Top Spin 3 was a risky game, and one that went against the norms. In a time of easy accessibility and features designed to broaden audiences, Top Spin 3 held back its best for those who were willing to persevere past its steep learning curve. With Top Spin 4, 2K Sports has attempted to bring that winning gameplay formula and present it in a way that is less daunting. While this has meant that some of the more punishing features are removed, it still holds a fair amount of challenge.
As in other tennis games, gameplay is all about timing, precision and positioning; but at the same time, it’s a lot more lenient on you when you don’t get a shot right. This game does away with risk shots, a feature in the earlier games that would let you completely change the balance in a rally. Taking it away makes the game far more predictable, but the new gameplay still relies on power and timing to win you points. In place of the risk shots are the completely risk-free control shots, which will let you keep the ball in play in desperate situations, but at the expense of shot power.
The career mode is where it’s at. These modes in tennis games often just turn into match after match, separated by lots of menus and pointless mini-games; but not in Top Spin 4. The game uses a brilliant levelling system to improve your attributes. Experience (XP) earned from matches and special events allows you to build your player’s attributes across three areas — serve and volley, baseline offence and baseline defence. You can use these to mould your player to your liking. In addition, you can hire coaches, who will help you in certain areas of your game, and once you achieve the objectives they set for you, they will grant you skills. These include more powerful or accurate serves, stronger forehand or improved passing shots against opponents at the net.
As you earn XP, level up your character and get fans by competing in tournaments and special events, you also move up through various status levels from nobody to a superstar. Each status also has objectives tied to it, so there’s a lot of motivation to keep playing. Great games are the ones that will keep pushing you to play them even when you’re tired or when it’s way past bedtime. Top Spin 4 is one of them. You’ll keep playing the career for just one more match or just one more level up. It’s easily the best career mode in any tennis game yet.
The game’s Normal difficulty setting is rather meek, so if you’ve played tennis games before, it would be a good idea to start with Hard. However, playing at Normal, the game has some severe difficulty spikes later in the career and semi-final and final matches in tournaments artificially ratchet up the difficulty to Hard. Selecting the Hard difficulty would also be a good idea if you’re playing a doubles match solo, because on Normal, the partner AI is abysmal, hitting easy volleys conveniently into the opponent’s path. The game doesn’t include Wimbledon, but does have the other three grand slams. Surprisingly, you can’t just play a single tournament; you’re resigned to the career mode or exhibition matches, which is a little disappointing.