When I last sat in on a Top Spin 4 demo, I didn’t notice a whole lot that differentiated the game from its predecessor. I recently had the chance to take a deeper look at it in a longer session, and now I’m ready to eat my words.
2K Czech has completely revamped the Career mode and Player Creator with an eye on making the game more accessible without sacrificing depth. From what I’ve seen, they’ve succeeded.
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)
In Top Spin 4, 2K Czech has intertwined the game modes like never before. The Career mode still entails creating a player and taking him/her from “Newcomer” to “Legend” status. But the game’s currency, experience points (XP), is now doled out in every mode. “We really tried to break the barriers down, so that you create your player, and then you do whatever you want with him,” said executive producer François Giuntini. So if you’re at a stage in your career where you’re losing a lot, you can build up your skills by playing Exhibition matches or defeating online opponents, and then return to the Career.
It wasn’t only the gameplay in Top Spin 3 that suffered from a difficult-to-penetrate nature; according to Giuntini, the developers “received some similar comments on accessibility regarding the Player Creator.” So the team streamlined the interface but didn’t do away with the complex depth that TS3 offered. Here, the Player Creator includes a bunch of presets so you can jump in and quickly create a decent-looking character. Sliders to change body features allow for deeper customization, and the “expert” layer is the system for editing facial points that was in TS3.
Differentiating created players was a major focus for the development team. The easiest way to dominate in TS3 -- even online -- was simply to max out your player’s Power rating. And player progression could feel intimidating or unclear to novices: Giuntini explained that some players didn’t understand why they should put points into one attribute over another. So 2K Czech simplified that system while giving players the tools to determine their own unique traits; you won’t be assigning XP to individual attributes anymore.
TS4 contains three core play styles: serve and volley (blast the ball and then approach the net), offensive baseline (return the ball hard from the line), and defensive baseline (generally weaker players with the speed/agility to reach more balls). When you accrue enough XP to reach the next level, you merely choose which of those three areas you’d like to gain a level in. This way, you can easily create someone whose strengths are in line with the play style you have in mind. And if you don’t have a particular style in mind, you’ll at least have an idea -- depending on how you’re faring against your opponents -- of the areas in which you’d like to improve.
Let’s say you’ve got a decent serve, but you can see that you’re losing points that you shouldn’t lose because you’re not fast enough to run down balls that aren’t coming right at you. You might then put your XP into a defensive baseline level. Your levels in each field add up to your overall level: the level-10 player that 2K showed me had two levels in serve and volley, and four each in offensive and defensive baseline. The level cap is 20 overall, not in each of the three areas.
But that setup alone is rather limited -- thousands of players will share a particular combination of levels. So 2K Czech deepened the system with coaches. As you level up, you’ll unlock access to a pool of coaches (out of about 100 in total) that depends on your particular talents (i.e., the way in which you’ve allocated your levels). For example, you might need to have a few baseline defense levels before you can hire a coach who focuses on your baseline defense, since that’s his specialty. Coaches serve a similar purpose in TS4 as in real life: they help you improve your skills and prepare for individual opponents.
The coaches are split into bronze, silver, and gold tiers. Early on, bronze coaches give you XP bonuses to help you rank up more quickly. Silver coaches will start giving you stronger attribute bonuses (e.g., +10 power) and gameplay skills. The latter are context-sensitive buffs that trigger automatically during gameplay. For example, I saw a “wrong-foot bonus,” which provides enhanced precision on ball placement when you wrong-foot your opponent (catch him off balance). Coaches also give you objectives for working on your skills, like successfully completing ten slice shots. (Remember, all of this can be accomplished in any game mode -- not just Career.)
You can swap coaches at any time, so if you’re having trouble beating a particular opponent in your career, or if you notice that you’re losing to a specific type of player online, you can switch coaches to someone who will perhaps further improve your strong attributes or compensate for your weaker ones. Thankfully, you only have to play through Career mode and reach level 20 once. After you do that, you’ll be able to distribute 20 levels from the start to any future created player, and then you’ll have a particular list of coaches with which to further specialize that player.
2K Czech has also restructured the Career mode itself. The interface has been revamped; the home screen displays rankings, in-game news, and your next objectives. You’ll still be playing through amateur and pro tournaments, but there’s now more variety thanks to unranked preparation events (such as training exercises, special events, and exhibition matches with alternate rules). In addition, you can go for objectives like the series rankings. Each offers a selection of related tournaments (hardcourt, grass, Europe, etc.), and you get XP for doing well.
World Tour, which is the Top Spin franchise’s online career mode, will now refresh with a new “season” each week. The tournament rankings are reset every seven days, but overall rankings will persist. Online tourneys are single-elimination affairs, and 2K has promised improved matchmaking in general to keep you playing against foes who are at a similar skill level.
The demo concluded with some hands-on time in a doubles match; I played with three other developers. Four players can play locally, while online games are limited to two players on one console versus two on another. The doubles game brought out the competitive streak within us; we were all ooh-ing and ahh-ing on every volley. I soon realized that the crowd was as into it as we were -- the fans were gasping along with the players in the room. Pretty cool, eh?