Written by: Rik

Date posted: July 7, 2013

Extras:

In your face, Jack Rampel.

In your face, Jack Rampel.

Although our old FFG favourite was always best known as ‘Stunts’, it was actually part of a trilogy of games developed by Distinctive Software and released, in Europe at least, by publisher Mindscape under the ‘4D Sports’ heading. I recall slightly misleading publicity and box art for each title in the series, which featured two sinister-looking robots with piercing searchlights for eyes participating in whatever activity the game in question purported to simulate. It was misleading because, as far as I know, there are no robots in any of the games, and presumably the whole thing was designed to give an impression of heightened technological superiority.

Ditto, too, the ‘4D’ moniker – I don’t know a lot about physics, or maths, but I’d guess that this has nothing to do with the concept of four dimensional space, and everything to do with the desire to go ‘one louder’ than rival titles boasting about their amazing new 3D polygons. What’s more dimensiony than three dimensions? Four. (But perhaps I’m being unfair – anyone who knows about such things, feel free to correct me, I looked on Wikipedia but the whole thing just made my head hurt).

Back in the days when there were lots of sports games released, developers could actually try something different to make their game stand out from the crowd. Shifts in perspective or some variety in graphical style were tried out almost at random, with varying results, and football games such as Striker, Planet Football and Super Soccer would have us believe that spending one half of a match running towards the screen was the best way for the beautiful game to be realised.

4D Sports: Tennis, which aims to put you on the court by utilising a first person perspective, seems at first glance destined to be filed under the same ‘wacky but unsuccessful’ heading. Add the necessity of replacing the perfectly-servicable cartoon sprites of the era with primitive jagged-limbed polygon opponents, couple that with some truly disturbing grunting noises during the introduction, and, well, let’s just say that the early signs don’t seem all that promising.

Practice makes perfect.

Practice makes perfect.

Surprisingly, though, once you get out on court, it’s all very playable. The change of perspective is a refreshing one and, allied to a control system that converts the swishing of your mouse to the swishing of a tennis racket, it does actually accomplish its intended goal of making you feel like you’re there. You do have the option to switch to a more traditional external camera angle and control the action with the keyboard, but this is a game that’s clearly been designed to be played in a certain way.

The focus is mainly on executing your shots, with movement largely handled by the computer. You have a choice of ‘semi-automatic’ or ‘automatic’ movement, although I didn’t notice a massive amount of difference between the two. For the most part it all works well, except for one or two unpredictable moments in practice when your player unaccountably becomes magnetically drawn towards the net and refuses to acknowledge the limited influence you have as an instruction to cease and desist.

Speaking of practice, it’s definitely advisable. Just hitting the ball properly takes a bit of work, and timing is key – you need to be patient, let the ball come to you and strike at the top of the bounce, indicating direction with a swish of the mouse one way or the other as you make the shot. It does actually feel like you’re learning to play tennis, and during one extended practice session I suddenly recalled some long-lost advice dispensed to me during a childhood tennis lesson to ‘wait for the bounce’ (which only stuck with me because the tennis coach said it so often and had an accent which meant he pronounced the word ‘bonce’). I never really got what he was talking about at the time, which is probably why I wasn’t ever very good at tennis, but for the first time (and with a delay of about 25 years) I finally got it while playing this game.

Taking on the computer is tough unless you’ve mastered the basics – and remains so even when you have. AI opponents rarely allow you to stand on the baseline and hammer it back and forth – they play aggressively and rush to the net whenever possible. You do have the option of the lob, although more often than not they’re able to get back in time to return. Despite their fairly basic and boxy appearance, the players do demonstrate some convincing and occasionally amusing little animations – wiping the sweat from their brow between serves, or doing a ridiculous pelvic thrust after winning a point, are two that spring to mind. How amused you’ll be might depend on how the match itself is going, of course, but they’re a nice little touch.

When I was little, I always dreamed of winning the Hong Kong Open.

When I was little, I always dreamed of winning the Hong Kong Open.

One of the basics you have to learn on the fly is the serve. Well, I say ‘have to’…look, it may just be my ineptitude, but while there is an option to practice your serve, I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to pick the ball up and get on with it. I looked on the internet for a solution, I experimented with different methods (including the one that works just fine in a match) – but to no avail. I’m not about to accuse the game of being broken, but well, if anyone out there knows what to do, you’re a better man/woman than me.

Fortunately, the serve is actually fairly easy to get the hang of once you know what to do – press the mouse button to toss the ball, press again and hold for power, then swish at the appropriate moment – but an unfortunate consequence of being unable to practice is that it kind of nobbles the career mode, in which (as is the tradition) you take a puny low-ranking nobody, give him your name, and build up to being a top player through a series of practice sessions and tournament events. The practice sessions are the means by which you build up your stats, and if you can’t do any of the service ones (which I couldn’t) then you’re going to be stuck with a crappy serve for the duration. The game’s hard enough without having to live with that handicap.

Fortunately, though, you can still play in individual tournaments with a pre-made top player, such as the fictional world number 1, Don Champion (whose name I took to saying in a Yorkshire accent, while also transposing the personality of a northern blusterer onto my tennis avatar, which I found much more amusing than I should have done). With Don on my side, I managed to beat mid-ranking players and even win the odd smaller tournament, but sadly Grand Slam success eluded me. Although venturing to the net and volleying is possible, and rather satisfying when you do it right, positioning yourself for and timing the stroke is all too difficult to pull off, leaving you unable to compete with the better players.

And that highlights the major weakness of 4D Sports: Tennis. Although it does feel like you’re playing tennis, it never feels like you’re a top tennis player playing tennis. There’s significant satisfaction in thunking the ball back and forth but it recalls my own experience of playing at a very low level rather than allowing the defter touches and more tactical play that you’d expect in the professional game. The control scheme is great for making you think you’ve actually hit the ball, but just a little too clumsy for you to imagine yourself as an athlete, gliding around the court and executing a gameplan in order to win a major final.

The replay feature allows you to review the action from a number of angles.

The replay feature allows you to review the action from a number of angles.

And, thanks to the rudimentary presentation, there’s also a lack of big-match atmosphere here. You can kind of understand the technological limitations with the graphics, but the sound really is very sparse – it’s literally the sound of the ball bouncing or being hit, the occasional grunt, and a few words from the umpire. If anything it’s a credit to how absorbing the game is initially that you don’t realise that you’ve mainly been listening to the sound of your PC’s cooling fan echo around the room for the duration.

Having said all that, though, 4D Sports: Tennis is definitely worth a look. It’s aged pretty well, has a good number of tournaments to sustain the interest of most casual tennis fans, and remains rather playable. What’s more, it does what it sets out to do in offering something genuinely different from most other tennis titles.