Smash Court Tennis 3 – Xbox 360

For a sport that single-handedly grandfathered the entire video game bloodline following the release of Pong, tennis seems to get short shrift in gaming these days. Sure, there are a smattering of games released each year – usually timed to coincide with Wimbledon – but compared to the vast iterations of baseball, hockey and of course, football that are released almost monthly, tennis often languishes on the sidelines. It’s a void that Namco Bandai hopes to fill with the release of Smash Court Tennis 3.

Smash Court Tennis 3 is actually a port of a PSP title released in 2007. While it features the expected face lift one would expect in the transition to more powerful hardware, this is the exact same game released on Sony’s handheld. That said, the 360 version of Smash Court Tennis 3 offers a full bevy of features to fill your solo and multiplayer needs, so newcomers to the series may find something of interest here.

On the single player front, the core of the game is centered around the Pro Tour Mode. Here, players can choose an existing tennis pro or build their own from scratch using a  character creation tool similar in scope to that found in RPGs like Oblivion or Mass Effect. Every inch of the avatar can be crafted – meaning you really need to pay attention to such minor nuisances like proper bone structure or else you’ll be stuck guiding Cro-Magnon man through the championship.

Once you’ve crafted your player, you are free to pursue a multi-year career. Each year features a 12-week season where you will enter in a variety of tournaments and special events. Using a calendar system, you can choose to enter these events, partake in special training challenges aimed at boosting your stats or use your winnings to shop for better gear. As with the Franchise modes spotlighted in other sports series like Madden, equal attention is paid to how you conduct your affairs off the court as well as on. This means that you’ll need to be cognizant of hitting the training courses and courting doubles partners if you want to snag those lucrative sponsorships. Of course, if you want to keep them, you need to make sure you keep winning on the court as well.

While much of this activity is optional, the game does employ a stamina system that works to bench you from a continuous string of matches. If you just move from match to match and don’t spend any time working on your character’s development, your player will tire swiftly and you’ll find yourself on the losing end of most games. So, the key is to balance the training events with the real matches in order to emerge as the next phenom.

The various training events will come in handy for neophytes as the games’ controls and intricacies carry a fairly steep learning curve. In order to succeed, you’ll need to master the timing necessary to pull off the various swings including lobs, drop shots, slices, spikes and smash serves. These shots are mapped to different buttons on the controller with some requiring split-second timing between analog stick movement and button presses to pull off effectively. Given the fast paced nature of tennis, players will need to become familiar with when to pull out these shots in order to get the upper hand.

As I’ve alluded to above, the Pro Tour devotes a lot of focus to continuous character development – employing an RPG-esque design. As you successfully complete the optional training events and play in tournament matches, experience points are doled out that you can use to increase various attributes – allowing you to craft the player in the mode you desire. The experience points are provided no matter the match outcome, although victories will provide a greater share. What this means is that in the early goings, players may find the game’s challenge a bit too high as their player always seems deficient to the opposition. As the old maxim goes – “practice makes perfect”. The more you play, the better you’ll get and soon you’ll have a budding superstar on your hands.

In addition to the Pro Tour mode, single players can find additional Training Challenges that are open from the main menu. For those players who shrink at the mention of simulation and stats, there is also an Exhibition mode available that allows players to set up either singles or doubles matches without the character creation and sim elements found in Pro Tour. This is a good mode for local multiplayer and support matches for up to 4 people. In addition, Arcade Mode offers a similar experience albeit in the form of single-elimination matches.

On the multiplayer front, Smash Court Tennis 3 provides players with the ability to match off against fellow Xbox Live enabled users in exhibition matches and features the usual stat tracking and leaderboards.

Now, the big question. Will Smash Court Tennis 3 leave you as ecstatic as Hingis or spitting mad like McEnroe?

Graphics

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Smash Court Tennis 3 boasts a crisp, clean look even if it comes off like a higher-resolution port of its PSP brethren. The players look nice when viewed up close and that character creation tool is so in depth, you can create some stunning recreations of you and your fiends or some frightening mutants (depending upon your art skills). It’s when the action hits the court, that the graphics take a hit. While everything is nicely rendered, the game doesn’t hide its PSP roots too well. The biggest offender is the canned animations that actually hinder the game play from time to time. In referring back to the PSP title, many of the animations appear on loan from that build. What can be overlooked on a hand-held title is magnified when viewed on a 40” LCD. The remainder of the game sports a nice aesthetic with easy to navigate menus.

Gameplay

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For those who can surmount the vast learning curve, Smash Court Tennis 3 offers a very deep and involving experience. The Pro Tour mode essentially offers a Franchise mode for the tennis set, with players able to craft and develop their player through a never-ending series of special matches, tournaments and training events. As success in these events provides a constant stream of experience points and in-game currency, there is always the incentive to play one more game in a bid to better your character or deck them out in the latest fashions and equipment. The catch to all of this is that learning curve which can prove especially prickly for casual players. The controls are tough to master and I can see many people giving up before winning their first match and getting a taste of the addictive role-playing elements.

Controls

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Now you know what camp I fall into. I’ve played my fair share of games across all genres and can usually master the control schemes without benefit of an instruction manual. That said, Smash Court Tennis 3 tested my mettle. I poured through the guide. I played each training module multiple times. When it came time to play some competition (both AI and online) – I found myself ‘served’ consistently. It was embarrassing! The problem with the controls is that the game is designed to simulate all of the subtle moves an athlete can direct with their racket as well as the timing the pros depend on to place their shots strategically. In game, this translates to a large number of uncomfortable combinations of analog stick movements and button presses that wouldn’t be out of place in an old-school fighting game. Memorizing a series of button moves for a split second Fatality is one thing – having to do that ad nauseum throughout a ten-minute match will instantly grant you carpal tunnel. In addition, the canned animations that kick off whenever a certain action is directed will often send your player spiraling in the wrong direction, leaving one half of your court open for attack. Maybe all that Wii Tennis has spoiled me but there has to be a middle ground.

Music

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For a game that really aims for the strategic tennis enthusiast, Namco Bandai makes an odd choice by scoring the serious onscreen tennis play with buoyant accompaniment that wouldn’t be out of place in Mario Tennis. It’s an odd juxtaposition. I think EA has the right plan of attack in backing their titles with a series of licensed tracks from up and coming acts. Here, Namco Bandai just laces the action with generic synth-pop tunes that just beg you to rip your own soundtrack and play with that. Once you wrap your hands around the control scheme, I’d recommend some thrash metal. You’ll need it.

Sound

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Better yet, you could just turn the soundtrack down and listen to ambient noise. The crisp thwack, ping and bounce of the tennis ball off the assorted clay and turf courts sounds crystal clear and is actually quite soothing. The developers did a good job capturing the sounds of these volleys and I’ll have to give them extra points for layering in all of the grunts and groans that have become a trademark of some of the more prominent players. Believe me – you and all of your neighbors will know that retired Martina Hingis is back in the game.

Intelligence

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As I struggled mightily with the controls, I can’t tell if the AI is just that good or I am just that bad. As I began to accumulate some experience points through my multiple losses, I realized my player was starting to hold his own against the computer-controlled pros, so some of that difficulty may be the nature of the game design. That said, the computer does put up a good fight and once you start to find your way around the control scheme, at least enough to hang in there, you’ll find yourself engaged in some vicious volleys.

Difficulty

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There’s no way around it – this is as far from pick-up-and-play as they get. Tennis enthusiasts will find a lot here to challenge them. Those with the patience to master the controls will find a solo Pro Tour that throws a large number of challenges at them. In addition to the tournament matches against some blistering AI opponents, there are also a number of difficult special event challenges that offer great rewards in the form of experience points, cash, sponsorships and better equipment for those that can best them. These events act as little mini-games requiring deft use of your skills in attacking and targeting your shots – with the player called upon to pinpoint a shot to knock down a small pyramid of balls, for example.

Multiplayer

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As with most contemporary sports titles, Smash Court Tennis 3 offers up what you would expect for multiplayer modes. For local play, there is support for up to 4 players to engage in exhibition matches. Via Xbox Live, players can engage others in exhibition matches and see how they stack up through simple leaderboards and stat tracking. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be support for online tournaments as well as any integration of the Pro Tour mode in the online arena, which feels like a real miss.

Overall

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In reality, tennis has pick-up-and-play appeal with almost anyone able to grab a racket and volley a few shots. The same can’t be said for Smash Court Tennis 3 which really aims for the strategic, hardcore tennis enthusiast provided they are also able to jockey their way around the game’s demanding control scheme. There is a great deal of depth locked within this title – unfortunately it appears very few will ever mine those depths. I’m all for in-depth sports simulations but the challenge should come from mastering the strategy of the game. When the controls represent a greater opponent than anything the game can toss at you, it’s time to throw in the towel. This one made me a McEnroe.