It’s an interesting phenomenon that while tennis is not exactly America’s most beloved sport, it is still the subject of three different franchises all adorning the Xbox 360. While the Top Spin franchise has a strong grip on the sim market, Sega’s Virtua Tennis fills the void for all those needing an arcade-style fix. Now into the ring steps the Smash Court franchise, and its debut lands with a resounding thud. Poor controls, frustrating gameplay and sub-par presentation make this a game that should be avoided by all.
On its surface, Smash Court Tennis 3 would seem like a perfectly serviceable game. A deep career mode with RPG-style progression and a wide variety of tennis shots and strategies have all the makings of a great game. As you go through the game’s tutorial lessons (highly recommended for anyone who actually decides to pick this one up), you’ll feel that the fundamentals are there for a great game, and that with a bit of practice you’ll be having a lot of fun. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case as no matter how much you practice, things never quite fall into place.
The main culprit is the title’s overly-finicky control system, which requires such pinpoint timing that you can almost never achieve the shot you want. Each of the four face buttons on the Xbox 360 controller represent a different shot type (slice, topspin, lob and flat), and holding down the corresponding button will draw your racket back. Theoretically, you should then be able to release the button as the ball approaches, executing a “nice” shot and allowing you to return your opponents volley with speed and precision. This proves nearly impossible however, as the timing of these shots is required to be so precise that they are impossible to achieve with any consistency. Miss the timing, which is the most likely result, and the shot will either fly out of bounds, costing you the point, or land square in the middle of the court where opponents can crush it with ease. Couple this with the fact that characters are painfully slow and prone to missing seemingly easy shots, and you are left with a game that fails to be even remotely fun, which is failure at the most basic level.
It’s a shame that the game is so atrociously difficult to play, because there’s a lot of promise in the Pro Tour mode. This mode, which makes up the bulk of the experience, allows you to create your own player and then take him or her from the basement of the professional tennis tour all the way to the top of the heap. Each week offers a number of options, including entering in tournaments, engaging in training events or trying to impress sponsors. The whole experience is more or less governed by a stamina meter which depletes whenever a player exerts himself. Go too many weeks in a row without rest, and the gauge will empty, leaving players hitting weak shots and moving sluggishly around the course. Spend too many weeks resting, and your character will never gain the experience and popularity necessary to make it big on the tour.
Adding to the depth of the tour mode is a deep RPG-like system of stat points and special skills. By distributing these points, players can hone the various aspects of their character’s performance, including serve and volley skills, footwork and technical play. Sadly, even after you max out attributes you still may not be too impressed by the results, as the characters are still as sluggish and the shots just as hard to make as they were the first time you booted up the game. Pro Tour is truly a deep and nuanced mode with plenty of content, but unfortunately many gamers will give up on Smash Court Tennis 3 long before they ever get anywhere near completion.
While the gameplay falls squarely in the “awful” camp, at least the game’s presentation manages to work its way up to being mediocre. The likenesses of the famous tennis players appearing in the game are quite nice, and the number of options available for created characters rivals anything else out there. Unfortunately everything once again falls apart out on the court, as these pretty avatars are subjected to some very questionable animation issues. Players float over to the ball as they get into position for shots, and some characters even seem to have the strange ability to teleport in order to avoid getting hit. Still other times will have your character flailing at shots that are easily within reach. While you can’t really call the graphics of the game broken, they are full of holes that only serve to further dampen the experience.
While the visuals are at least passable, the same cannot be said for the audio. The only time you’ll hear any music is on menu screens and during replays, but that’s just fine considering how truly abysmal it is. It seems like the idea of sound was something no one thought of, so one of the developers just walked up to a MIDI machine, pressed record and started pounding away at the keys. The resulting mess is what is now known as the “menu music,” and it serves as a reminder why custom soundtracks are such a welcome addition to next-gen consoles.
Smash Court Tennis 3 on the Xbox 360 is the console port of a PSP game and it shows. Graphical issues or gameplay limitations that would be acceptable on a handheld absolutely torpedo the console experience, leaving behind a game that has no right taking away your cash. If you’re looking for a tennis sim, get Top Spin; if you’re in the market for arcade action, pick up Virtua Tennis. Regardless of what you like, just stay away from Smash Court Tennis 3; you’ll be glad you did.