My father has been a tennis umpire for more than 25 years. He's seen and penalized plenty of bad behavior, both professional and college. But I doubt he's ever seen anything like Pete Pagassi, the protagonist of Tennis in the Face.
"If a player hits a ball at a court official or a ballkid, is that an automatic default?" I asked Dad. Not necessarily, as some other factors may be involved. Was the ball struck during play of a point? Did the ball actually strike the person, or just miss?
But if a court official or ball kid is hit by a ball that is struck "intentionally and in anger," not during the play of a point, the player defaults the match— whether or not he was aiming at the person struck.
That describes your duties in Tennis in the Face almost perfectly, because while you wind up and slam the ball, intentionally and—if Mr. Pagassi's implacable expression is any indication—in anger, you're rarely aiming directly at the target it will strike. Clowns, hipsters, riot cops and other foes are all more likely to get taken down by wild ass rebounds rather than a forehand smash on a straight line.
Let's establish the story here, utterly deranged though it is. Mr. Pagassi is your garden-variety l'enfant terrible of tennis, his career gone off the rails sometime in the 1990s. Typically, he's unable to accept responsibility for this, and chooses instead to blame Explodz, an energy drink company he believes ruined his career and is now brainwashing the public with a highly addictive product. Pagassi leaves the court to do battle with the object of his wrath.
In each level offered by Tennis in the Face, you're given three tennis balls with which to take down a screen full of stationary foes. Walls and obstructions and exploits create opportunities for multiple rebound shots and explosions to defeat barriers and your foes' special traits.
It's somewhat akin to games we've seen like, yes, Angry Birds, in that you're trying to clear the screen with as few shots as possible. But the rebound of the super-bouncy ball is what distinguishes Tennis in the Face here. And, unfortunately, it accounts for some difficulty spikes that leave you feeling one level was trivially simple while the second is racket-smashing, you-cannot-be-serious, chalk-flew-up hard.
A lot of it is in how the ball bounces. When aiming a shot, you'll see a dashed line representing its true path, and then a border around it representing the size of the ball, allowing you to place some tough angle shots with precision. But pay attention to it, because it'll show you if you really can thread the needle.
There's plenty of dirty pool involved. I cleared several boards with an 18-bounce yeah-I-meant-to-do-that shot that nudged a riot cop in the ass at the last instant. But I have run into a stage that seems to have just one correct sequence of shots to win it, and I have no idea how to do it in fewer than three.
When you take down your final opponent, the board fades and goes into slow motion as your score is tallied, a nice visceral touch for a game based on ragdoll physics. The 1990s music and motifs and Pagassi's hostility are nice design touches.
Ultimately, this game is about winding up and striking the ball intentionally and in anger, more than it is aiming precisely at the object of your outrage. Indulging such lets-see-what-this-does decision-making leads to a game that can feel arbitrary at times. But it sure as hell is fun to watch. Tennis in the Face is still a straight-sets winner.