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Preview: Top Spin 4

5:00 PM on 01.20.2011 // Samit Sarkar

By the time 2K Sports releases Top Spin 4 on March 15, 2011, it will have been almost three full years since the launch of its predecessor, 2008’s Top Spin 3. That game was well-received, but drew criticism for being somewhat impenetrable for novice players.

Take-Two closed the studio behind TS3, PAM Development, shortly after the game’s release, but much of the core team that worked on the game has since moved to 2K Czech, which is developing TS4. I had the chance to play a couple of matches of TS4 tennis earlier this week, and the game seems like a more accessible evolution of the franchise.

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Top Spin 4 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], Wii)
Developer: 2K Czech
Publisher: 2K Sports
To be released: March 15, 2011 (NA) / March 18, 2011 (EU)


Most sports games want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and for sports sims, offering a varying amount of depth is one of the best ways to do that. Top Spin 3 allowed you to take risks with power and accuracy on shots, but the mechanic was so unforgiving -- you couldn’t execute risk shots without absolutely perfect timing -- that I never even bothered with it.

In Top Spin 4, 2K Czech is aiming to give gamers just the amount of depth that they want. Casual players can have fun merely by running around the court with the left analog stick and pressing A to hit the ball, but if you take the time to learn the game, you’ll be rewarded for it. The face buttons correspond to different types of shots, like topspin (B) or slice (X), and pressing LT will flip your position to allow you to hit backhand where your opponent might be expecting a forehand, for example. If you want to follow up a drop shot (RT + X) by rushing the net, press RB.

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This ties into the implementation of 2K Sports' Signature Style in TS4. Each of the 25 athletes in the game's roster will play like their real-life counterparts. Guys like Andy Roddick and Pete Sampras will blow you away with a powerful serve and attack the net, whereas someone like Michael Chang will stay on the baseline and play defensively. If you want to up your game, it's in your best interest to study players' attributes to figure out their strengths and weaknesses so you can use that information to your advantage when you play. Just like a high-level Street Fighter player understands the roster well enough to adjust his tactics to suit both his character and his opponent, the best TS4 players will want to learn the skill sets of the game's tennis stars.

Newer players might not care enough to bother with that, though, and that's okay. 2K Czech has included better visual feedback to let you know how well you're doing, and to help you out. TS4 utilizes the same hold-and-release mechanic for shots -- tap for a control shot, hold for a power shot -- that TS3 had, so generally, you should release a face button when the ball bounces on your side of the court. Of course, the timing will differ based on a variety of conditions (such as ball speed and your position), and in TS3, it wasn't always clear why your timing was off. This time around, a small yellow target will let you know where the ball will land on the court, and when you hit it, a timing indicator will pop up to tell you how you did ("too soon," "too late," "good," "perfect," etc.). Thankfully, pros can turn that stuff off.

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One of the complaints I had with TS3 was its lackluster presentation. The crowd never really got into it, and there was no commentary. Plus, while the game looked beautiful, its no-frills statistical overlays gave the impression of a less polished product. 2K Czech has really amped up the crowd interaction in TS4: expect the crowd's excitement to build during a long volley before exploding in loud cheers at the conclusion of a point. Sadly, there's still no commentary. That's disappointing, especially since commentary isn't difficult to implement in a tennis game -- there are only 25 athletes on the roster (as opposed to thousands of players in a football game), and in tennis, commentators only speak between points.

The commentary aspect of a television broadcast is missing, but 2K Czech has included pre-match cutscenes (for example, you'll see players walking out onto the court through a tunnel) to add some TV-style flair. So far, though, there don't seem to be a great deal of major improvements or additions to distinguish TS4 from TS3. I was expecting something more drastic from a game that will be launching nearly three years after its predecessor.

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Don't get me wrong: it's looking great so far, since the tweaks that I noticed improve on what was already a very good game in TS3. I was told that 2K Sports will be showing off more in the near future -- including Move support for the PS3 version -- so I remain hopeful that TS4 will offer more than what I saw this week.

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