Smash Court Tennis Pro 2
Namco's tennis effort looks lovely, but is it enough to topple the mighty Virtua Tennis?
Namco / SCEE
The Tennis genre has seen some competent, if not classic entries into video game history. Remember Super Tennis for the SNES? How about Codemaster's stab at the tennis game, with the inspired and innovative Pete Sampras Tennis? Did you even think of the granddaddy of them all, Pong? Alas, somewhere in the mid-nineties, developers zipped their racquets up in their cases, as they became acquainted with the finer points of 3D graphical manipulation. Of course, attempts were made to offer up the definitive entry that would revive the genre and bring the sport's image into the 21st century, but we would have to wait until the dying days of the 20th century for Sega to offer up the sublime and classic Virtua Tennis.
After the sequel received the usual, bare bones Sega treatment, things went quiet... then things just clammed up completely, like when you ask your best friend whether your fez hat and waistcoat ensemble is ill advised. The recent release of Top Spin for Xbox fired things up again though.
And with the PS2 market well and truly open to anyone, it came as little surprise to see Namco continue their enjoyable but flawed Smash Court series. With Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament 2 (...and breathe), Namco's series makes necessary and admirable steps to becoming the definitive Tennis simulation on PlayStation 2 - but won't quite score an ace with everyone.
Pro Tournament 2 is as far removed from Virtua Tennis, that attempting to play it like Sega's opus will result in frustration, at least initially. If the transition isn't as immediate and satisfying as you'd hoped, it's time to indulge the tutorial, which does a fine job of acclimatising you to Smash Court's large variety of lobs, volleys, nice shots, slice shots, and all the other nuances of the sport. But even with all this training, you'll be aware that the controls are far tighter and unforgiving than most other Tennis games, as inaccurate swings of the racquet or a mistimed lunge for the ball will see you lash out in a manner not too dissimilar to one John Macenroe. But once you become accustomed to the less-arcadey feel of proceedings, you settle down to a fundamentally sound attempt at recreating the sport. Once you're fit for the finely cut grass arena, you'll find a whole host of different modes to happily wade through.
I mean it, too: you'll actually want to work through these modes, as Smash Court Tennis rewrites the rulebook and offers a career mode that actually seems worthy of pursuit. Going under the guise of Pro Tour, you start out by assembling your digital persona from a range of different options. Height, weight, skin colour and hairstyle are complimented by clothing options, from wristbands to caps, all available in different colours, naturally. Hell, you even get to choose what your player does whilst idle on the baseline waiting to return a serve.
Whilst all these options might lean toward the same pedantic spectrum of options that other Sports sim's offer, the actual meat of Pro tour certainly doesn't. As you'd expect, you'll be participating in actual Tennis Association tournaments across the globe and collecting trophies along the way, but Namco have done away with the drudgery of going through several, identikit matches to reach your goal: in Smash Court 2, you'll be asked to perform an ace or a "nice serve" in order to progress. It's basically a test of what you've learned from the tutorial, so if you haven't got round to completing that yet, it's time you took a step back. Obviously, with so much of the chaff taken out of your career, it's like working through a photo album of your "best bits", minus the agony of repeated groin and wrist injuries - mostly Tennis related calamities, I'd imagine (wink wink).
Naturally, those of you who can't live without the standard tournament mode need look no further than Arcade Mode, which tenders to the player an extensive and exhaustive tournament experience. Besides that, there's the standard exhibition mode for multiplayer as well as the challenge mode, which removes the stat and character building from the Pro Tour and gives you the challenges straight up. Just as Virtua Tennis plays to its multiplayer strengths, Smash Court shamelessly exploits the depth of its single player experience with aplomb.
Whilst the detail in Smash Court thus far has been commendable, it slips up in the visual department. On picking Tim Henman, I was greeted with a 3D rendering that appeared more like a mountain-dwelling inbred ape, complete with a mono-brow and square-shaped head. It might not be quite as laughable as other, more undead renderings of Britain's finest, but it certainly detracts from the effort to maintain a real world setting and doesn't fair much better when applied to the other Tennis players on offer.
So, the gameplay is unforgiving and initially demanding, the pro tour season is exhaustive in its detail and the player rosters digitised counterparts boast traits unique to their real-life selves - it's fair to say that this is a serious game. To that end, the pick up and play factor suffers considerably, and is most definitely less engaging than the more gameplay orientated Virtua Tennis. This in itself isn't a particularly bad trait to have though, as persisting with Smash Court Tennis is rewarded with an above-competent gaming experience with all the trimmings attached - albeit an experience you might find yourself enjoying alone.
Saying that, Pro Tournament 2 drags Virtua Tennis through all the chalk markings on the court with regards to the solo experience, and Tennis fans are sure to appreciate the lengths Namco has gone to in order to make this a comprehensive effort.