TopSpin 2K25 - Hands-on Preview

Ned Jordan
In Short
TopSpin 2K25 made its gameplay debut at Desert Smash in Indian Wells, CA, and we were there to get some hands-on time with the first TopSpin game in thirteen years.

TopSpin. Now that’s a game franchise we haven’t heard anything from in a few years. Thirteen to be precise. But the long wait for a sequel to TopSpin 4 is almost over. On April 26th the long-awaited new entry in the series – dubbed TopSpin 2K25 rather than TopSpin 5 – will be released. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been wondering about what we can expect to see when the franchise returns after more than a decade, so when I had the opportunity to get some hands-on time with the game during the Desert Smash celebrity tournament in Indian Wells, CA I hit the road to travel to the desert oasis and find out.

Since it’s been so long since the last TopSpin game – and tennis games in general have been few and far between lately – gamers will undoubtedly need a little help easing back into the swing of things, so to speak. The game’s developers are aware of this, and that is why they created the TopSpin Academy. This game mode will be front and center the first time you start the game, and it serves several purposes (pun most likely subconsciously intended). The first is to introduce you to the play mechanics of TopSpin 2K25. Gamers who spent some time with TopSpin 4 will probably recognize the controls, but there are enough enhancements in 2K25 that they will benefit from some time in the Academy as well. The other purpose of TopSpin Academy is to help gamers with a casual knowledge of tennis (or less), understand the mechanics and strategies of the sport.

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Top Spin Academy is more than a by-the-numbers tutorial, though. 2K enlisted tennis great John McEnroe to serve as your coach. Each lesson will begin with some instruction from McEnroe, followed by a demonstration, and conclude with an interactive challenge in which you need to put your newly acquired knowledge to the test. The challenges are relatively low-key – you will work with a ball machine and won’t be penalized for mistakes. You’ll get continuous feedback from McEnroe as you play, and will be free to keep working on each stage of a challenge until you complete it. You are also free to revisit any lesson when you want to work on an aspect of your game.

There are three tracks within the Top Spin Academy that each focus on a different category of lessons: basic, advanced, and playstyle. Basic lessons cover fundamental game aspects such as how to serve and return a ball, but also how to improve your shots’ effectiveness through timing and aiming and some fundamentals of strategy such as how to position yourself on the court.

I took the time to make my way through all of the Academy’s Basic course’s lessons. TopSpin 2K25 features a shot meter that appears when you are lining up a shot. The goal is to hold the button for your desired shot type until the meter reaches the highlighted area. If you do so, you’ll get the full power out of your shot. Hit the ball early or late, and you’ll hit a weaker shot and have less control over it. If you played a TopSpin game before, then you’ll know that timing has always been an important aspect of the games. Now you won’t have to rely on simple “early”, “perfect”, or “late” prompts – you’ll actually be able to see how well you timed your swings. The lessons really helped me to learn the timing needed for shots in the game. It certainly would have made things more difficult and frustrating if I had to figure everything out during an actual match (or, more likely, multiple matches).

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I also appreciated the basic tennis strategy lessons. I personally have only sporadically played tennis in real life, and at its most casual level when I did, so I found learning about things like “the dead zone” really helpful. I didn’t realize the impact that the lessons were having on my game until I started playing matches. After losing a volley or two I would soon realize that I had been standing in the dead zone and immediately adjust my positioning.

The feedback given during the lessons on aiming was particularly effective. Aiming involves moving the left stick during a return to both set the direction and distance of the shot. After each shot, an on-screen arrow indicates the direction and length of the input, which I found to be a huge help in learning how best to control the direction of my shots. I thought that it was a good idea to allow players to return to the lessons for practice – the feedback on your aim would probably go a long way toward helping you cure a case of the video game tennis yips.

I wasn’t able to access the Advanced and Playstyle tracks in the build made available at Desert Smash, but TopSpin 2K25’s director, Remi Ercolani, let me know what gamers can expect to learn from them. The Advanced lessons focus on advanced techniques, the kind of things that will take your game to the next level. You’ll not only learn about the different types of shots available, but also the situations in which you should use them. In addition, you’ll learn about advanced shots and techniques, including how to turn a backhand shot into a forehand shot and following your shot to the net.

The Playstyle lessons will focus on defining your style of play. Ercolani indicated that the development team had identified four major styles of play – baseline offense, baseline defense, serve-and-volley, and all-around play. The lessons in this track will help you to understand what defines each style, which will include matches against players that utilize each style. You’ll also learn the archetypical builds for each playstyle, and the attributes that will best help improve each playstyle. Build? Attributes? Sorry, I couldn’t access the custom player features in the build I was playing, so you’ll have to wait until I review the game to learn more about those aspects of the game. By the way, you can find my full interview with Remi Ercolani here.

So, it’s obviously a game, but I have to admit it was still pretty cool to be working on my tennis game while receiving feedback from John McEnroe. Given the time he spent with the devs, you may wonder if some of his enthusiasm was due to the fact that he’s a gamer, but that’s not the case. Ercolani said that McEnroe wasn’t really familiar with things like button presses and timing, but that McEnroe was really enthusiastic about teaching tennis. He even provided feedback to the team on things that he thought could be explained more clearly. This enthusiasm really comes through in the Academy.

After making my way through the lessons in the Academy, I was ready to tackle the game’s exhibition mode. In this mode, you’ll be able to set the match of your dreams. I had my choice of ten different players and could also select my AI opponent from the same list – there will be more pros to choose from in the final release version of the game. You can also select the venue – I had my choice of Indian Wells, natch, as well as the four Grand Slam courts, with many more venues available on release.

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As you would expect, the venues are all accurate recreations of their real-world counterparts down to the court surfaces, but it doesn’t end there. The team has worked to accurately represent the atmosphere at each one as well by doing extensive work on the crowd AI. I had the chance to speak with Geert De Cnodder, the Lead Technical Artist on TopSpin 2K25, about some of the work that’s been done with the crowds in the game. I started by asking him about how the crowds reflect their venues. “We make sure that we respect the etiquette of every venue. So, for example, the crowd in Paris, you'll see them have the typical hats that Roland Garros is known for. You'll see a lot of white-collar dressed people in the Wimbledon venue since that's a normal thing there. So, we really tried to be true to the actual game and the actual atmosphere, which for me was very important to get right.”

I was also curious about the crown behavior in the game and asked him what the crowds would be doing during a match.

“Every single crowd member that you'll see in the stands, the thousands, they will follow the ball with their heads, which is something that we didn't have in previous TopSpins. There are also interactions. You'll see them grabbing their cell phones, taking a selfie. You'll see them eating something or drinking something. So, there is a life to the crowd even when it's very early on in the game. And if you want to get them to hype up, make a longer rally, make some fantastic points, they will get excited, just like in real life.”

And their reactions to the on-court action? “So, we got various levels of cheering and even disappointment. We have crowds that are actually disappointed because you either root for team A or team B, right? Some of them will be very happy, some of them will be very disappointed, but basically, they're rooting for the player themself. And the thing that you have to do for it is basically the length of the rally. So, the longer the rally goes on, the more anticipation you're building.”

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For the exhibition matches I played I was able to set a number of the game parameters such as games per set and sets per match, so you’ll be able to play a quick match or go the full distance. The developers also hinted that when the game is released you’ll be able to unlock more exotic and fun match formats and scoring systems, but I’ll leave that up to your imagination as to what form that will all take.

For my first match I chose Indian Wells since it was the local home court, and I picked Roger Federer as my opponent. When I first started to play, things did not go well for me at all - Federer was pretty much scoring at will. But as the match progressed, I began to remember the lessons that I had learned in the Academy. Once I realized that I had been gravitating towards the Dead Zone, I made a conscientious effort to position myself better on the court and was immediately able to sustain longer rallies. The heat of the moment also had me focusing too much on making a swing and not enough on the timing of it. Again, remembering my lessons in the Academy helped, and I went from far too many early and late swings to more good swings and even some perfects. Even after I made these adjustments Federer proved to be a challenging opponent – I wasn’t anywhere near mastering the game, but I felt that I had a chance to win a match. And this was at the “normal” difficulty level - I definitely needed more time spent honing my skills before I could hope to compete at “hard”, “very hard”, or the new “legendary” level.

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After losing to Federer, I decided to try taking on my Academy coach, John McEnroe. Brimming with misplaced confidence I took to the court with the self-assurance that I’d apply all of my Academy lessons to the game. I was soon brought back down to Earth when McEnroe began to play a completely different game than Federer. While Federer had roamed the court behind the baseline sending powerful shots into the court’s corners, McEnroe would rush the net and quickly and effectively return my shots just after they crossed the net. I quickly learned that to succeed in TopSpin 2K25 you’ll need to adjust your game to your opponent. I’ll have to wait to learn how until the game is released and I can complete my Academy training with the remaining tracks. I’m also curious as to what it would be like playing the other tennis greats in the game, but unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to take on the other available opponents in the game at Desert Smash.

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My AI opponents not only played differently; their play looked different as well. TopSpin 2K25 is implementing signature animations and styles for the players in the game. There are different sets of animations for each player, and for each class of action such as for serves, return idles, forehands, and backhands. I asked Joyce Makker, Associate Lead Animator on TopSpin 2K25, about what was done to make the animations more lifelike in the game.

“Well, there's lots of different animations, obviously they need to be able to hit the ball so they have different heights, there's running from standing still, there's reaches, so there's a lot of variety in itself needed by the gameplay system, and obviously for pro players there's different player styles as well, so we definitely looked at a lot of pros and definitely our roster of players, we looked at their styles and tried to imitate them as much as possible. For Roger Federer and Serena Williams, we actually could do mocap with them, so we have their data and it's perfect, and for every other player we tried to look at their own styles and to imitate it.”

“Mocap was against the ball machine, and basically it was a mocap stage, you know, and it's a pretty big stage where they have a net that protects all the equipment around, and they play against a ball machine. And we had them hit the ball at different heights, you know, at knee height, waist height, and shoulder height, and open stance, closed stance.”

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I wish that I had been given more time with TopSpin 2K25 and the opportunity to try out some of its other features like the extensive player creation system, but I did get a good feel for the basics of the game. It will be a challenging game, but not unfairly so. Work on your fundamentals, play a smart game, and play to the weaknesses in your opponent’s style and you’ll improve your game. I’m looking forward to playing the game in April when it will be released, and seeing how well I can hone my skills and how far they will take me in my virtual tennis career.

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Transmitted: 6/19/2024 8:17:06 PM