Motion controllers and tennis games have seemed the perfect match ever since Wii Sports put a plastic Remote in your hand and told you to be Roger Federer. Regrettably, since then, few titles — if any — have come close to matching Nintendo's pack-in when it comes to intuitive controls and the all-important fun factor: EA's Grand Slam Tennis on Wii used MotionPlus to offer 1:1 controller tracking, but didn't win over everyone with its cartoon-styled characters. Sega's Virtua Tennis 2009 on Wii also used the motion-enhancing add-on but didn't go for 1:1 control, a disappointment considering the controller's capabilities. Regrettably, Top Spin 4 mimics the latter in the control stakes, resulting in a disappointing tennis experience.
Sports Champions set the bar pretty high for motion controls in sports games, so expectations for the first dedicated tennis simulation were understandably elevated. After a simple calibration gripping Move in your right-hand and a Navigation or DualShock in your left you're let loose on an empty court with just a ball machine for opposition. You soon discover the player does not mimic your controller's position: holding it high, low, forehand or backhand doesn't have any effect on your player's stance. In fact, your player doesn't even swing when you do; this is far from 1:1 control.
Essentially, the way you swing the controller mimics a button press. The idea is that as the ball reaches your player, you swing the controller and aim the shot with the analogue stick — if you play with good timing, you'll get an accurate shot, but too soon or too late results in poor placement. In Top Spin's world, "good timing" isn't the same thing as "when you would naturally hit the ball": you must swing well before the ball reaches your player to activate your swing, as it were. It feels distinctly unnatural to swing the controller when you wouldn't naturally play a shot, and although a text tag above your head lets you know if your timing was good, late or too soon, there's no sense of a correlation between the racquet and the shot: guesswork will do as much good as careful consideration on your shot timing.
You still have access to a full range of shots with Move using a combination of motions and buttons, with powerful top spin shots and delicate slices all available, but setting your power is unpredictable: what you thought was a hard-hitting forehand can come out as a precision control shot, and vice versa. Serves are similarly unpredictable, but these problems could have been easily overcome with better instructions and tutorials.
The main menu contains a section called "PlayStation Move Tutorial", but it's simply a series of diagrams and text descriptors: there's no Move-specific content to help you get to grips with the controller, no videos showing you how it's done. The Top Spin Academy offers plenty of lessons on the different kinds of shots, with text instructions at the start of the lesson, but it's flawed: you can't move to the next lesson without finishing the previous lesson. This wouldn't be so bad, but if you simply can't pull off the specific shot — say, a slice serve — you can't review the instructions unless you go back to the beginning of the lesson and start again. The whole experience seems geared towards DualShock users: very few admissions have been made to Move owners, and that's a real shame.
Should you persevere with the Move controls you'll find the underlying game reasonably solid. The career mode follows the usual formula — create a rookie, rise through the ranks, become the very best like no-one was before — but lets you evolve your player in three play styles, increasing your statistics as you go, letting you play to your strengths or build on your weaknesses. As you gain more fame and fans, new coaches will seek you out, granting you special skills that improve as you fulfil certain objectives — win 50 points, score 25 winners with control shots and so on. It's a welcome addition that means you can alter your player's skills without starting again, doubly welcome as the level cap is 20: we played six game months and reached level 13, so it won't take too long to max out your player's stats.
Outside of the career mode there's the usual suspects: exhibition matches, the previously-mentioned training area and a winner-stays-on offline mode called King of the Court, which is a passable arcade-style attempt at tennis. If you're planning to go online, the ability to take your custom character into a virtual tour mode is welcome: seasons last one week, and the player who wins the most matches and tournaments is crowned the world number one, until the next week anyway. There's certainly potential here, but we found the game too underpopulated to recommend.
A new animation system for Top Spin 4 means players sway, slice and slide more fluidly than in previous outings, but the rest of the court is disappointingly staid: ball boys remain rooted to the spot throughout matches, and the crowd all cheers in perfect synchronisation. There's a lack of atmosphere on the audio front too, with just an announcer and umpire to break up the grunts and groans that go hand-in-hand with the sport.
Top Spin 4 had stacks of potential to be the definitive Move sports game, but its motion controls disappoint: you never believe you're swinging a racquet or feel that connection with the sport. Considering Move's capabilities this is a real letdown, as we know the controller is capable of far more. For all its legendary players, enjoyable career mode and online play, if you're planning to play this with Move, we can't recommend it; grab a DualShock instead.