Namco Bandai's PSP-exclusive Smash Court Tennis 3 is not Virtua Tennis. But, that isn't a bad thing. Smash Court has a unique style that tries to take a serious, more simulation-oriented approach to the sport. It will take some time to get used to the sluggish controls. However, players will find a lot of content and depth in this UMD -- even if it does have some questionable AI practices and glitches.
It's clear from the moment you begin the game that Smash Court Tennis is easy on the eyes. The menus are easy to read, and fairly stylish. The graphics look very sharp on the PSP, with little to complain about. The text overlays that appear during matches are sleek and professional. The game certainly does a great job with visual presentation.
The main menu gives players access to a surprising variety of play modes. The Tutorial is where players will want to begin, and it is incredibly thorough. There are dozens of lessons that will have players mastering various skills needed in the game. Even players that know little to nothing about tennis will learn about the different kinds of shots, such as topspin, slice, flat, drop and lob shots. In the Tutorial mode, players will have to successfully perform these tasks repeatedly in order to clear them and unlock further lessons.
Exhibition mode allows players to simply jump into a quick match. Arcade mode will have players go through five different tournaments. The biggest draw of the game has to be its Pro Tour mode, which will allow players to create their own tennis avatars, and guide them to tennis superstardom. The unique blend of RPG stats-boosting and character customization makes mode particularly addictive.
While the character creation options aren't too thorough, they certainly offer a solid variety of options to choose from. (My personal character can be seen at the top of this review.) Ultimately, you won't be able to create a character that looks exactly like you, but at least you won't be stuck with a generic character either. Once the player is created, the player will go on a year-long journey through the circuit, choosing to train, sign contracts, play tournaments, or rest. The player won't be eligible for all tournaments, and some will be singles or doubles. Here, players must choices on what to do with their time: will they forgo training for a week to regain their stamina in time for a major tournament? Or, will they sign a new doubles partner before a new doubles tournament that happens in a month? These kinds of decisions will need to be considered at all times, and we appreciate the depth it adds to the game.
For the most part, players will want to either rest or partake in a tournament. Unfortunately, the training exercises require very basic tennis skills, and reward you a minimal amount of experience points. For the most leveling up, you'll have to go through a tournament. Interestingly, players can choose an automatic option, which will determine whether or not the player will win or lose. This is risky, of course, as a player's loss will be completely ouf of their hands -- however, this is great for those that simply don't want to bother with lesser ranked opponents.
The actual tennis gameplay is where some of the game's flaws start appearing. However, many will find that it's appropriately paced and balanced. For example, although your character will move very slowly at first, your opponents will also be equally disabled. However, as you begin winning matches, you'll earn experience points, which can be applied to a number of stats and special abilities. For example, players can simply boost their strength stat, or choose to get a special skill, such as the ability to dive for out-of-reach returns. The character customization options are nicely varied, and are subtly noticeable in the game. It won't be too long before the player begins to master the subtleties in the controls, and has a character that can pull off some of the fancier tricks.
Seeing your character grow is empowering and addictive. I wanted to keep playing to make virtual Andrew a tennis god, of sorts. However, it became increasingly frustrating to deal with the AI. It seems as though the AI doesn't vary in skill. Rather, different opponents have varying levels of initiative. It's not uncommon to see a computer opponent simply not attempt hitting back a ball. They'll simply stand there, dazed. It's easy to try and exploit the computer's lack of desire to move from one side of the court to the next. There are tons of matches that I've won simply hitting the ball from the left side of the field to the right, until the computer apparently gives up.
This bothersome AI mechanic becomes even more frustrating when dealing with doubles matches. Although your computer-controlled partner can be given commands using the D-Pad, it seems they never want to do anything besides stand there. On a rare occasion, you may see them move and hit a ball -- but, it often feels as though you're playing alone against two active computer opponents. It becomes frustrating when your computer partner decides that playing the net means standing still.
There are other glitches in the game. At times, your character will get stuck completely, as if trapped between two connecting animations. Although rare, it's unfortunate that there are times that you can blame the controls, and not yourself, for some tennis blunders.
These issues are a serious hindrance from what should've been a stellar tennis game. However, in spite of these glitches and problems, it's hard not to like Smash Court Tennis 3. There's just too much fun to be had. In fact, we recommend the game if only for the added Pac-Man and Galaga bonus modes, where the wacky rules of these classic arcade games are blended with tennis. With an incredibly thorough Tutorial mode, a fantastic character creation and Pro Tour mode, and fun bonus games, Smash Court Tennis 3 comes easily recommended, even if it is a bit flawed.
PSP Fanboy Score: 7.5