Virtua Tennis is no stranger to PlayStation platform launches. An iteration of SEGA’s arcade sports series accompanied the release of Sony’s previous handheld, as well as the PS3. But while Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition isn't a new entry into the franchise – it’s derived from last spring’s PS3 release – it’s a title that’s perfectly suited to handheld play, and is a banner example of how publishers should handle console to handheld ports.
Virtua Tennis 4 works so well in a portable format because of its accessibility. SEGA’s series concisely truncates three hour tennis slogs into two minute distractions, and that brevity is part of the series’ prolonged appeal. Sure, the franchise still heavily favours netplay – opt to stick to the baseline and you’ll be caught in endless rallies – but the formula is fun despite its faults, and is a perfect pick up for tennis newcomers.
Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition isn't a direct port either. The slick minimalistic presentation remains, but paves the way to a number of new modes and options — many of which take advantage of the PS Vita’s innovative range of input mechanics. SEGA finds appropriate uses for almost all of the PS Vita’s unique features, with the rear touch panel being the only noticeable exception.
One of the headline new features is the game’s expanded character creation suite. Like Reality Fighters, you can snap a photograph of your mug using the PS Vita’s front facing camera and use it to create an uncanny character likeness. The feature’s nowhere near as slick as in Sony's effort, but fiddle with sliders and you’ll get the job done. The biggest challenge is matching your skin tone to the prescribed skin colours: fail to get it right and your created character ends up looking like a polygonal model with a photographic skin graft, but there are enough options to fine-tune things. It’s a shame SEGA couldn’t streamline the process, but after around 20 minutes fiddling we managed to create a character that roughly resembled our real life appearance.
While the inclusion of the photography mechanic is nice, it’s a shame that the rest of the character creation suite is still so weak. Hairstyles are unbelievably limited, making your hard work with the photography element feel a bit worthless, and the inability to record your own shot soundbites using the PS Vita’s microphone feels like a missed opportunity.
Clothing and accessories is one area where the character creation component excels though, with a ridiculous roster of shirts, headgear and fancy dress items up for grabs as you progress through the game. One neat addition to this PS Vita version is the ability to download other “real” players into your game. As you progress through the World Tour mode, you’ll encounter the created characters of other VT4 players on your travels. It’s a way to keep you connected to the rest of the Virtua Tennis community without specifically needing to play online (it works over 3G), and it also encourages you to kit out your player with the very best clobber as the lure of your character being downloaded into another player’s campaign dictates your style decisions.
The World Tour mode is largely the same, but has seen a selection of positive tweaks over the PS3 release. The campaign mode still has a board game feel to it, as you collect travel tokens to progress across continents packed with different events, from tournaments and exhibition matches to shops and hazards. It’s a really well realised mode that manages to add an addictive twist to the often dry sports campaign formula.
The PS Vita version of Virtua Tennis 4 actually makes campaign progression a little more challenging than on PS3. It’s harder to meet the qualification requirements for some of the bigger tournaments, and it keeps you on your toes throughout the course of the entire campaign. The format is perfectly suited to portable play though, with the campaign segmented into accessible chunks. Matches are played out in best of three rounds, meaning you never need to be playing for longer than two or three minutes at a time. The game’s hard to put down once you start though; like a good strategy game, there’s always the lure of performing one more action in your season in order to best prepare you for your next session. Five minutes with Virtua Tennis can quickly turn into an hour or two.
There’s plenty of variety to the campaign mode too. Virtua Tennis is well known for its wacky minigames, and VT4 has the pick of the bunch. Picking up coins in a casino as you rally with a superstar and clay pigeon shooting are two of the more notable distractions from a roster of many.
World Tour Edition includes a selection of exclusive minigames to boot. While these are unlikely to encourage your investment for longer than a few minutes, they make interesting use of the PlayStation Vita’s impressive hardware. Rock the Boat, for example, sees you playing shots against an enormous galleon, which you can sway by using the PS Vita’s gyro. Moving the ship allows you to hit previously inaccessible targets, so you need to combine your natural shot placement skills with the physical movement of the system in order to achieve a high score. Similarly, the new VR Mode allows you to play exhibition matches from a first-person viewpoint, using the PS Vita’s gyro to look around the court in 360 degrees. Both are fun, fleeting distractions, but hardly the primary appeal of the title.
Other new features include the use of augmented reality to take snaps with the game’s impressive roster of superstars, and a nifty local two-player mode which uses the touch screen and a top-down perspective to allow multiplayer on a single system.
The whole game can be played using the touch screen, but the results aren’t as intuitive as when playing with tried and tested buttons. Swiping up on the screen allows you to play basic top spin shots, while down swipes prompt slices. Up-and-down flicks play lob shots, and player movement is handled by tapping on the court to tell your player where you want to move. It works, but the buttons provide a much more intuitive and satisfying control option.
Full online multiplayer also makes a return in World Tour Edition, with the hearty ranking system all repurposed. Both the matchmaking and net code feels like it’s been upgraded since the PS3 release, allowing the game to find matches quicker and render them with much less lag. Obviously there are exceptions due to the instability of Internet connections, but overall the online gameplay feels swift and snappy on the PS Vita.
The game looks absolutely stunning to boot. Uncharted: Golden Abyss and WipEout 2048 might make cases for the “pocket PS3” mantra that’s a key part of Sony’s marketing message with PS Vita, but Virtua Tennis 4 really realises it. The game looks colourful and bright, with the action running at a fluid 60 frames per second. It really is a sight to behold, with SEGA making no noticeable compromises to the fidelity of the PS3 version. Loading is also much better on the PS Vita, with costume changes and matches loading much more swiftly on the handheld than console.
Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition is the definitive release in the long-running series. Not only is the gameplay perfectly suited to the handheld format, but the tweaks and extras SEGA’s added make it a worthwhile upgrade. If you’ve already played the PS3 version extensively then you might not find enough in this PS Vita release to warrant a double dip, but fans of the series will almost certainly find value in its new portable format. Purists will still lament some of the key problems with Virtua Tennis 4’s gameplay – the overemphasis on netplay can result in some repetitive rallies – but without Top Spin to compete with it, this is currently the best option available for handheld tennis.