Top Spin 4 tries to bridge the gap between arcade fun and in-depth tennis simulation. Sadly, this has resulted in a number of compromises that make it unappealing to fans of either. Its career mode and character development are shallow, focusing more on repetitive minigames than on tournament play. The visuals are poor, making each match look like a blocky mess, while an erratic frame rate makes animations jerky and unrealistic. Worst of all, the controls are unresponsive and often fail to register your swings, resulting in frustrating matches that you often win by dumb luck, rather than your skill with a Wii Remote.
A minimal tutorial introduces you to the basics of serving and returning the ball. You move your character around using the nunchuk, while your other hand swings the Wii Remote to launch shots. By swinging from the bottom of your body to the top, you perform flat shots. Doing the opposite performs slices, while swinging horizontally performs top spins. Holding down either the B, Z, or C buttons while swinging unleashes lobs, drop shots, and fast dashes toward the net. Though the tutorial explains what each shot does, it doesn't show how to use them in context, so unless you're clued up on tennis tactics, you won't know the best time to perform a cheeky drop shot or when to go for a risky slice over the net. Even if you know what shots you want to use, trying to perform them consistently is next to impossible. Often, your swings aren't recognized, so while you might be doing the motion for a flat shot, the game thinks you're trying to perform a slice. Power shots are even worse and require you to swing harder to perform them. Harder swings are barely recognized at all, no matter how hard you try, so more often than not, you're stuck playing slower control shots simply because the controls are unresponsive. Serving and targeting your shots is a little easier, thanks to the addition of some onscreen helpers.
You perform a simple serve by pushing the A button, which guarantees it will hit its target but will be slow. To unleash fast serves, you hold down the B button while raising your arm in the air and swinging it down. A targeting reticule appears above your character's head, and when the ball is in the center, you swing. A circle appears on the opposite side of the court, which you move using the analogue stick to direct the shot. The circle itself is quite large, so if you aim close to the line but mess up your serve, the ball is likely to go out. The same targeting system applies to shots you're returning, but thanks to the unresponsive controls, the timing is difficult to master, despite the inclusion of vibration feedback to let you know when to swing. This means that attempting to place balls closer to the line is incredibly risky.
The lackluster controls mean there's little incentive to explore the game's various modes, but even if you do, you'll find little to entertain you. The Career mode begins with you creating a character. You choose the gender, along with a number of attributes, including height, facial features, and clothing. There are also settings for tennis style and behavior, which change the animation of forehands, backhands, and serves, as well as the type of grunt shouted during shots and the type of victory celebration at the end of a match. This is great if you want your character to throw down his or her racquet in disgust when losing a point or act nonchalant when winning a match.
Once you've created a character, you're given the option of improving his or her attributes. There are five categories to choose from--forehand, backhand, serve, volley, and speed--with each category having six points assignable to it. You're given two at the start as freebies, with an additional one coming from a coach you choose. Each coach specializes in a different category, with the number of bonus points a coach gives you increasing as you progress through your career. To progress, you have to compete in tournaments, but before you can do so, you have to complete a number of challenges. These take the form of minigames where you have to perform such tasks as hitting the ball into coloured zones, winning rallies, and winning or losing a service four or fewer times in a row. These are very repetitive, becuase you often end up playing the same minigames repeatedly just so you can participate in a tournament.
Tournaments take place in a variety of locations, featuring well-known courts from the US Open, as well as smaller ones, such as the Auckland Grand Prix and the California Cup. Each match you win earns you stars, which unlock new outfits and accessories for your character. The poor controls overshadow each game you play, though, making it difficult and not much fun to play through a match. Aside from the Career mode, you can play exhibition matches, where you play as one of 25 professionals, including contemporary stars, such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Serena Williams, or all-time greats like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Bjorn Borg.
Up to three friends can get in on the action in doubles matches, though unfortunately, there isn't any online multiplayer. There are, however, a number of minigames to play. These include Getting Crowded, where a ball places a circle on the court with each bounce and subsequent balls that land in those circles are considered out; Bonus Regions, where landing a ball in a colored circle gives you extra points; and Paint the Court, where each bounce of the ball leaves paint splashes on the court and the player with the most splashes wins.
No matter what mode you choose to play, each is ruined by a frustrating control system that saps all the fun out of the game. Poor visuals do little to add to the experience either. Blocky character models are plagued with jagged edges and stilted animations that lack fluidity and realism, failing to capture the feel and speed of a real-life tennis match. Courts don't fare much better, with each surface lacking detail, making them just look like blocky coloured blobs surrounded by a lifeless crowd. By attempting to create a realistic control system without the support of Wii MotionPlus, Top Spin 4 never manages to make you feel like you're playing a game of tennis; instead, it leaves you frustrated and more likely to simply throw your Wii Remote down in disgust.