Top Spin has always been one of the more realistic tennis games on the market, and Pam Development has worked hard to keep up that tradition with Top Spin 3. While the game's challenging style may alienate casual players, it will keep dedicated ones occupied beyond this season and for a long time to come.
Despite being initially unforgiving, the controls feel responsive and straight-forward once you've got the hang of them. Face buttons perform flat, top spin, slice, and lob/drop shots, the triggers perform risky or power shots, and the shoulder buttons help you dash to the baseline or net. However, the timing of button presses has been substantially altered, and failing to release the button on time will result in a missed shot. Depending on your position to the ball, you might unleash a weak shot, a wild swing that misses the ball altogether, or an overpowered attempt that sends the ball beyond the baseline. The AI players rarely make clumsy shots either, forcing you to refine your technique--particularly when it comes to volleying--before mastering the game.
There are plenty of game modes, from the usual exhibition, career, tournament, and tutorial options, to online and offline multiplayer. If you're new to the Top Spin series, it's highly advisable to head to the school before taking to the courts, as the AI will punish novices even on medium difficulty settings. Doing so will give you a headstart on hitting those aces and returning every shot that comes your way. The game eschews traditional in-game meters and gauges, and instead requires you to use intuition, reflexes, and good, old-fashioned timing to nail your shots. The only onscreen displays are the score and a heart rate monitor, which gives you an idea of how your stamina is holding up. The higher your heart rate, the tougher it is to hit those hard-to-reach shots between the lines.
The career mode takes you through five stages: amateur, challenger, junior, pro, and legend. Throughout your career, winning matches will earn you experience points and unlock other points which you can use to increase your skills and buy new merchandise such as outfits, shoes, accessories and racquets. They're a nice addition to have, but will have no bearing on your performance. New skills include forehand, backhand, service, return, volley, power, speed, and stamina, and you can purchase dozens of different outfits, racquets, and accessories. The career mode matches Top Spin's serious approach to tennis, but it does mean the game lacks the variety and mini-games of other tennis games.
Beating three opponents in the game's career mode will advance you from amateur to challenger rank. Winning a tournament in this mode will then propel you to the lofty rank of junior. Junior--and the subsequent pro rank--lets you play through a regular season, choosing tournaments as you see fit with the aim of finishing the season with the highest rank. Do all that and you'll get a crack at the grand slams, and eternal tennis glory in the legend rank. Needless to say the competitors get harder as you progress, but as long as you keep earning experience points and using them to increase your skills you should have a fighting chance of making it at the highest level.
The roster of licensed players in Top Spin 3 is sizable with 40-odd players available, including Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Justine Henin, Andy Roddick, Amelie Mauresmo, James Blake, Andy Murray, and Gael Monfils. There's also a roster of classic players for good measure, including Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, and Monica Seles, as well as a number of ficticious players. It's pretty cool to be able to face off current champions against those of yesteryear in a "what if" scenario. Recent French Open winner Rafael Nadal appears exclusively in the PlayStation 3 version (the only major difference between the two versions), so if you want a player even vaguely resembling him on the Xbox 360 you'll have to master the comprehensive create-a-player feature. This will no doubt come as a big disappointment for Xbox 360 tennis fans who can't play as the current world number two simply due to contractual obligations.