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Who says you have to grow up? Here at SI.com's Game Room, our staffers review the latest sports video game titles to hit the market and welcome your feedback.
 
4/03/2007 11:49:00 AM

Review: Virtua Tennis 3 (Xbox 360)

By Lee Clontz

Sega’s Virtua Tennis series has been around the block. The franchise made appearances twice on the dearly departed Dreamcast, then the PS2 and PSP and now, with Virtua Tennis 3, the game moves to next-gen consoles with versions for Xbox 360, PS3 and PSP. We’ll be looking at the Xbox 360 version.

The series had a memorable start on the Dreamcast when it was released in 2000, with tight control, a rock-solid frame rate and a variety of minigames to keep things interesting. The 2007 version sports improved graphics (1080p, if you’ve got a mack daddy TV), several new minigames and, most importantly, online play. The only downside is that, if you’ve played this series before, VT3 will seem awfully familiar.

Virtua Tennis 3
Virtua Tennis 3 :: SEGA
At the game’s core is the career mode, where you create an avatar, Mii-style, and find yourself ranked 300th in the world. You can level up your player’s various skills by either playing minigames, attending tennis school or, later, by playing tournaments. Do well and your coach will send you e-mail and, occasionally, a wristband. Thanks, coach.

The minigames are a mixed bag, but, for the most part, they’re a lot of fun. Some of them take advantage of the game’s spiffy physics engine, such as one that requires you to knock down stacks of oil drums with your serve. Others take a turn for the truly bizarre, forcing you to collect fruit while giant tennis balls roll toward you or fend off an threatening armada of tennis ball machines. This game is a real Rorschach test for those prone to sports-related nightmares. Clearly someone on the development team was menaced by a tennis machine as a child.

Not weird enough? How about playing tennis bingo by serving into a wall of moving numbers? I hear that’s how Roger Federer got his start.

The career mode is also complicated by the fact that, as you play the minigames, your overall stamina bar is being diminished (nothing like a round of tennis bowling to put a pro on his back), so you periodically have to take a vacation. You have your choice of a quick one at home or a more lengthy one in a tropical location. The stamina mode is so goofily implemented as to add little to the game. Pushing your stamina too far makes it more likely you’ll get hurt, though this level of unnecessary realism seems at odds with a game mechanic that has you playing Space Invaders with tennis ball machines.

Virtua Tennis 3
Virtua Tennis 3 :: SEGA
Once you start playing tournaments, you will probably find the A.I. a little deficient. And by deficient, I mean, :it won’t score a point on you for the first few dozen games you play." It does eventually get tougher, but it takes a long time before it’s even remotely a challenge. Most troubling at all is that I was able, very early in the game, to beat Federer while I was ranked in the low 200s in the world. The No. 1 guy in the world should make me look like a chump, especially when I’ve only been playing the game for a couple of hours, but he didn't score a point on me. There’s clearly some leveling A.I. in this game, where your opponents get harder as you get better, but it's annoying when you’re playing against real-life players.

For a real challenge, the 360 version lets you go online and, surprisingly, the fast action suffers very little. The animation looks a little strange, in that your opponent doesn’t wind up for volleys (usually a sign that it’s being hit hard back at you), so you’re not always prepared for how quickly shots will be coming your way. Still, the gameplay works very well. One truly cool feature is that you can go back and watch a replay of an entire match later, as well as other people’s matches. It’s a truly innovative use of Live and is a good sign of things to come as developers learn new ways to leverage the service. Sadly, the PS3 version lacks online play.

So it Virtua Tennis 3 worth buying? Honestly, it’s hard to say. If you love a fast, fun, arcadey tennis game or if you want to play online or with local friends, VT3 is a solid, well-crafted experience. If you’ve been playing this series for most of the decade, though, there’s an element of been-there-done-that to the experience.

Ratings System (1 to 10)
Game Play: 7
The game plays very well, but the tournament play gets repetitive quickly. There are four different types of shots, but aside from the ineffective lob, they’re all pretty well interchangeable. The A.I. leveling issues are annoying -– I’d rather if you just didn’t get to play the big boys until you were advanced enough.
Graphics: 7
The game looks fine, though it’s nothing mind-blowing. Once you zoom in, there are some nice details on the courts and your racket, though most of the game is played at enough of a distance from the court that it never seems like a radical improvement from the earliest Virtua Tennis games. Those games, for their time, though, looked pretty amazing. There’s also a glitch I hit several times where the human characters in the game disappear except for their rackets and aren't visible again until you exit the game entirely.
Replayability: 7
It’s fun to play through the game’s various minigames, and some of the achievements are novel, but the game only has long legs if you’re playing online or with friends. By the time you’ve played a few dozen solo matches, it starts to just feel like more of the same.
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