Tennis sims are somewhat of a dying art. Of course EA Sports will always be there with a graphically superior/intellectually inferior offering, but apart from 2K’s improving ‘Top Spin’, there’s just not a lot of choice for the tennis nut. Strange really, as over 15 years ago, back in the days of the Super Nintendo, the company’s own effort, ‘Super Tennis’ seemed to break much ground. Still one title that did advance the genre with some much-needed graphical energy was Sega’s Virtua Tennis. Ten years later, comes the fourth coming.
In stark truth, at first glance, not much has changed. Graphically, you should be looking at EA Sports-like realism and detail. Whilst the detail is there, most of your tennis heroes are virtually unrecognizable from their zombie-like in-game representations. Not much evolution has seemingly occurred in the engine room either. Virtua Tennis 2009 plays very similar to its decade-old ancestor too - arcade-like coloured whooshs of energy fizz around the ball as you take a shot and interestingly, the same Super Tennis controls of normal shot; fast shot; lob and slice remain, exactly where you would have found them on the old SNES pad too.
What has been expanded are the options of play. You can jump straight into arcade exhibition matches, customizing the various options or you can go on the bizarre Tour mode. In terms of licenses, court realism and horrendous sponsorship links (Sega has a PC game policy of using your internet connection to download up-to-date “relevant” advertisements), VT 2009 certainly packs a punch. You can choose from a number of real players including Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray, Venus (but not Serena) Williams and Roger Federer. You can also unlock legends like Boris Becker and ahem, Tim Henman. There are a great deal more male players than female, but more than a fair crop of the best racquet talent.
The Tour is a particularly fascinating part of the game, since it is virtually unavoidable if you want some long-term enjoyment out of your £30 (online play has NOT been included with the PC version). Featuring, I have to say, one of the worst and most basic create-a-player engines you are likely to come across in any current release - don’t expect your swinger to resemble your target in any way (of course, if you do look like an extra from Night of the Living Dead, you may be in luck). Once you’ve created your monstrosity, choose a base country and look forward to racking up the air-miles on the virtual map, jetting around exotic locations from week to week.
The various spots on the map make up the storyline of the career mode. At home, you can rest for a week or two to recuperate energy from your virtual stamina, check your stats, scheduled events and equip gear you’ve bought from the tennis store. Whilst you painfully slowly work your way up the World Rankings by winning tournaments and beating random challenges, you can also play a variety of the most unimaginative mini-games to build up strength and experience points. These include hitting tennis balls at pirate ships; Tetris-style blocks and a shopping dash, picking up items like eggs and milk, whilst avoiding tennis balls being fired at you. Of course if you fancy more pointless challenges, you can visit the tennis academy to achieve basic tasks, all under the watchful eye of your coach, Tim Henman...
Whilst it is a nice idea to mix things up, the game gets very tedious, easily. There isn’t a great deal of skill involved in matches, mainly a case of running to the ball and hitting the button just before it gets to you, a timed swing meter would have given so much more depth to the matches. Though, judging by the sluggish speed this runs at, that probably wasn’t a viable possibility. If you do miss shots, you’ll probably find it due to tedium, rather than inaccuracy, still if you do hit the ball, the strength won’t have any link with the exact press of the button. Add to this a bizarre inclusion of annoying generic rock music, instead of in-game professional commentary, means Virtua Tennis will never lose its arcade tag in favour of simulation.
The saddest part about playing Virtua Tennis 2009 is the realization of “is that it?” Comprising of just a very questionable career mode and a static multi-player mode is simply not enough for a modern tennis game, especially one based on such limited skill-sets as this. Once you have iced your 25th little tournament, waited an age for the other pirate ships to re-emerge, scrolled through all the shallow unlockables and seethed once again at Henman’s patronizing comments, you won’t want much to do with this again. It’s not even fair to say it is a challenge, as most players can be beaten easily with a 1-button strategy - the game is just long due to the slow progress you make. Rather like the defunct Virtua Golf and Striker, this is another Sega sim that needs to be canned.