Top Spin 3 PS3, Xbox 360 Review

The original Top Spin was one of a slew of first-party sports games for the first Xbox that conspicuously disappeared once EA got on board with Xbox Live. Yet unlike Microsoft’s baseball and football franchises, which also disappeared, Top Spin was actually a pretty fun game, with intuitive gameplay that was addictive in the same vein as a next-gen Pong.

Top Spin has since moved under the watchful eye of 2K Sports, which has in turn brought it to the PS3 and Xbox 360. At the same time, much of the original game’s arcade-inspired fun has also moved, and it’s in fact safe to say that with 2K Sports involved, Top Spin 3 is a tennis simulator much more than it is a Pong-like game. Now in its third match, is Top Spin still fun? In a different sense, yes. But it’s definitely a changed game, and not without one big growing-pain fault.

The biggest change to Top Spin 3 is also its most frustrating: a newfound focus on timing your button presses. Whereas previous games in the series relied on face-button presses combined with an aiming mechanic, Top Spin 3 adds a new layer that requires players to time their button presses with their on-screen avatar’s animations. In some respects this is a neat change, as it requires you to get to “know” your character and his/her nuances, almost like an RPG gamer knows his/her player’s strengths and weaknesses. But in other respects — namely, those having to do with intuitive gameplay — the change is downright maddening. Well, it starts that way, anyway.

As mentioned, the need to focus on your character’s animations is a great way to deepen your knowledge of a certain athlete, but paying attention to those animations and successfully timing your button presses to coincide with them are two separate things. Top Spin has always required a “shooter’s touch”; at this point, we expect the game to require skill to successfully target our shots. But targeting while also timing your button presses to match animations has a weird side effect of taking you out of the game.

In a sense, it’s almost as though you think more about the fact that you’re playing a videogame than about the actual gameplay. Rather than “I need to hit this to the back left,” you find yourself thinking “I need to hit this to the back left, and I need to press the button at this time in order to achieve that.” Again, once you’re used to the mechanic (a good three or four hours in), this change deepens the game. Heck, it even makes sense; real-world tennis take thought, even if it is fast. But theoretical depth and logic don’t always translate to an enjoyable experience — particularly for anyone looking for the traditional Top Spin arcade-style gameplay.

Games and franchises are destined to change, so we can’t fault Top Spin 3 for its changes in and of themselves. But the gameplay change actually complicates the game, focusing players more on gameplay mechanics than the game itself. And that, in our opinion, is something that we can fault.

Top Spin 3 has some other features that support its transition to a sim-like title, most notably situation-specific behaviors for each star and a character creator that lets gamers customize everything about their player, from appearance to swing styles to (of course) animations. There’s also the ability to play as tennis powerhouses such as Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova, Boris Becker and Monica Seles, a fact that’s more likely to compel tennis junkies than it is Centre Court newbies.

But really, those newbies are best served staying away from Top Spin 3 and instead going for Virtua Tennis, which provides a much more arcadey experience. The original Top Spin was a Virtua Tennis competitor, to be sure, but Top Spin 3 is carving its own niche in the simulation genre. This is a change for the series, and the change itself isn’t bad. But the insane focus required to succeed in the game’s first few hours is bad, and it’s likely to turn off many gamers. If you’re an absolute tennis fiend and can’t find a court to play on in real life, Top Spin 3 could very well be a suitable substitute. Just be prepared for a few frustrating hours, particularly if your first order of business is jumping online, where you’ll find competition that’ll make you overhand-smash your controller into the floor.

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