If you look at any genre of sports video games, there is always a wealth of options. From F1 racing to football, there's something for the simulation junkies, those looking for arcade-style gameplay, and everyone in between. Tennis is one of the few sports for which this does not ring true, where the only game in town for a while has been Hitmaker's tennis game, Virtua Tennis. It's been two years since Virtua Tennis originally came to the Dreamcast, and now Hitmaker has blessed the Dreamcast with a sequel in the form of Tennis 2K2. While the game offers improved graphics, an expanded roster of players, and tightened gameplay, the changes made may not be enough to seduce fans of the original Virtua Tennis.
The biggest change that has been made to the Tennis formula in 2K2 is the addition of a full roster of professional female tennis players, including Monica Seles and Venus and Serena Williams. This addition is a bit of a conundrum, as it doubles the number of selectable players right off the bat, but the inability to play cross-gender matches limits the impact that this change might have had on the game. Though the vast difference between the speed and strength balance of male and female players explains this decision, it still would have been nice to be given the option.
The gameplay modes found in Virtua Tennis return in Tennis 2K2 virtually unscathed. The three primary modes remain as tournament, exhibition, and world tour. In the tournament mode, you play against a series of tennis pros, with the goal of rising to the top of the ranks. The exhibition mode lets you choose an opponent and the venue for a single two-out-of-three match. The world tour mode is the deepest of the three and is the only one that has received any significant changes. Instead of limiting your choice of players to the roster of tennis pros, the world tour mode features a simple create-a-player function, giving you the ability to name and customize the physical appearance of your own player. Like in Virtua Tennis, you build up your player's stats by playing a variety of court-based minigames, which improve the abilities of your player and serve as an excellent primer for those brand-new to the game. Once you and your fictional tennis pro have gotten the hang of things, you can compete in actual tournaments. Winning these matches will net you a cash prize, which can be used to buy better equipment and to hire tennis pros to play with you in doubles matches.
The game's AI in this year's Tennis is a lot sharper than the AI in Virtua Tennis, and opponents will begin preying on your weaknesses much sooner than before, though this doesn't affect the learning curve dramatically. The control feels tighter, handling even more like an arcade game than the arcade-born Virtua Tennis. Players are less prone to having to dive to make a shot, and their turnaround time from moving in one direction to another is a lot shorter. And unlike in Virtua Tennis, players are more adept at dealing with balls that go behind them and can make desperate over-the-shoulder shots to keep the game going. These changes definitely mark an improvement for the series, though it may take some time for die-hard Virtua Tennis fans to adjust to the slightly faster game mechanics.
The changes that have been made to Tennis 2K2's graphics represent a tune-up more than a complete overhaul. The player models appear to be constructed of a few more polygons than those in Virtua Tennis, and the player textures look much cleaner. The player animation is perceptibly improved, as there is a smoother transition from one player animation to the next, and a greater variety of animations really helps to flesh out the characters. As for the environments, the courts have a greater level of detail, with more polygonal game officials and extra stadium geometry. The court textures are on par with those found in Virtua Tennis, faithfully representing their respective surfaces with some nice minor touches, like visible wear on the court, which is where most of the action takes place. The lighting has also received a shot in the arm, giving improved definition to player shadows.
The sound in Virtua Tennis was nearly impeccable, and while the changes made in this department aren't all-encompassing, fans of Virtua Tennis may be less than pleased with some of the alterations that have been made. The crisp sounds of tennis shoes squeaking across a variety of court surfaces, the thwack of the racquet making contact with the ball, and the occasional grunt of a player smashing an especially fast serve all remain beautifully intact. The prominent difference between the sound in Virtua Tennis and Tennis 2K2 lies in the soundtrack. The so-cheesy-it's-good rock soundtrack of Virtua Tennis has been replaced with an electronic soundtrack, with a good number of the tracks being remixed versions of some of the more memorable songs from Virtua Tennis. The retro kitsch of the Virtua Tennis soundtrack may not have been for everyone, but it was a good example of Hitmaker's odd sensibility and willingness to take risks. Tennis 2K2's reinterpretation of existing themes isn't an offense on the ears by any means, but it lacks the character of Virtua Tennis and could be swapped out with just about any other sports soundtrack with little notice.
As with any sports series, the key to success lies in finding a balance between innovation and retaining the feel of last year's game. Tennis 2K2 honors the look and feel of the original Virtua Tennis, but the innovations made may not be enough to warrant a purchase for those veteran Virtua Tennis players out there. Even still, there's a lot to like about Tennis 2K2, and those who haven't already played a great deal of Virtua Tennis will discover a new love for this under-appreciated sport.