Court is in session…
Ever since iOS gaming began to get serious with itself, I’ve been waiting for a half decent tennis game to appear. It was one of the first genres of game I searched for in the App Store when iPhone gaming started to take off. It’s weird, because I don’t play tennis in real life, yet I love it’s video game equivalent. Mind you, I don’t go round shooting people in the face with automatic weapons in real life, but I still play Modern Combat.
Anyway, there’ve been a few quarter-decent ones – Real Tennis 2009 from Gameloft was pretty good, but strangely a follow up was never released. And last year’s Flick Tennis College Wars HD was cool in a quirky, ‘There’s nothing else, so this’ll have to do’ kind of way, but there hasn’t been a definitive version of the sport on the iDevices.
You think I’m going to say ‘until now’ don’t you?
You can’t make me say it. My reviews are unpredictable. I’m more than a cliche, I’m…ok fine. Until now.
Virtua Tennis Challenge (don’t know what the ‘Challenge’ is for to be honest), isn’t perfect, but paint me purple and call me Barney if I’m not having a swell time playing it. I do believe the go-to tennis sim for iOS has finally arrived.
It’s tennis – hit ball across net to opponent blah blah blah. Let’s not waste time with the obvious. On starting the game the first thing that hits you is the absolutely horrific music. And I mean, it actually hits you, like literally.
It’s eye-gougingly bad. A messed up mishmash of instruments that sounds like someone fell on top of a keyboard and decided to go with the result. In fact, the sound in general is poor. The commentator is possibly the most English person in the world, sounding stiff and way too formal, and some of the grunts the players let out on the court are completely incongruous. Can you imagine Rafael Nadal making a noise like a 12 year old girl being pinched on the arm after hitting a baseline winner? Actually, I can. And it’s quite funny.
Thankfully the rest of the game is quality. A flashing sphere on the title screen tempts you to tap it. Doing so thrusts you directly into a quick game against a random opponent with no inkling of controls or any other help. The funny thing is, with a few swipes and taps, you actually pick up the default controls pretty easily.
You tap or hold the left side of the screen to move your player, and swipe the left side to perform different types of shot. It’s pretty interesting to see just how intuitive the controls are. A confident move by Sega.
Except that despite being intuitive, they’re not really that precise. The swipes to shoot are excellent, but the taps to move around the court are broken. Your player just doesn’t respond to where you want him to go, often moving in the opposite direction. Which reminds me of the time My wife and I went ballroom dancing. You’ll end up wishing there was an option for a virtual pad coupled with swipes. There isn’t, but there are three other combinations of virtual pad and buttons which give you good control over how you want to play, and allow you to be more accurate on the court.
And on the court is where Virtua Tennis Challenge shines. Not literally, you understand, although it is quite a bright looking game. The graphics in motion are excellent, with top-notch animation which lends to matches having a great organic flow to them once the rallies get started, although the framerate does occasionally get a little choppy around the net. Replays of key shots are great as well, with swooping sound effects and camera angles, but a manual option is missing. There are 18 stadiums with different surfaces to play on, each of which affects how the ball behaves. Each venue also has it’s own personality (shy, likes walks on the beach, etc), so you’re not just getting identikit courts in different colors.
The meat of the game is the SPT World Tour which sees you taking on 50 players to become world number one. You ‘create’ a character (men only, for some strange reason) and take them through multiple seasons, each of which last 18 days in game time. I use inverted commas because you don’t actually build a player from scratch, but rather take one of the base players, and change their name, nationality and playing style. Kevin Moore is now a 22 year old white guy with terrible hair and a porn star mustache.
Each player has their own style of tennis such as baseline slugger, net player, tactical or power. Pulling off shots that suit each players style fills up a ‘Concentration Meter’ that unleashes a super shot once you press the appropriate button. It’s an interesting concept, and the slo-mo money shot is nice to look at, but I tend to dislike unrealistic power-ups in sports games. If Roger Federer pulls out a cannon while serving for match point next time he plays, I’ll take that statement back, but for now it feels a little gimmicky.
You’ve also got sponsors who throw cash at you, which is necessary to enter tournaments, and faux news reports after each big win are a nice touch, but what the mode really misses is the fun mini-games Virtua Tennis is known for. It does have a separate training mode hosted by the rather tasty Coach Vicki, but it’s a little sterile in comparison to the wacky and imaginative versions of Virtua titles past.
Rounding out the modes are quick game, exhibition and multiplayer, which includes online play. It’s great taking to the game to a real life opponent. Always more satisfying than dismantling the CPU.
It’s got a distinctive charm about it. Opponents will utter things like ‘I hope this experience encourages you to improve your skills. *Yawn*’ pointing cheesily at the camera after beating you, and in training Coach Vicki looks suitably downcast if you fail a challenge, making you want to try again to immediately cheer her up. Ahem. Even the deplorable music enters So Bad it’s Good territory. The game may not hit the mark in every category, but you get the feeling it doesn’t care. There’s a manic energy to it all you can’t help but love.
And love it I do. It’s the tennis game iOS should’ve had ages ago, but it’s been worth the wait. As SEGA themselves would say, to be this good takes ages.
Virtua Tennis Challenge is out now for $4.99. Get it on the