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X3F Impressions: Smash Court Tennis 3

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No one likes riding in the middle of a car's backseat area. You're sandwiched in, crushed from one side and into the other regardless of which way the driver has to turn, and worst of all, the position is often associated with a derogatory term for the female dog.

If you're cunning, though, the role of middle-backseat passenger can be used to harness the strengths of both your fellow rear passengers for your own good. Forge a temporary alliance during one turn so that you and one passenger crush the other against his door. Then, on an opposite turn, revoke the ceasefire and cause much harm to your former ally.

Namco Bandai's Smash Court Tennis 3 makes similar use of its middle position against its two primary competitors, SEGA's Virtua Tennis 3 and 2K Sports's Top Spin 3. "You've got Virtua Tennis at the arcade end of the spectrum, and you've got Top Spin at the Simulation end," explained Smash Court Tennis 3 producer David Geudelekian during a recent preview event. "Smash Court Tennis very intelligently tows the middle ground. You can jump right into the game and [within] 30 seconds, you can play an arcade-style match: lots of powerups, sensitive aim. But there's also a really deep experience if you want more of a simulation."

One manifestation of Smash Court Tennis 3's delicate balance between arcade and simulation is character customization. At first, the choices are purely aesthetic, and no different from what players would expect of any sports avatar creator. "You choose male or female, choose from all possible countries, choose a name - and then it gets crazy," said Geudelekian. " You've got height and weight, which will affect starting speed and power; hip, thigh, calves... you create a character that is completely yours, and everything carries into Xbox Live play."

Initial customization is vital, as your base stats are used to determine your starting attributes, which subsequently factor in to the skills you'll be able to access later on. Characters are divided into class-like groups such as baseline, all-around, servers and volley-ers, left- and right-handed players, and more.

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Careful, precise, and positively anal statistics are used to inform players as to whether their careful tweaking, planning, and balancing of all attributes has paid off. "The game keeps track of a hell of a lot of statistics," said Geudelekian. "Serving and returning [graphs] track every area where you hit the ball, your velocity .... You start to learn more about your virtual self, you can see how you develop. I've tried making my character stronger in his legs and biceps, making him a little bit heavier. His power shot up, but his foot work went down."

When compared to stats such as footwork and serving, choosing an appropriate attitude for your avatar may seem innocuous, but is actually pivotal to your character's financial success. "You can go emotional, normal, or calm," explained Geudelekian. "In the single-player mode, you'll have sponsors that might become interested in you. But if you start slamming your racket down left and right, you could lose your sponsors."

Pro Tour mode, the single-player path mentioned by Geudelekian, is a full-featured experience designed to help your custom character perfect the skills you deem most vital. In keeping with Smash Court Tennis 3's theme of holding the middle ground between arcade and simulation, Pro Tour provides several different ways for players to find success regardless of play style.

"Pro Tour mode [uses] a ledger to plan out all four years of your character's pro career," said Geudelekian. "You've got stamina, and depending on the events you participate in and how much you train, your stamina drains. You can go through this guy's career and plan everything out year by year. With one character I progressed very linearly - play every challenge, build up all of his stats. With another character, I committed the first two years of his career to training and had a ton of points to assign. So I had a quick route, but I also had a slow-paced route where I could build up all of my skills."

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Of course, spending 30 seconds, minutes, or hours creating the perfect custom character is only one option; 16 others exist in the form of licensed tennis pros, eight apiece per gender. Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, and other star athletes will be at your beck and call to compete across 16 stadiums, though these virtual tennis playgrounds are of the unlicensed persuasion.

David Geudelekian doesn't see that as a detracting point, though. "What we make up for in licensed courts we make up for with artistic license. One stadium looks a lot like the [setting for the] U.S. Open. Other settings are really out there and probably couldn't exist, but that's the fun of having an open license."

Case in point: the Sky Court, a circular stadium attached via three separate bridges to the tops of three skyscrapers arranged in pyramid formation. Again favoring the "just right" approach, players can jump right into a game after choosing custom or licensed characters and an arena, or spend time adjusting their playing field conditions. "There are real-time clouds moving around, and you can choose the time of day," said Geudelekian. "As you're playing, shadows will move in. You can play from dusk to dawn if you want to."

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After challenging us to a match, Geudelekian proceeded to call our manhood into question: would we prefer to play on the ground with all the other kiddies, or would we throw caution to the wind and ascend to the Sky Court, arena of the gods? Deeming solid ground for mere mortals, we ascended to the heavens and readied ourselves for competition.

Smash Court Tennis 3 controls much like any other tennis game, so there shouldn't be too great of a learning curve for virtual veterans or newbies. Holding RT boosts your speed, and each face button is mapped to a different type of strike. We received the first opportunity to serve, which was accomplished as expected: press A to toss the ball into the air and, at its peak, press A to send it sailing over the net.

That's the quick and simple way to serve. Additional oomph can be added or subtracted from the serve by pressing the left analog stick toward or away from your opponent. Careful, though: too little speed and power won't carry the ball all the way across, but too much will send it out of bounds and, in the case of Sky Court, over the side and down, down, down to the busy streets below.

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We played with a licensed tennis star, one whose stats would theoretically be more than a match for Geudelekian's custom athlete. Theoretically. In actuality, our superstar fell to Geudelekian's, though only just barely. "I like to create a swath of characters," said Geudelekian, whose avatar specialized in up-close-and-personal play, ideal for one-on-one match-ups.

Despite our humiliating defeat, Geudelekian's point was realized: no matter how deep you want your video game tennis experience to be, Smash Court Tennis 3 can make it happen. Even better, it will happen for only $39.95 when it arrives on Xbox 360 this August.

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