An incredibly deep tennis game arrives on Wii with one crucial flaw.
Despite the success of tennis in Wii Sports, the Wii hasn't seen many follow-up tennis games that take advantage of the groundwork already laid down. Virtua Tennis 4 from Sega doesn't seem to even try to capitalize on the success of Wii Sports, but it nonetheless it delivers a fantastic tennis experience from top to bottom.
Virtua Tennis is rooted in gameplay that is over a decade old. This is not a bad thing; the core gameplay of the series has always been rock solid, especially in 4-player doubles. Indeed, the tennis part of Virtua Tennis 4 feels very familiar to anyone who has played a Virtua Tennis game before, dating all the way back to the original arcade game in 1999. The key is positioning; you can dive from halfway across the court to return a volley, but the better the position when you take your swing, the less recovery time you will face afterward, and the stronger the return will be. The focus on strategy, rather than precise swings, makes the game easy to pick up for just about anyone. Early on in the Virtua Tennis experience, you start working out strategies in your head on how to lull your opponent into a false sense of security so that you can hammer a shot down at the best angle possible. Virtua Tennis was incredibly fun 12 years ago, and it's incredibly fun now.
Much of the depth of the game revolves around the World Tour mode, which has been completely revamped for this iteration of the game. The mode begins with a robust create-a-player system that allows you to shape your character as you see fit. Once that is done, the tour consists of four separate seasons over which you build the skills and fame of your created tennis superstar. At the end of each season is a tournament, which you must both arrive to on time, and also qualify for by becoming more famous as the season progresses. The World Tour mode is navigated by playing a board game; each season is laid out in a directed track, and you must progress along that track by choosing one of three randomly chosen movement cards, which allow you to move either one, two, three, or four places. The movement in the game is therefore slightly random, but you can purchase modifiers that give you just a little bit of control over where you land. he spaces on the board that you land on will determine whether you play a mini-game to level up your character, attend a charity event to become more famous, play an exhibition match to practice your game and also earn more fame, or buy items from a marketplace to help your character's progression. It's a much more locked down version of the World Tour mode from Virtua Tennis games of years past, which helps keep the experience tightened down and focused.
After you finish your fourth season in World Tour mode, you can restart the mode using your character and keep both your player skills and money, allowing you to focus on getting more and more famous the next time around. As you climb the world rankings, which are determined solely by popularity, you will unlock additional items to customize your superstar with. In fact, the amount of items you can buy to change the look of your character is fairly staggering, and unlocking them all will take quite a long time. The difficulty in the World Tour is adjustable, so if you are finding it too simple, you can merely adjust it at the character select screen.
The mini-games in the World Tour mode are fun, but not quite as much so as in years past. Greatly missed is the Pin Crusher Bowling game, a casualty to an exclusivity deal with Sony, which allowed you to serve into a set of 10 bowling pins. Instead we are given a replacement game that asks you to serve a soccer ball into a net while avoiding cardboard cutout defenders. There are about six mini-games total, but none that really make you want to keep coming back to them. It's a real shame, because this is where the game has stood out in the past
The game looks quite good, as Virtua Tennis always has. Although some of the facial modeling could be improved, from a distance the game nails the television style presentation that the original game patented. The character animation is fluid and the frame rate never falters; even the menu system is clean and responsive. The visual presentation in the game is far above the level one expects in a third-party Wii title. The audio, however, is unmemorable. Bland techno music plays during the tennis gameplay, and can only be adjusted through the main menu options. Aside from that, you merely hear the grunts and groans of tennis players running around, as well as the announcer declaring who has won each match.
The biggest question for a tennis game on Wii, however, is the control scheme, and this is unfortunately where Virtua Tennis 4 on Wii really misses the mark. First, motion control is more or less unavailable. That is to say, the only mode you can use motion control in is an exhibition mode that is completely segregated from the rest of the game. The motion control works okay, but seemed difficult to adjust to. Occasionally I could get a good shot in, but as the mode takes place from a first-person perspective, it seemed quite hard to know how to swing to get the reaction you needed. Wii MotionPlus is supported, but not required for the motion gameplay.
The real problem isn't the lack of motion control in the game; it's the lack of analog control. For some reason, the game only supports NES style control, meaning that all of the precision you need to aim precisely is 100% missing, and this is inexcusable. Neither the Nunchuk nor the Classic Controller are supported in the game and there's just no reason why that makes any sense. Virtua Tennis is a game that has always been played on the home consoles with some sort of analog control. It's not that the D-Pad isn't comfortable enough; it's fine. When playing the mini-games and trying to land a perfectly aimed shot, however, the D-Pad on the Wii Remote is just not quite precise enough. It's an inexplicable absence, and really hurts the final product.
To its credit, the game does support playing online with Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Getting matched into a game seemed to be a quick and painless process, however after I was disconnected in 5 consecutive matches, I gave up. A second try a week later gave me 3 disconnects in 4 tries. It's hard to say for sure if my connection was at fault, but being unable to maintain a solid connection for more than 4 minutes makes the mode hard to evaluate. Thankfully, there didn't seem to be much of a lag problem, and there were plenty of people to be matched up against. Hopefully if there are server issues at play here, they will be addressed soon.
Virtua Tennis 4 might very well be the deepest and most complete tennis experience on Wii. The game is still a lot of fun, and has all of the features you would want in the game. The lack of analog control, however, runs the risk of ruining the whole experience for longtime fans of the series. For casual fans of the franchise, this game hits most of the nails on the head, and will be a great addition to a Wii library.