- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

After two years of trying to create a great sports game for the Xbox, Microsoft finally has served up a winner. And it’s not just because the game features Anna Kournikova, though that certainly doesn’t hurt.

The Russian star (cough, cough) is one of 16 pros included on Top Spin, Microsoft’s first swing at a tennis title and its first must-have sports game. Whereas many of Microsoft’s sports games have felt like works in progress, Top Spin is easy to play, entertaining and fresh. It’s perhaps the only first-party sports title for the Xbox to mix the power of the hardware and the ingenuity of the software with any sort of success.

So what does that mean? First off, the game looks beautiful. There’s no mistaking the pros; Kournikova has her signature braided ponytail, Pete Sampras looks like he hasn’t shaved in a few days, and James Blake’s dreads flop all over the place. Courts are rendered accurately, from Wimbledon’s grass to Roland Garros’ red clay, though the names of the stadiums have been changed to protect the innocent. (Or Microsoft didn’t get the rights, but more on that later.)

Second, the game takes advantage of the controller, something no other tennis game really has done. Unlike other titles where you have to press a combination of buttons and directions for various shots, Top Spin assigns each button a different type of shot: safe, slice, top spin, lob, drop, etc. That frees up the thumbstick for both movement and aim. The controls are so easy you can start playing with some skill as soon as you remove the wrapper.

And once you start playing, you might not be able to stop. Exhibition matches allow you to take control of the 16 pros in singles or doubles matches. Why are there only the eight men and eight women available? Mostly because tennis licensing works differently from that of the major sports leagues, which generally have players unions and league offices to deal with those matters.

In a tennis game, however, the creators must negotiate with each player and venue separately, making it much more difficult. For that reason, the Grand Slam event in England isn’t called Wimbledon, but the Memphis tournament can be called the Kroger St. Jude.

If you don’t want to play as Lleyton Hewitt, Michael Chang or Martina Hingis, you can enter Career mode, which allows you to make your own tennis star. The player creator easily is one of the most detailed of any sports game; in fact, it’s up there with some of the wrestling titles in terms of the number of options. You pick a gender, and then you can design everything from skin color to hair style to the width and breadth of the nose. In other words, if you want to create yourself, you can.

Once you have created your future star, you learn that your rookie begins as the world’s 100th-ranked player. Your job is to guide him from continent to continent, entering minor tournaments to win cash, visiting coaches for training to improve your abilities or heading to shops or salons to buy gear or get a new ‘do. You can also get him a sponsor, such as Reebok or Adidas, to earn more money and get some swag. As you win matches and fulfill some goals, more tournaments open up on the road to the top ranking.

Top Spin also takes advantage of Microsoft’s XSN Sports, which allows gamers to merge Xbox and the Internet to create tournaments and tours over Xbox Live.

The only real complaint here deals with the audio. While the court sounds — the ball hitting the racket, the applause, the stadium announcer calling out “deuce” — provide a sense of realism, it would have been nice to have some sort of commentator. There are points when it’s too quiet.

But really, that’s nitpicking. Top Spin, with its ease of play, great graphics and lasting appeal, ranks among the top sports titles for the Xbox this year. And, of course, it has Anna Kournikova.

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