Is there any sport more physically demanding than tennis? Football and basketball are close (sorry bowling or golf fans), but athletes on teams can be substituted if they're winded or tired. Not so in tennis: it's just you and your opponent sweating it out for the entire match. Though Top Spin 3 is hardly a substitute for the real deal, you'll likely feel just as exhausted after a game. A new control scheme will have many casual sports fans pulling a John McEnroe.
Top Spin 3's standard play modes offer few surprises. There’s career, exhibition match, tournament, and multiplayer. Career has you creating a custom athlete and advancing through five skill ranks, from amateur to legend, while competing in monthly tournaments. Winning matches earns you cash and experience points to develop your player's skills in the areas of speed, power, stamina, and more. There's also equipment, accessories, and clothing to unlock, but it's merely cosmetic. The career mode's most glaring problem is the lack of variety. You can't compete in doubles matches, participate in mini-games, sign endorsements, or make any meaningful decisions outside of allocating stats.
Outside of the new control scheme, the biggest change to Top Spin 3 is a surprisingly robust player creator. You can adjust height and body type, add freckles or tattoos, choose wild hairstyles, assign animations, and even select a grunt type and its frequency. The flexibility offered by this tool helps make up for the game's rather deficient lineup of pro stars. With just 19 licensed players, you won't be able to compete as the Williams sisters, and Wimbledon champ Rafael Nadal is a PS3 exclusive for some strange reason. Boris Becker, Monica Seles, and Bjorn Borg are great choices for legends, but having only three is a tease. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graff, and countless others are conspicuous by their absence.
The biggest draw for many competitive tennis players will be Top Spin 3's online support. Play modes include singles, doubles, quick match, and world tour. Yet there are a few hiccups here as well. There is no skill-based matchmaking in place, so if your character's base stats aren't well developed, you could easily find yourself being schooled. Online doubles matches only support two consoles, so you have to actually invite your friend over to team up together. One of the big problems in previous Top Spin games, the overuse of risk moves, is still an issue in Top Spin 3. Since there's no option to disable them or limit their use, expect to see a steady diet of risk shot after risk shot from a few cheese-heads looking to pad their online rankings.
To heighten the realism, the developers altered the way the game is approached. Timing and footwork are now more important than ever. On returns, you have to hold one of the controller's face buttons and release it just as the ball bounces on the court. Slight delays in your timing will result in errant or weak shots, if you make contact at all. You also have to be wary of your athlete's positioning on the court, or you'll end up watching balls awkwardly hit heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.
That's just the basics. Advanced shots add another layer of technique, incorporating both shoulder buttons and the right analog stick. Flat, slice, and lift serves, for example, involve rocking the right analog stick back and then forward, clockwise, or counterclockwise in a semi-circular motion. Drop shots involve flicking the stick up and down, while risk shots use the triggers for enhanced power and accuracy. None of the moves are comfortable at first, and even when you think you've got them down, slight flubs in timing or execution will cost you a match.
The problem is that instead of carefully planning your shots, you're thinking about which buttons to hit at which time. Your skill will improve with experience, but it's hard to appreciate some of the control decisions when there's so much room for error. Perhaps that's why the on-court athletes move more slowly than in previous Top Spin games; it's possible the developers were fearful of players overrunning balls during returns. Yet the game's net play suffers as a result. Instead of shoving the analog stick forward to rush toward the net, you have to hold down a shoulder button as well. It's clunky.
Top Spin 3 is the best-looking tennis game released to date. Player models are well detailed, and special mention should be given to how realistic the hair behaves as your alter ego trots across the court. Animations are lifelike and fluid, there's real-time sweat, and the licensed athletes wear authentic, corporate-branded apparel. Over 40 venues are available, and the stadiums offer 3D crowds and dynamic weather. Yet don't expect much in the way of atmosphere. There's no commentary, which could have added some drama to the events, and the crowd doesn't always react to what's happening on the court. Sound effects are excellent, however, as you can anticipate a well-hit ball simply by the sound it makes off the racket.
Top Spin 3 isn't quite the definitive tennis game the developers were hoping to create. The lack of notable stars, the flat atmosphere, and the by-the-numbers career mode are disappointments. Yet, for better or worse, it's the control scheme that ultimately defines Top Spin 3. Once acclimated, you'll find that it brings you closer to the on-court action than any tennis game before it, but it’s also unforgiving. It’s a worthy choice for those craving technique and finesse over the grip-it-and-rip-it style of Sega's Virtua Tennis.