When Japanese developers tackle genres and standards that are familiar to Western gamers, you can always count on them to deliver a non-traditional take on those tropes. Consider Sega’s upcoming tennis title, Virtua Tennis 4, which I recently had the chance to play for about an hour and a half. It includes a career mode in which you create a player, with the aim of taking him or her from relative obscurity to international superstardom.
Yet its setup gives rise to a career path that evokes the progression seen in a board game rather than in your typical calendar of events. It provides an all-encompassing life in tennis, presenting action on and off the court while occasionally forcing you into tough decisions.
Oh, and you can visit a spa. It is a Japanese game, after all.
Virtua Tennis 4 (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360, Wii, PC)
Developer: Sega AM3
Released: April 29, 2011 (EU)
To be released: May 10, 2011 (NA) / Summer 2011 (PC ver.)
I breezed through most of the character customization, choosing to skip the more in-depth options in favor of the important stuff: picking a name (“Vir” -- the default was “Virtua,” and I’m lazy) and a grunt (the PR rep had warned me that he had inadvertently left his grunt as a high-pitched female cry, so I didn’t want the same fate to befall Vir). Rest assured that VT4 features a bevy of customizable traits, allowing you to mold your player in your own image or anyone else’s.
The foundation of the career mode is its real-life map of the globe, which -- with its events scattered along branching paths -- reminded me of the classic Super Mario Bros. 3 world map. You begin in Japan and eventually make your way to the Asian mainland, Europe, Australia, and North America. The game restricts your movement along the career track by requiring you to possess movement tickets; here’s where my board-game analogy comes in. Just as movement by spaces in a board game corresponds to the number that comes up on a dice roll, you need to have a numbered ticket in order to move forward by a particular number of dots on the VT4 map.
The game’s “condition” meter also plays a vital role: it indicates your fatigue level. Every action you take tires you out -- training drills and practice games don’t take too much out of you, but an entire tournament will leave you exhausted. It’s important to note the meter’s effect on gameplay. Once your condition drops below a certain level, you’re officially fatigued. This can even happen between rounds of a tournament, and since you’re a significantly weaker player when you’re tired (who wouldn’t be?), you might start losing to an opponent that you’d usually be destroying. (I did find the in-game manifestation of the meter to be rather silly: for as much foot speed as your player loses at low condition, you’d think he was wading through a molasses-thick swamp of his own sweat.) The only way to recover stamina is to visit a spa.
By restricting you in this way, VT4 makes you think about the track of your career, and subjects you to the capricious nature of life. Let’s say you’ve been practicing for an upcoming tournament, and all the drills have tired you out. You see a spa that’s two spots ahead of your current position, and the tournament sits three events away. But if all you have are one- and three-move tickets, you have no choice but to enter the tourney while fatigued. In other places, the game will take you down a peg. I asked the Sega PR rep about a particular world-map icon, and he explained that in that event, “Something bad happens.” Like picking up a “Go Directly to Jail” Chance card in Monopoly, sometimes you’re just a slave to the luck of the draw.
Over the course of your career, you’ll earn money (which you can use to buy items such as clothes and movement tickets) as well as stars. The latter is usually a requirement to enter tournaments, so you’ll have to complete certain events if you want to play with the big boys and have a shot at a significant payday. You can build your skills through training events, which are drills that require you to do things like fire shots in particular directions to break targets. VT4 also has an arcade element: you can unlock special shots, which are either very difficult to return or unblockable altogether. You’ll see a meter at the top of your screen; each shot has its own in-match parameters, like “hit ten forehand winners,” that will fill up the bar when met. You can then unleash the power shot when you need it most.
As someone who’s played countless career modes that follow a similar pattern, I was happy to see VT4 taking a different tack. It looks like it’s going to offer enough event variety and challenge, thanks to its unique structure, to keep you playing. (You can go through the mode multiple times with the same character to try different paths -- you’ll retain the items you’ve unlocked, but will have to start from scratch as far as your star rating and condition meter goes.) I can’t wait to see what the world thinks of Vir.