X05: Top Spin 2 Hands-On

We've got hands-on impressions of this Xbox 360 tennis game.

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AMSTERDAM--Quick, name the great Dutch tennis legends. OK, so we can't name any, either. But still, at the recent X05 event in Amsterdam, we got the latest glimpse of a new chapter in the history of tennis--or at least, the history of tennis video games. Top Spin 2, the debut tennis game for the Xbox 360, looks to carry on the tradition of the tennis series, which began on the original Xbox and just recently made the journey to the PlayStation 2.

Let's get this out of the way first: Top Spin 2 looks like a bona fide next-generation game. The game looked fine at E3 2005, which is where we first saw the game running in playable form, but it seems to have made some good progress since then. Player models of famous tennis stars like Roger Federer look remarkably natural and even seem to animate better than last time--no small feat, considering the limber and lifelike movement we saw at E3. This time, we got a look at a few new court types, and they all seem to benefit from the graphical power of the 360. The game's sophisticated light and shadow effects and the amount of background animation during a normal game also helped show off the horsepower of the console.

Interaction with the environment isn't usually the first thing you think about when you're playing a tennis game, but believe it or not, that's exactly one of the things the developers in Top Spin 2 have focused on. This interaction won't necessarily come in the form of you knocking over trees with a hot serve or blasting the ball boys in the dome during a volley. Instead, the environment will actually react to the way you play on the court. Specifically, when you're playing on smaller courts and you're playing a highly competitive game, passersby might eventually start watching your match as they walk by the court, eventually creating a small crowd to cheer or jeer you on.

Any sports game worth its salt will feature a career mode. In this regard, Top Spin 2 is definitely a sports game worth its salt. The game will offer a career mode that will span five full seasons and feature tons of events as you build up your custom-built tennis star. But before you start entering matches, you'll want to start off by creating your tennis alter-ego, a process made all the more pleasant with Top Spin's flexible and powerful player-creation tool. The goal with the tool was to give players as much control over their created stars as possible--featuring more than 150 parameters to adjust. The player-creation tool will have loads of branded clothing for your character as well. As it turns out, sponsors are good for more than just lucrative contracts after all--they can also provide you with great-looking gear. From the looks of things, it probably won't be hard to create a totally unique-looking character in Top Spin 2, provided you spend the time to make him or her so.

As you progress through the career mode, you'll have plenty of opportunities to test and better your skills. Career mode will offer tournaments, sponsored events, and all four Grand Slam tennis events, as well as the familiar training sequences found in the previous game. Just like in the last game, you'll have a number of coaches available to help you with specific areas of your game, such as your serve, your forehand, your backhand, and so on. But with Top Spin 2, the coaches can be more persistent. If it has been a while since you've had a lesson, you might receive a voicemail from a coach or two asking you to come in to work on your game.

The artificially intelligent opponents should prove to be a stiffer challenge this time around--the game's producers tell us they've spent a great deal of time making sure the AI plays at a realistic level; one that always challenges you to up your game in specific situations. And should you tire of beating (or losing to) the AI, you can also take part in either exhibition or ranked matches online, to play against a real, live player who will offer a much more unpredictable challenge than any preprogrammed opponent.

Control in the game is divided into three main areas--main, wrist, and advanced. Main and wrist shots are picked up over time, and advanced shots can only be taught by the pros. And though game's producers claim that you could get through the game by pressing only the A button for shots (though admittedly, this would be a tough prospect), players who truly wish to master the entire spectrum of the game's controls--who take the time to master main, wrist, and advanced shots--will win their matches that much more easily.

Top Spin 2 is a fine-looking game that has come a long way since its E3 unveiling--a game that once again looks to marry approachable controls with a good amount of depth. Will the game pose a long-term challenge that can match its sharp controls and sexy graphics? That's a question that will be answered by our full review once the game is released.

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