Pong Distance Calling 

Reach out and serve someone with online tennis, courtesy of Top Spin

Reach out and serve someone with online tennis, courtesy of Top Spin

Last Christmas my partner and I received a subscription to Xbox Live from our friend Matthew. Misanthropes that we are, our gift was pretty much useless since we didn't know anyone else with an Xbox Live account.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, Xbox Live is the Xbox version of shared online gameplay. Instead of playing against the computer when you're all alone, you can log on and play against friends or even complete strangers.

Until recently, the only game I owned with Xbox Live compatibility was Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. One night I got brave enough to enter an online arena where, confused, I ended up backing into the current battle and subsequently was booted out. Undaunted, I decided to try again. That time I heard the voices of two players chatting. Upon the quick realization that these people were kids probably half my age, I just turned my Xbox off. So much for Xbox Live.

Until now.

Matthew's birthday just passed, and along with an Xbox Live subscription we gave him a copy of Top Spin, XSN Sports' tennis game. Of course we bought ourselves a copy as well, since each Live player must have his own copy of the game in play. I'd heard nothing but good things about Top Spin, particularly its Live aspect, so I was excited not only to play the game but to use my dusty subscription.

Basically, Top Spin is Pong. Remember Pong? Who could forget. You hit a dot back and forth across the television screen—a simple activity that for most players became an addiction, like a cat toy for grown-ups. But Top Spin is parsecs past its pixelated predecessor. Whereas Pong involved simply moving a bar back and forth, and even sometimes pressing a button for the special "sticky" ball, Top Spin makes full use of today's complicated controllers.

The four main buttons allow you to serve or hit the ball with four different styles, including flat, lob, back spin and top spin. You can also make "risk shots" and tricky serves with the left and right triggers, but these are hard to pull off and will usually get returned by a decent opponent anyway. The black and white buttons allow you to express your player's emotions after a super shot or a lousy loss.

Offline, up to four people can play at one time in a doubles match. You can even host an at-home tournament for up to 16 players. Online, you can play a variety of styles and arenas, from one-on-one exhibition matches in playground courts to worldwide tournaments in Grand Slam venues complete with cheering fans. (They're still virtual, though.)

The coolest aspect of the offline portion is the Career mode. You first create your avatar in the virtual world with the superb body-morphing engine. If you take the time, the results of your digitized self can be eerily recognizable as you. Starting off as number 100 in the world, you must train, play tournaments and use endorsements (Prince and Adidas, among others) to climb your way to number one. Just as in life.

Once we'd created virtual versions of ourselves, Matthew and I met up on Xbox Live for an Exhibition Match. After laughing at each other's avatars—who were in far better shape than their real-world counterparts—we served, hit and lobbed the little yellow ball back and forth between the miles that separated us.

One of the most popular aspects of online gaming is the ability to trash-talk your opponent. I'm not one to boast when winning; I prefer to sit back quietly and relish my position. But without Matthew there to see my smirk of superiority, I just had to razz him anytime I pulled off a great shot or returned a tricky serve. To spare him embarrassment, I won't mention that I served the smackdown in both matches.

Top Spin is the ideal game to dive into the world of online gameplay. Because of its easy learning curve, practically anyone can pick up a controller and be playing in minutes. While the game can be incredibly complex with experienced players, novices will find it addictive to the point of obsession. After all, despite the bells and whistles, it's still just Pong.

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