Strawberries and cream, Robinson’s fruit squash and appalling curly hair were all out in force for Sega Europe’s Masters Monday event, an invitation-only tournament with some of the best Virtua Tennis players on the circuit – and me – in anticipation of VT2009. There were even two guests of honour - Sumo Digital's Toby Allen and Kenton Fletcher, who were on hand to give some insights into the development of the first Virtua Tennis game for Wii.
Sadly I was eliminated in the tournament's first round, but that just meant I got to spend more time with the nearly finished Wii build, nosing around its minigames, World Tour and training modes, and came away very impressed with what looks set to be the definitive tennis package on Wii.
One of the main points the guys from Sumo were keen to press home was that the Wii version isn’t a cutdown port of its PS3 and 360 brethren, with all the online features and full career mode crammed into Nintendo’s white beauty. When playing online, you take your player into a tournament to compete for points, and as you gain points your ranking will improve, with the game auto-matching you against opponents without the need for those lovely Friend Codes. Although there was nobody to play against online, the range of tournaments, use of custom characters and ability to play nine minigames online mean it’s one of the most complete online experiences yet seen on Wii.
Starting your journey into World Tour mode sees you creating a custom character, who will be your in-game representative in all things Virtua Tennis. With a huge range of tweakable options using a series of buttons similar to creating Miis, it's not difficult to create a realistic lookalike or a complete freak, such as Toby's thick-chinned brute sporting a bright blue afro. As you progress through the game you can unlock extra items to brighten your character up a bit, from t-shirts to trainers, and there's even a mysterious "Lucky Dip" option that gives you the chance to win truly special prizes for a meagre investment. There's unlimited potential for a huge range of oddball characters, and I'm told there are even some secret characters hidden away in the career mode.
Jumping into a quick game via the pleasingly large “play” button on the main menu, you choose one of over twenty players, although most players, including the Legends, are understandably locked at first. Within a minute or two you’re on the court, and starting to see what for me is the game’s best feature over previous tennis games – the aim assist bar. If you've seen any of the videos you'll be familiar with this red bar appearing over your player's head, which lets you know whereabouts your shots will land without the need for a cursor or buttons. It's the same system as Wii Sports and other tennis games on the system, but having the visual marker on screen means making those tough shots is made much easier. It can be switched off if you find it distracting, but it's certainly an innovative system that makes the game highly accessible.
Of course, the game's main innovation on Wii is the implementation of Wii MotionPlus to allow even greater control, although I have to admit it isn't the huge improvement I had expected, which just goes to show how well the standard Wii Remote controls work. The first thing I did notice was how difficult MotionPlus made serving, until Toby told me it was all down to how you hold the Remote - if you have it face up in the palm of your hand, you'll slice the ball without the need to twist it, for example. Once I grasped that, serving in particular became much easier as you start to use a wider range of movements to aim the ball into the corner of the court. It's a very pleasing feeling to hit a great serve across your body and see the ball spinning away from your opponent in a very realistic fashion.
Toby and Kenton were keen to point out that they didn't try to implement the 1:1 MotionPlus feature that EA have been showing off in their upcoming Grand Slam Tennis, preferring to keep the game closer to its arcade roots. That approach certainly paid off, creating a fast-paced tennis game that gets very tense when in the longer rallies - I found myself holding my breath during a particularly competitive rally! With the aim assist bar it was easy to place shots exactly where I wanted them, and with the player's artificial intelligence automatically moving them, with the option to override it with the D-pad, I felt I had just the right level of control, even with the desperate passing shots.
I came away very impressed with Virtua Tennis 2009, particularly with its full online modes and the comprehensive single-player World Tour mode too. Although we all know the Wii is most fun with friends, the opportunity to play online with anyone in the world is a huge boost to VT. With over twenty licensed players including the "legendary" Tim Henman (Sega's choice of adjective, not mine!) and so many more features - a full MotionPlus-based tutorial to master every kind of shot, different unlockable playstyles as you progress and fantastic motion-captured animation - anyone after an authentic and accessible take on tennis should certainly give VT2009 a look when it launches next month.
Thanks again go to Joe and Martin at Sega and Kenton Fletcher and Toby Allen from Sumo Digital for hosting the event!