PSP version of Sega's tennis game.

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We've been anxious to try more of Sega's upcoming PSP incarnation of Virtua Tennis ever since we got our hands on the game at this year's E3. The game is the latest entry in the addictive tennis franchise that began in arcades and found its way home to the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2. We recently had the chance to get an exclusive look at a work-in-progress version of the forthcoming game and were impressed by how well it's coming together.

The first tennis game for the PSP is almost here. We can hear the squeaking of those tiny little shoes already.
The first tennis game for the PSP is almost here. We can hear the squeaking of those tiny little shoes already.

You'll find six modes to choose from in the game: exhibition, tournament, world tour, quick start, ball games and multiplayer. Regarding the first three modes: Exhibition is a single-player mode that will let you take the player of your choice into a match on any open court. Tournament is a single-player competition that lets you work your way through a ladder of opponents until you wind up at the top of the heap, provided your skills hold up. World tour is a deeper career-style mode that will let you create a male and female player whose appearance you can customize.

Once you've created your characters, you'll be able to begin taking them around the globe to various locations to engage in events. The first handful of locales you'll find are tutorial-style minigames that will bring you up to speed on the game's play mechanics. Disc shooter will challenge you to hit balls onto a ringed disc, whose circles have unique point values. To reach the point objective for the event, you'll need to focus your shots on the precious center rings, which yield considerably more points than the outer rings. Stomp man will let you hone your footwork while returning serves from a launcher. As you hit the ball, you'll have to run over cans that are strewn about the court. Alien force requires you to hit balls at a moving launcher--that's surrounded by aliens--before time runs out.

Another minigame, prize sniper, requires you to hit at prizes moving on a rotating conveyor belt. Each prize you hit will yield a point value. The key is hitting the right prizes and knocking over more than one with each hit, as you'll have a limited number of balls. Danger flags will require you to collect flags that appear on the court while avoiding incoming balls. Pin crasher is basically bowling with tennis balls, so it requires you to knock down a certain number of pins in a specific number of sets. Tank attack requires you to hit incoming balls at a tank to damage it before time runs out. Finally, bull's-eye requires you to nail a target.

Pick-up-and-play minigames are one of the main draws here.
Pick-up-and-play minigames are one of the main draws here.

As you go through these, you'll notice that you'll earn experience for various aspects of your player's stats, such as hitting or footwork, which will improve overall performance. Once you feel up to it, you'll be able to take on various matches that appear throughout the globe you'll navigate. Winning matches will increase your rank, which lets you enter more-challenging events. Victory also yields cash, which you can spend on items and accessories at the local tennis shop.

Buster, Blocker, Smasher

Quick start is a zippy way to hop into a match with just a few button presses, as the mode will automatically pick a player and a court for you. Ball games are fast-paced minigames that, besides being a blast to play, are designed to help you hone your tennis-playing skills. You'll find four in all that come with the descriptive monikers of fruit dash, blockbuster, blocker, and balloon smash. Fruit dash is a Frogger-esque run around the court to collect fruit that appears randomly, as oversized fruit often does. The game throws several curves your way to keep you on your toes. First, you have to avoid balls that are being shot at you from an increasing number of launchers. Second, your character has a health meter that slowly dwindles. Every piece of fruit you collect yields precious health and staves off the end of the game.

Create a virtual player, and then take him or her on the virtual world tour.
Create a virtual player, and then take him or her on the virtual world tour.

Blockbuster is a Tetris-esque game that has you hitting balls at a wall of colored blocks...and the wall grows as more fall from the sky. The key to success is to hit groups of like-colored blocks to rack up the most number of points. Blocker basically has you doing the opposite of your task in blockbuster, so you must defend a group of colored blocks from incoming balls. The longer you're able to fend off the projectiles, the more launchers appear. Finally, balloon smash has you pelting assorted-colored balloons as they appear on a court. If you manage to hit a series of like-colored balloons, you'll earn a time bonus. Virtua Tennis' multiplayer mode lets you take on friends for some wireless battling.

Control in the game is shaping up to be as tight and as responsive as you'd expect a Virtua Tennis game to be. The simple layout has been tweaked some to offer great functionality, and it incorporates more use of the analog stick. Though the subtle changes might take a bit of time to master, the various minigames and tutorial-style events you'll play through do a good job of bringing you up to speed on the game's handling.

The visuals in the game continue to shape up well, resulting in their outstanding appearance on the PSP. The character models are nicely detailed and are complemented by excellent animation. The courts we've seen so far, a mix of real-world locations and others that take some dramatic license, provide a fine setting for the action. You'll see spectators in the crowd, along with the expected assortment of officials milling about the court during a match. Though the game's default camera, which is set a good distance above the action, makes it a little tough to appreciate the solid detail in the game, when you switch to the second, closer view, you'll see how good the game looks.

The audio stays true to the previous entries in the series by offering a smattering of voice, along with a collection of bitchin' rock tunes. You'll hear an announcer offer basic info on the match, such as the score and which set is currently in progress. You'll also hear some emotive sound clips from spectators that will reflect their support or disdain for your performance. The voice is punctuated by a satisfying collection of sound effects, such as the screech of your player's shoes on the court after a fast break or the welcome snap of hitting a ball (both frame the action nicely). The music continues the fine Sega tradition of keeping the fist-pumping rock genre alive and well with an assortment of tunes that makes the act of running around a small, rectangular court hitting a ball extremely exciting.

Nothing says 'country-club sport' like face-melting guitar rock.
Nothing says 'country-club sport' like face-melting guitar rock.

Based on the work-in-progress version of the game we played, Virtua Tennis is shaping up to be one of the highlights of the PSP lineup this fall. The robust single-player experience is as sharp and addictive as the previous entries in the fine series. The new minigames that have been added to the mix work well, and they perfectly balance teaching new players the mechanics with just being fun. The Wi-Fi multiplayer mode plays to the franchise's greatest strength: the simple pleasure to be found in totally smacking down a friend. Even in its current unfinished state, Virtua Tennis is overflowing with the potential to be a great game. Hopefully Sega will be able to deliver when the game ships this fall for the PSP.

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