Graphically... wow. Virtua Tennis sports crisp, mind-bending graphics. A girl who wasn't paying too much attention said, "Oh my god, I thought you were watching that on ESPN!" If you check out these screen shots, you'll understand her mistake. Instant replays blur gradient streaks around the racquet as real-life pro tennis players smash the ball over the net. The wind blows long hair under bandanas. Even the first few rows of spectators are rendered to provide the illusion that you are not just playing a video game, but witnessing a true-to-life tournement!
Doubles is where it's at.
The motion-captured graphics of players' movements are equally superb. They seamlessly perform realistic tennis techniques to keep the ball in play: leg shots, volleys, diving for passing shots, you name it. Controlling such a variety of movements couldn't be simpler -- the A button does whatever it takes for your player to hit the ball, and the B button hits a lob. Once you start to swing the racquet, the directional pad aims your shot. This enables you to reach up and do a backhand cross-court smash just by getting to the ball and aiming for the opposite corner -- you don't have to worry about which thumb button is appropriate. Serving is also easy to do, as it's just like kicking off in any football game. Pressing A once starts the serve meter, and pressing it again serves the ball. The higher the meter is on your second press, the harder you hit the ball.
Despite the quick learning curve, Virtua Tennis is deep. First time players should have no difficulty pressing the A button to return serves and volleying, and can probably hit a maximum power serve here and there. Like in Soul Calibur, though, being able to perform the basic moves does not mean you're ready to take on a master. Virtua Tennis allows you to put top- or back-spin on the ball by pressing Up or Down . With this technique you can force your opponent to chase the ball to the corner of the court, then smash his return away from him. Even after you've mastered that, you have to be able to anticipate your opponent's shots, or else you'll be diving at missed shots all day. Eventually, you'll want to be able to hit a Max power serve down the line for an ace, lob over your volleying opponent's head, and know when to charge the net and when to stay on the baseline.
Getting all of that down takes a lot of practice. Although the early level AI can be consistently beaten with a few cross-court shots, the higher level computer opponents are ruthless, and can only be dispatched with consistently strong play. To help you reach that level, Sega has added a couple of gameplay modes to the basic Arcade. Exhibition lets you set the game up just how you want it, letting you tweak the number of games required to win the match, whether you want to play out deuces or go for broke, two-player doubles on the same team or versus... you get the picture. Exhibition's the way to go for a quick match-up with a few friends. Oh yes, did I mention that Virtua Tennis supports up to four players in doubles, with no slowdown?
The game is presented in a remarkably TV-like style, with short interludes between points.
If you're in the mood for single player, Virtua Tennis borrows a page from Soul Calibur and Crazy Taxi. (If you're going to use somebody else's idea, those are great places to start.) The World Tournement mode lets you travel to various tournaments and build up prize money. Beating an opponent rakes in cash and betters your ranking, opening up more tournements and training modes to you. The training modes are excellent skill tests, requiring you to aim your lobs into eight buckets or try to knock down bowling pins. The goal is to get the right score in the right amount of time to earn more money and unlock even more tournements. Each training ground has three levels of increasing difficulty and increasing dollar value.
Finally, in World Tournement mode you can use the money you've earned to sign contracts with doubles partners, or buy new strings to increase your power. You can also use your cash to buy new characters, stadiums, and outfits for the other modes. This feature puts Virtua Tennis over the top, adding the kind of replay value and single player challenge that set Soul Calibur apart from Dead or Alive 2. Additionally, Virtua Tennis has absolutely no noticeable load times! For an arcade conversion pumping out this many polygons without slow down, that's a feat in itself. Combine that with the excellent gameplay and Virtua Tennis has a lot going for it!