The most recent foray into simulated ball-smacking is 2K Sports’ Top Spin 3. Claiming to be an evolution over Top Spin 2 (a game that I played and enjoyed for about a month straight), Top Spin 3 has some pretty big tennis shoes to fill.

Before I continue, let me first give you some background information: I don’t like sports games. On top of that, I find tennis itself to be especially boring. I played tennis a bit in high school gym class and during “sports day” in the army, but only because the only other option was baseball which I find to be even lamer.

Given my feelings on the subject, it was an absolute triumph in game design that I could not only play Top Spin 2 without falling asleep, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The only other time I enjoyed tennis this much was playing the aptly named Tennis on my Game Boy when I was nine and always yelling at that lying bitch line judge Mario for calling my shots out.

That being said, how does Top Spin 3 compare?

The first thing I noticed when I started playing the game was the absolutely horrible soundtrack. Who picks these songs? It felt like a poor man’s EA Trax, and I hate EA Trax, which makes this soundtrack, uh, pretty bad. I mean, it features the song from Napoleon Dynamite when he dances at the presidential speech — it makes me want to load up my Blood Elf in World of WarCraft just to make him bust a move (which also means it doesn’t compel me to play any tennis), and then it makes me want to stab myself in the ear.

For anyone that didn’t know, the Blood Elf dance was inspired by this scene.

Aside from that, the graphics are pretty nice, and will likely be the next thing you notice. All of the pro players look pretty much like themselves, albeit with a few discrepancies like boob placement, ass thickness, and overly perfect posture. Unlike their real-life counterparts, none of the in-game women give me a boner, so points off for that.

Adding to the realism of the visuals is sweat. As a match goes on, the players start sweating, even to the point that my character’s tracksuit was drenched in the pits with a huge ring around the collar. This was a nice little addition over Top Spin 2, but not really all that innovative since players have been sweating in sports videogames since 2005.

Also along the lines of realism is the “signature style” of the pros. All of the athletes are modeled wearing their signature outfits and using the gear they use in real life, and the swing styles were even meticulously recreated… at least, that’s what they say. I haven’t studied the side-by-side video of the players and their in-game likenesses to verify whether or not they really swing the same, and likely not very many other people have either. The animations are decent, however, and the game could possibly be mistaken for an actual televised tennis match during the back-and-forth.

A few things are missing, however, like any kind of announcer. When the players enter the court, the loudspeaker doesn’t even say their names. I thought at first it was because my amateur player was facing some no-name, but this holds true even at a Grand Slam finals match. The only announcements that are ever made are ones related to the score.

Also, when a match is loading up, the music hangs for a few seconds like a scratched CD, and then as it pans around the venue, the camera itself stutters while more loading occurs. At this point in videogame history, we should be past the point of this kind of thing happening, or at least 2K could have done something to better cover up these deficiencies.

Once you get into a match, you will likely notice the change in controls from Top Spin 2 (if you’ve played it). The big difference here is that instead of holding your swing type button to power through your shot, you now don’t swing at all until you release said button. A much greater emphasis has been placed on timing, again for the sake of realism. They have even incorporated a Tiger Woods-style right analog swing for serves and lobs.

At first, this change in swing mechanics really threw me off. Going through the Top Spin School was an absolute nightmare and further confirmed to me that I hate tennis. Of all the heads I’ve sliced off and hookers I’ve said mean things to in other games, never before has a videogame driven me to want to actually murder some people. Who would’ve guessed that tennis of all things would be the game that made me snap…

Top Spin School basically tries to hammer home the difference between this new swing mechanic and the way it worked in Top Spin 2 by having specific timing and power requirements in the individual challenges. For example: You may be tasked with hitting the ball into the far right corner while using the Slice shot type and getting at least 2 out of 3 stars on the power meter. Not really as difficult as it sounds, but most of the time I would accomplish this task and instead of completing it and moving on, the motherfucker tells me I swung too late!

Even more infuriating is that sometimes this matters and I fail and other times the game doesn’t give a shit and lets me continue. I honestly don’t see why it ever matters — I put the ball where you wanted and how you wanted, so why are you being a pain in the dick about the timing of my swing?

So Top Spin School is overly anal about the whole timing thing to make it desperately obvious to me that the swing mechanic is different. Funny thing is that once I started my career and actually got into the game, I really didn’t notice that much of a change. It felt pretty much like the Top Spin I already know. I ignored the right analog stick usage because it’s pointless and more complicated than it has to be, so the only difference I ever noticed was when I forgot to let go of the swing button and ended up just watching the ball bounce past me.

I really don’t understand why anyone felt the controls needed to change for this game. It’s been repeated over and over that it’s supposed to make the game a more accurate depiction of tennis — more realistic, more intuitive. Perhaps the Wii was a major influence, and 2K was trying to give people the same experience on a regular controller as they get with a Wiimote, even if they didn’t realize that’s what they were doing.

That is really the big thing here with Top Spin 3: realism. Even though you can facially deform your created character in ways that make them look like no real human being outside the Jackson family ever could, realism is still the name of the game… and tennis, also the name of the game.

Ultimately, that is the major selling-point and biggest disappointment of Top Spin 3. 2K has taken great strides towards making videogame tennis feel like real tennis, but in doing so, they’ve also made it less fun. There is a certain breed of person out there that would welcome these changes, but I’m not one of them.  Top Spin 3 seems to be missing some things that would have made it feel like a more complete package, though it does feature a more robust online tournament mode and more character creation options than previous iterations.

The character creator actually kind of sucks, with the sole exception of the free-form facial deformation tool. Picking a “character type”, which is basically your ethnicity, gives you a separate set of options to choose from, yet it seems convoluted and completely unnecessary. Just give me all the options!

Scrolling through different facial features usually takes two to five seconds to load up the part, which is extremely annoying when you have to flip through a set of 30 different options.  I guess maybe that’s why they make you pick your character type to begin with so you don’t have to scroll through so much shit (though you probably will anyway if you care what your character looks like).

And all of the female create-a-characters gross me out. They’re all sticking their poochy pelvises forward and have low, saggy, non-bra-wearing boobs with no ass, even with the ass and hips settings cranked up to 11. They actually remind me of trolls from EverQuest 2, and that’s really not what tennis chicks should be compared to.

Regardless, Top Spin 3 is not a bad game. It is the ultimate videogame version of real tennis and has done a good job reminding me just how much I don’t really care for real tennis. The Top Spin series of games would be my recommendation for anyone looking for a tennis videogame, with Top Spin 3 being the ideal choice for the hardcore tennisphile out there. If, however, you are looking for a fun time with a semi-sports game, you should save yourself some cash and try to score a copy of Top Spin 2 instead.  In the end, it’s really a question of how real you want your games to be.