I confess—I don't know the first thing about tennis. Sure, I watch it on TV every now and then when something big is happening, but I never paid much attention to it or really understood all of its rules and nuances. After playing Top Spin, though, I gained a newfound appreciation for the sport. I'm not about to go out and buy a racquet or anything, but I think I understand and respect the game a little more. And for a videogame to be the catalyst for my epiphany, well… that had better be one fine videogame.
And a fine game Top Spin is. It possesses an eloquent simplicity such that novices can become quickly engaged with little trial-and-error, yet its accessibility belies a depth sufficient to challenge a seasoned expert. The player's ability to master timing, power, control and technique become increasingly pertinent as the game progresses in skill level. The smooth animations and polished graphics (though not exceptionally detailed) meld with detailed, realistic audio to create a feeling of authenticity that is further propelled by excellent, lifelike physics and a meticulous attention to every detail of play.
Each button corresponds to a given type of hit: players can execute a basic "safe" hit, a lob, a slice, or the game's namesake shot. Additionally, the right and left triggers represent "risk" and "drop" shots, respectively—shots that bring up a small meter onscreen to gauge the strength of the shots which, while effective, are also more difficult to use than the standard hits. Naturally, each type of hit carries its own strengths and weaknesses. The onscreen player automatically adjusts his or her shot strength and type (i.e., forehand or backhand) depending on their position relative to the ball. The game is simply a matter of picking the right shot, positioning for it, and executing it with precise timing. It's challenging, addictive, and rarely frustrating.
The career mode is essentially the sports equivalent of a role-playing game. Players begin by creating their own male or female character, complete with customizable faces (which can be adjusted one part at a time—jaw, brow, cheeks, etc.—rather than merely selecting from a pre-rendered set of features), skin tone, clothing (right down to the style and color of their socks), height, weight, muscularity, and hairdos. Naturally, I decided to create a monstrous, Frankenstein-like freak of a man with a mug that would be suitable as an "after" photo for Conan O'Brien's "If They Mated" skit. After customizing the character's appearance, minor adjustments can be made to his or her strengths, such as power versus finesse. Most of the improvements, however, are made as the player embarks on a quest to become the top ranked player in the world. Tournaments of progressive difficulty can be entered for money and prestige; endorsements can be used to earn more cash that can be put towards training (earning "stars" that mark improvements in gameplay elements such as forehand, serve, and the like); and additional window dressing (changes to the character's appearance) can be either purchased or won through endorsements.
The rest of the game's modes are all pretty standard fare for a sports game—exhibition, multiplayer (including online), and a quick tournament mode that offers up a number of top tennis pros for a quick three-match elimination-style tournament available in singles or doubles, male or female. Multiplayer supports four players offline, and without any annoying split screens, it's very well done. The online play also hits home; in addition to the usual exhibition showdowns, matches can also be played as part of the career mode, and there are plenty of entertaining stats to rub in the noses of fellow gamers.
My only complaint about the game seems almost absurdly trivial: even with all that's offered here, something still seemed to be missing. In particular, the training games, rather than giving me any valuable practice time, served only as divertive mini-games designed to beef up my character's stats. As a tennis novice, I was hoping for a little more time to refine my moves before stepping onto the court.
But Top Spin is truly a superlative game, offering unparalleled control, fine presentation and plenty of play modes to toy around with. There's certainly not much competition in the tennis game subgenre, so it's all the more satisfying to see a game executed with such finesse.