It goes without saying that tennis games, along with footie games, are arguably the most fun you and a friend can have after a night down the local boozer without the risk of throwing up suspicions with regards to your sexuality. Crack open a can of Stella, daisy-chain a couple of gamepads, and you're quickly transported to a magical land where running around after a ball is effortless and fun. And if you get thrashed by your mate, you can easily blame: a) your gamepad, b) your player's lack of skill and speed, or c) the computer's dodgy line calls and erratic artificial intelligence.
Actua Tennis is Gremlin's latest release in their Actua Sports series, and is the first game to use their rather posh new Actua Sports 3D engine. In terms of graphics, this is quite possibly the best-looking tennis game to appear on the PC. The character models are detailed and solid, and the animation is impressively fluid. The ten different stadiums and courts are equally well-conceived, and as usual the commentary - from Actua Soccer's Barry Davies, who is joined by Pat Cash and Sue Barker-is top-notch.
Such graphical lushness comes at a price, though, and unless your PC has grown a 3Dfx or PowerVR card, it can all get rather sluggish. Unfortunately, this is more a sign of the times than lazy programming on Gremlin's part, but we'll leave that particular rant to Macca and Paul Presley.
Court In Theact
As you'd expect from a tennis game, there are numerous game options, ranging from a full-blown World Tournament where you play at each of the locations around the world in an attempt to become the world Number One, to a Quick Match option, which selects a court and opponent at random and throws you straight into a game. Match types include men's and women's singles and doubles, and mixed doubles. Up to four people can play over a LAN, or on one PC if you daisy-chain four gamepads. There's also the option to play using Wireplay over a modem link. Two-player games are arguably the best, whether it's singles or doubles. It's quite hard to become the world's Number One (obviously), and some of the computer players are very difficult to beat, throwing a wide range of shots at you and regularly serving up some wicked spinning returns if your serve is weak. A useful and pretty successful tactic is to stay put on the base line and wait for them to mess up - which they eventually do. It's a shame there isn't any kind of noticeable fatigue stat in there somewhere which punishes players who whizz about the court like a cat on the proverbial hot tin roof, as this would bring in a much-needed tactical element.
Can You Hit It? Yes You Can
As far as tennis games go, gameplay and control are everything. It can look spectacular, but if it doesn't feel right then you might as well go back to playing Pong. Actua Tennis certainly looks the part and, thankfully, plays well enough, with the range of shots available being by no means inadequate.
The speed at which the players move around the court can be a little frustrating to the novice. At first they seem downright sluggish one moment, and then seem to glide across the court the next. But once you've settled into the rhythm of the game it becomes a lot more acceptable. (It may be something to do with the motion-captured animation trying to catch up with your controller demands.) Essentially, this is how quickly the players move, so get used to it. Too quick is just as bad as too slow, after all. Maybe a toggle speed option similar to that in World Cup '98 and Gremlin's own forthcoming Actua Soccer 3 would have been a good idea.
All in all, Actua Tennis is adequate in that it's both playable and fun, but it's not what you'd call spectacular. Players don't seem to improve after a few seasons as they do in Game, Net & Match, and there are no comedy characters as seen in Pete Sampras Tennis.
If you don't own a tennis game, this is the one to buy if your hardware is up to it. Like most tennis games, Aetna Tennis is great two-player fun in that it's not a game you'll play all the time, but probably one you'll keep going back to.
Design your players' physical attributes, and also decide what they're going to wear
Just as in Actua Golf, Actua Tennis enables you to generate your very own player. Although you can't opt to deck your player out in designer pimpwear, you can select the colour and pattern of your player's shorts and top, choose the deepness of his or her tan, and even add a hat or sun visor for when you're not playing in the rain at Wimbledon.
Of course, this facility is just a bit of fun (ha ha), but Gremlin have taken it a stage further and incorporated the facility to change the build and stature of your player. As well as having a damn good laugh creating Joe Pesci and Sandy Toksvig lookalikes and seeing them try to peg it around the court, there is also a serious side to it all. The taller your player, the easier it is for him/her to serve, but they lack physical strength and therefore can't hit the ball as hard. Similarly, a beefy player will be able to hit the ball harder than a player with the physique of Charles Hawtry, but will not be as sprightly. Get the balance right and you'll end up creating a player that looks like... well, just like Pete Sampras, who can dash around the court at a fair old lick and whack the ball with the precision and pace of an Exocet missile.
In all fairness, it doesn't really affect how your player performs too much (that's up to you), but it is a nice little feature nevertheless. Hopefully, future sports games in the Actua series will also sport such an innovative and potentially chucklesome feature.