There have been many great tennis video games over the years, and even many of those who don't care at all about the sport itself have found a tennis game they like. This makes sense, because tennis games capture what's fun about gaming at a very pure level: they are fast-paced, subtle, intuitive, and sweatily competitive--at least when they're done well, like in I-play's Maria Sharapova Tennis.
The setup is certainly not going to shock anyone who's seen a tennis sim before. There's a quick game mode for a simple rally, and there's a career tour mode where you play through a full grand slam season against 15 progressively wilier (but fictitious) opponents. As you progress, you rack up career earnings, and these buy you photos of Miss Sharapova. This is a nice touch for fans, but earning new equipment and clothing, à la Virtua Tennis' world tour mode, would have been cool, too. There's also a stats screen where you can analyze every factor of your performance, such as first serve percentage, unforced errors, and so on.
During play, you serve using a typical power-bar setup. You choose where you want the ball to go, then you hit the swing button at the right moment to whack it over the net. There are three options when returning the ball: a straightforward ground stroke, a lob and a drop shot. The earlier you press the relevant button, the more powerful your return. However, going for extreme velocity limits the effects of directional control (applied by tapping left or right on your joypad before you hit the ball). This fact pretty much rules out a devastating crosscourt shot, for instance.
Success in Maria Sharapova Tennis is all about timing and reading your opponent's moves so you can wrong-foot her either through brute strength or subtle touch. While you don't feel you have the full range and subtly of control as you do in a console game, like Virtua Tennis, the system works surprisingly well. As you continue to play, you'll find yourself calling on a growing repertoire of shots, experimenting with touching the direction buttons at different points, and learning how to control drop shots so they don't plummet into the net. The engine has the depth to support the range of options on offer, which is not always the case with mobile phone sports sims. There's a discernible difference between a lob, a smash, and a volley, and you can actually appreciate the effects of spin.
There are a few problems with the system, though. The contact between racket and ball is not entirely convincing. Sometimes there appears to be quite a lot of air between the two when collision detection registers, but the ball still flies back over the net. The animation can be ragged, too. Your player may occasionally make a stilted, jerky whack at the ball in place of a graceful stroke. There are also a few problems with judging the height of the ball, especially when your opponent attempts a lob or a drop shot. Both shots cause the ball to slow down, making it hard to judge what you're facing until it's too late...and the ball scampers past your uselessly wafting racket. There are other frustrating moments when the player momentarily doesn't respond how you expect, resulting in an ostensibly easy ball limping by. When the pressure's on, these problems tend to encourage baseline play and lengthy rallies, especially on the faster hard and grass courts (clay, as in real life, slows the ball a little). Of course, this reflects the real-life sport to a degree, so these difficulties don't cripple gameplay.
The game's 3D-style visuals bring to mind the Genesis days of Pete Sampras Tennis. Everything is drawn with clean lines, rich primary colors, and lots of detail. The crowds, players, and courts are all realistically proportioned, but they're still bright and stylized. All in all, this results in a fun, inviting look. There are even scuff marks along the baseline on the grass courts. By contrast, the sound is really disappointing, at least on our test Nokia 6600. An unconvincing tap accompanies every shot, and there's no crowd noise. Moreover, we'd like to hear some appreciation when we squeeze the ball down the edge of the court with a thundering backhand volley. Disappointing, too, is the lack of a two-player mode. No mobile tennis game has Bluetooth support yet, and it's a shame this isn't the first.
Overall, Maria Sharapova Tennis is both ambitious and entertaining, much like the player herself. At times, you do feel let down by the vagaries of the collision detection, especially against more-talented opponents, but the game is confidently presented and compelling enough to keep you gripped. In fact, it's probably the only genuine competitor to Sega Mobile's masterful Super Real Tennis at the moment. Sega Mobile's effort is better-looking, but in terms of depth, only a controversial line call could separate the two. Maria Sharapova Tennis isn't quite a clean winner, but it's well worth the download.