The first question you might ask when playing Virtua Tennis 2009 is “why has it taken so long to make a great tennis game on Wii?”. Ever since we saw the first videos all those years ago it seemed the console was destined to become better than the real thing when it comes to sports, yet it’s taken years for anyone to deliver the racquet experience the machine deserves.
The obvious answer is the release of MotionPlus, the tiny blocky gadget that elevates Virtua Tennis 2009 from an enjoyable arcade tennis game to an endlessly entertaining and physical experience. With M+ attached, you have such control over your serves, shots and slices that you’ll spend the first hour or two figuring out precisely how to angle your Wii Remote to play better. You’ll start off with stacks of double faults, wayward strikes and lobs you thought were slices – there’s a definite learning curve that’ll seem steep to those whose only sporting experience on Wii is the Tennis bundle with the console.
Delving into the game’s VT Coach mode helps to teach you the starting techniques, but as you progress it becomes less useful: new shot types are shown with three static screenshots, then it’s up to you to perform the chosen shot three times in a row, with a sizeable pause between attempts. It’s by no means a disaster, but lacks the fluidity that categorises the rest of the game, and you’re as well off learning the ropes through experimenting in one of the play modes until you’ve really got a good grasp of how to play.
The first lesson you’ll probably learn is the importance of setting up a shot properly. In Wii Sports Tennis, your character automatically decides whether you’ll play a forehand or backhand, whereas in VT2009 your player will sort of stumble around until you take a decisive stance. It’s frustrating to see your tennis pro jig around the ball like a hyperactive toddler, and although you can direct them yourself with the D-pad it’s much more important to adopt the correct stance. There’s something hugely satisfying to have the ball bounce just right in front of your player, then see them mimic your movement as you unleash a huge forehand swing and send the ball blasting past your opponent.
It’s worth pointing out that Virtua Tennis’s use of the Wii MotionPlus does not try to live up to the fabled “1:1” motion support the device is reportedly capable of. What it does instead is use the extra information and accuracy to create a much more fluid control system that grants you greater power over your racquet. You won’t see any fancy tricks like players spinning their racquets or mimicking your hand position exactly, but when it comes down to replicating the shots you play it gives the kind of unmatched accuracy you want. Once you’ve spent a few hours with MotionPlus, you’ll find playing VT2009 without it to be a much simpler and less enjoyable experience.
After you’ve mastered the controls you’ll probably want to start your path to tennis domination, and that’s where the game’s World Tour mode comes in. For once, Wii owners haven’t got a stripped-down version of other consoles’ career modes, with a world full of tournaments, minigames, training sessions and astonishingly expensive sports shops to visit. First of all you’ll have to choose either the male or female tours and then create your player – the starting options aren’t anything mindblowing, and on tour you’re likely to see countless variations of your player with different coloured hair, but once you’ve won a few tournaments you can begin to change clothes, racquets, hats and all sorts of other items to make your player stand out.
The World Tour mode plays out a week at a time, with different tournaments and practice matches available at different times. Entering a tournament or playing a minigame will take up one week of your schedule as well as reducing your stamina, resulting in injuries if you don’t rest often enough. The opening tournaments are as straightforward as you’d expect, with prize money and an increase in your world ranking if you manage to beat all your opponents. Once your world ranking is high enough you start to encounter the real professionals, and that’s where your choice of playstyles comes into… er… play.
At any time in World Tour mode you can head over to the Tennis Academy, where “legendary tennis pro” Tim Henman sets up challenges that, if conquered, will give you experience in one of three areas: groundstrokes; footwork; serve and volley. Once you’ve filled the bar in one area, you unlock a new playstyle, which increases your abilities in that area. For example, the first groundstrokes level-up grants you the “powerful forehand” ability, giving you an extra boost on your forehand strokes. Progressing in each area isn’t absolutely essential for beating the game, but it certainly helps tune your player to your individual playing style.
Another good way to cover your weaknesses is by recruiting a partner to play some doubles, and as you progress up the rankings you’ll start to gain better partners until you’re rubbing shoulders with the pros. Again, it’s not essential but if you’re a completist you’ll need to win all the doubles tournaments to fill up your “My VT” trophy room, which lists all your accomplishments in the game, from the number of tournaments won to how many ground shots and slices you’ve played and how far you’ve run. There’s certainly no shortage of offline single-player lastability in VT2009, and it’ll take dozens of hours of sweaty racqueteering to see everything.
Once you’ve had a decent blast at a solo career you’ll likely want to take your player online against others, and that’s where Virtua Tennis excels, with a fully featured online mode that frankly puts other games to shame. You can select a simple lobby-based system from the main menu, but it’s the Online HQ in World Tour mode that really shows what the service can do. Selecting from one of over twenty cups, each offering different court surfaces, length of tournaments and points on offer, you jump into play against strangers anywhere with – praise be! – no need for friend codes. If you’re victorious, you gain points which help boost your overall standing online, with a full tour mode to conquer over and above the offline career. The idea is to play both in tandem, as although you can use any player you like in the WFC mode accessed from the main menu, the Online HQ mode requires you to use your custom character, so building up your skills offline will help you beat the tough players that will no doubt crop up in the weeks following launch.
Although by the time this review went up the game wasn’t officially available in Europe, there was still at least one person online, so we engaged in a battle of tennis wits over two matches: the first without M+, and the second with the attachment. In the first match, the opponent seemed to have the advantage with shot placement and power, whereas our player floundered under pressure, repeatedly hitting the ball out of bounds and crashing to a disappointing straight-sets defeat. In the MotionPlus-enabled rematch, however, the playing field was much more even with the game responding better to shot placement and timing, resulting in NintendoLife cruising to a fantastic victory, with only one point lost in all three sets. The moral of this story is this: if you want to play to a good standard online, you will need MotionPlus, as without it you’ll be at a severe disadvantage.
When it comes down to graphics, VT2009 holds its ground but doesn’t necessarily excel. The player models are well animated, with pumping fists of victory and kicking the floor when a point slips by, and the different courts look good from the game’s standard camera angle, which remains locked throughout. Once you get into close-ups of the players and crowd you realise it’s lacking the detail of its next-gen cousins, with shading replacing fabric textures and a disappointingly wooden crowd. It’s not a terrible looking game by any means, it’s just lacking some of the finesse the series has featured on other formats. One thing that is worth pointing out is the very heavy slowdown when playing in doubles matches, which makes playing with a partner extremely laborious - stick to single player domination as much as you can.
You’d be extremely hard-pressed to find a more complete tennis package on Wii – Virtua Tennis 2009’s offline and online career modes offer the most engaging representations of the sport on any console, and for those who want a pick-up-and-play there’s always the unmatched array of minigames that are more fun than most dedicated compilations.
Without the MotionPlus, VT2009 is an enjoyable and easy to play arcade tennis game, but with the attachment it becomes an exercise in how versatile, accurate and innovative the Wii Remote can be. After all the Wii’s early promise of a realistic sports experience, it’s Nintendo’s old rivals Sega who show everyone how to make a racquet into an ace smash hit.