New Star Tennis
Wow, this week Iíve had a hard time writing up this review. I really think that Iíd be much more impressed by New Star Tennis if it hadnít come from such an impressive pedigree. Simon Read of New Star Games pretty much pioneered the ďsports careerĒ simulator with his excellent series of football games, but more recently also released New Star Grand Prix; an F-1 pilot career sim. Thatís not to say that I havenít thoroughly enjoyed putting NST through its paces, but in my opinion it is the weakest offering to come out of the New Star stable to date.
As you might have guessed, NST puts the player in control of the career of a young, aspiring tennis player. You can play through up to 15 years, controlling on a week-to-week basis whether to participate in tournaments, practice, train, play or shop. Then you actually control the action on centre court, in the gym, on the karting track or down at the pub where your results have an effect on the characters stats, abilities, popularity and bank balance.
Iíll start off with a few things that I really like about the title. The new planner across the bottom of the screen is excellent. It makes it a snap to add activities to the characterís schedule and the clean, graphical presentation allows for training and leisure days to be arranged well in advance wherever the player sees fit. I like to pick out tournaments that I have set goals for and then add stuff around them. Leaving a bit of time for recovery, making time to see friends and indulge in a bit of fun - itís all very easy thanks to the interface and the player feels a much greater degree of control over their career than in previous titles. The mini-games are as fun as ever. Karting is now available as a leisure activity to do with friends (such a pity that thereís just one track though), and with the addition of darts and the return of the old favourites racetrack and casino, days off really do feel like a break. The racetrack mini-game is so much fun that probably deserves a game all of its own. ďNew Star RacetrackĒ might just be the best NSG game ever if Si ever gets around to making it! You can even buy a stable and race your own horses now, rather than just watch and bet on races. Ironically for me, it was probably the most addictive part of the game. Player appearance can be customised by the use of different coloured kits that are unlocked at different sponsorship levels; a nice touch but the unlocks seem much too linear and predictable.
Unfortunately though, the action on the court is what lets the title down. Itís not totally beyond hope - I should point that out now - but the gameplay feels lacking on a number of fronts. The controls will take a bit of time to get used to. For the first hour or so I wrestled with my gamepad, and ultimately just went back to the keyboard. The controls are actually a lot more passive than at first may seem apparent. New players will tend to over-control. But the trick is to simply get in the vicinity of a good position and choose a shot. A lot of the final positioning is automatic, and shot selection and aiming seem to have a far greater effect on the game than position on the court. In fact, players will tend to hit balls that they look like they should miss, and this happens a lot. The result is that if a rally gets going, it will tend to last a very long time indeed. Patience will pay off, as even the best AI players make occasional errors. The service is where I have the greatest issue with the game. Even on hard mode, itís ridiculously easy to ace even the best AI players on service. Without any exaggeration, over 90% of my points come from aces. The computer players will ace me as well with regular frequency. Basically, any serve that is hit down the line (on either side) will be an ace. As the human player, you can guess which way the AI will go and compensate, often getting a tricky serve back in play, and thatís really what will give you a massive edge over even the best AI players. You can just serve to where they are not.
Difficulty comes in three standard flavours of easy, medium and hard, but the biggest difference between them is the speed of the gameplay. With the human reaction time cut right down, the advantage is somewhat nullified (in rallies especially) on hard mode. Still, even on hard, the AI is decimated by aces. On medium difficulty, I can became number one in the world rankings in just my second year. I find that I get some fairly realistic results by playing on hard mode, restricting the amount of training I do, and purposely not serving aces at all to the AI.
Aside from the above gripes, all the players seem to be right handed, there is no womenís competition, the playing surfaces donít seem to have much effect on play, there is no graphical feedback on what is constituting a good or bad shot, the player names database is fudged (presumably for legal reasons), there are no doubles matches, and there donít seem to be any cool incidents like there were in New Star Soccer (like when you wrapped your Ferrari around a tree while drink driving or sweated on the results of your test for performance enhancing drugs) - they were what made that game for me!
NST doesnít set any new benchmarks for technical brilliance. It looks fine though, even though the range of player animations isnít that great. Youíll start to notice a lot of repetition after an hour or so playing, and even the most famous players donít have any signature animations. The courts are all very generic, and you wonít know whether youre playing at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne or Flushing Meadows NYC unless youíre paying attention. That said, all the Grand Slam events and masses of other tournaments are all present, so planning which to take part in and which not to is still quite a bit of fun.
Sound effects are really quite good. Listening carefully to the sound made as your opponent strikes the ball can give you a jump on what type of shot he has used and how fast itís likely to come back at you. Umpire and linesmenís calls are quite realistic, and even the odd bad call had me yelling at my monitor a few times; ďGODDAMIT, YOU CANíT BE SERIOUS! THAT BALL WAS OUT!Ē... <Dad, sit down. It's just a game.>
New Star Tennis seems to me to lack the subtleties and immersion of the racing in New Star GP, and misses the nitty gritty atmosphere of the New Star Soccer Games. There is not a great deal of feeling helpless or like an underdog much after your first year on the circuit. In NSS, I felt like a rookie for a good few years often getting punted from club to club until I finally found a home and made my mark. As a pure tennis sim itís plainly outclassed in nearly all areas by the great ďTennis ElbowĒ from Mana Games, and as a New Star Game, itís just missing a bit of fine tuning and a killer punch. Yeah, personally I was a little disappointed.
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