Sega's tennis series has had a multitude of names over the years: Virtua Tennis, Power Smash, and Sega Sports Tennis. While the names may differ depending on location and year, the games have always been easy to pick up and play and hard to put down. Virtua Tennis 3 is a great game that holds true to that winning formula. There are some new minigames, and the career mode has been fleshed out, but it's clear that the developers were focused on refining the gameplay rather than reinventing it.
The create-a-player option lets you make some far-out and groovy players.
Virtua Tennis' biggest lure is its career mode, which is deeper than in previous games but still pretty basic when compared to most other sports games. You start by creating a male or female player using the game's character editor, which doesn't hold a candle to the one found in Tiger Woods but still gets the job done. After you select a spot on the globe for your home, it's time to start on your 20-year quest to go from the 300th-ranked player to the top-ranked player in the world. But you can't just rush out and take the top spot; you'll need to start by training your player. This can be done by going to tennis school or by playing minigames. Going to tennis school is a great way to learn the basics while at the same time leveling up your player. Here you're given a task, such as to hit a maximum-power forehand or finish a point with a smash. If you can do the task three times in the given time limit, the skills that you used in the test will be increased.
Tennis school is fun, but not as much fun as the minigames, which, as always, are fantastic. Each minigame focuses on one of four aspects of your game: ground stroke, serve, volley, and footwork. A few games return, but most are slight variations or altogether new. Avalanche has you collect fruit and dodge large tennis balls that roll out of the back of a dump truck. In Drum Topple, you try and knock over stacked oil drums by hitting ground strokes. Prize Defender places you in front of a table filled with prizes, and you must protect the items by volleying away shots from the ball machines. In Pin Crusher, you try and knock down bowling pins with your serve. Each of the minigames starts easy, but as you get better, the games get more difficult. They're pretty punishing on the highest levels, but you can always choose a lower difficulty setting. This yields fewer points, but it keeps the game from being frustrating. If you really love the minigames or want to play them with your friends, a handful of them can be played with up to four players on the same console.
Once you've got the basics down, it's time to start chipping away at that number-one ranking. You do this by entering the singles and doubles tournaments that are open to newcomers. Tournaments take place in locations such as Spain, China, France, England, USA, Australia, Germany, Italy, and more. You'll play day and night, as well as indoors and out on clay, grass, and hard courts. To win the early matches, you've got to take just two short games, but the matches get longer as the tournaments get more prestigious. One quirk from previous games that holds true here is rather than complementing the roster of real players with fictitious players, you'll be playing the same handful of real-life players over and over again. You might play and beat the tar out of Roger Federer your first match, which kind of takes the mystique out of facing one of the greatest players of all time.
Your stamina decreases as you train and play tournaments. If there's a tournament you don't want to miss, you can replenish your stamina with an energy drink and not lose any time, but this increases your risk of injury. To avoid injury, it's important to occasionally take a week off at home, or even go on a three-week vacation every now and then. Injuries are most prevalent when your stamina is low, but they can strike at any time. Unfortunately, there isn't much to injuries. They occur while you're in the main menu--you don't get hurt during matches. The game tells you that you're hurt and for how long, and the game simply skips ahead. You get e-mail from your coach, who will give you tips, read you fan mail, and award you items. Other players will periodically ask you to practice with them or, in a really awkward cutscene, encourage you or talk smack. There's also no money system, and you're awarded items based on your play. This feels like a step back because there isn't much in the way of items, and it was always fun to spend, like, a thousand dollars on some wrist bands.
All great players get started by picking up fruit and avoiding giant balls.