Grand Slam Tennis
It’s hard to remember another game in recent years that makes as bad a first impression as EA’s Grand Slam Tennis. Don’t let the clean visuals and endearing caricatures of famous tennis legends fool you – it drops players off in an empty grass court with just a racket, a ball machine and all but tells players to figure it out for themselves. Ten or so minutes and several swings-and-a-misses later and it can be almost impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel for this relationship.
But persist through gritted teeth and finding the light will become more of a comforting inevitably as time goes on. More a difficulty mountain than it is a curve, this rough introduction is a result of the much talked about MotionPlus attachment that is supposed to give a 1:1 tennis experience; as if players were holding an actual racket in their hand (or ‘hands’ for those unconventional double-backhanders). That once tried and true, patented tactic of waggling the Wii controller in any-which-way to get the ball to go over the net (as seen in Wii Sports), gets you nowhere fast in Grand Slam Tennis. Getting the ball up over the net and in between the lines requires full, almost exaggerated strokes of the arms and/or flicks of the wrist from different angles and heights to produce varying shots.
For instance, swinging from low to high and following through with the shoulder will create a cross court, topspin forehand, whereas striking from high to low generates a low bouncing slice to get yourself back in position. While not entirely 1:1 like had been promised, hitting a ball in the racket’s ‘sweet spot’ produces satisfying feedback making long, near fatigue inducing rallies as engaging as anything the genre has seen. And once players have put the hours of necessary practice into their game, winning a point for example, with a violent forehand down the line as the other player stands rooted to the ground – or just winning a point in general – will have you making Nadal-esque fist pumps in front of the TV.
With or Without?
Grand Slam Tennis is still playable without the Wii MotionPlus attachment but is a totally different game of tennis and worse off for it – think a glorified Wii Sports tennis. Thus, it is hard to recommend Grand Slam Tennis to anyone unwilling to shell out more money for MotionPlus. You get what you pay for in this instance.
The net play side of things, however, isn’t nearly as fine tuned and feels unfairly balanced in favour of net rushers; it’s far easier to put away an easy volley into the open court than it is to hit a pin-point accurate passing shot with your player on the run, game after game. This becomes ever more apparent on the higher difficulty settings against the efficiency of the computer A.I. and it’s not made a more appealing task thanks to Grand Slam Tennis’ biggest issue: calibration of the MotionPlus attachment. Intermittently, it will come down with Skynet syndrome resulting in wild, errant swings of the racket – this is remedied by holding the controller still for a couple of seconds, which is an easy solution but on rare occasions, not even that will work and it’s utterly infuriating knowing that a point has been lost because the game decided to give you an extra opponent to contend with. It is a regrettable blotch on an otherwise successful foray into something new.
But Grand Slam Tennis’ biggest success is its online mode, which is nothing short of a revelation for Wii owners. EA has done away with the needlessly complicated and sterile friends code system, but has instead allowed players to use an online moniker (a gamer tag/ID for those already basking in its simplicity and obviousness). Adding and organising games with a friend is as uncomplicated as it should be, and playing strangers is even easier. There are ranked and player matches; the former going towards your place in the world leaderboard as well as helping your country in a battle of the nations type affair. But even stripping all the fat away and looking only at the one area where it really counts – performance – EA’s effort is a shining example to all future titles on the system on how to do online properly.
It seems a shame then that entertainment without an Internet connection isn’t as appealing an option as one would have hoped. Aside from exhibition matches and party games to play with friends, the main bulk of the single player experience comes in the form of Grand Slam. A career mode that lets players create a future record breaker by taking them through, yep, all four Grand Slam events – but those looking for more may be disappointed. Outside of the tournaments are matches that involve beating and taking a player’s ability such as Sampras’s volleying, Murray’s topspin backhand or Roddick’s serve, for example, (you’ll definitely be wanting that last one). As well as challenge events putting you in games with any number of specific stipulations (e.g. going up against two players at once). Neither of which go towards fleshing out this mode to anything other than a means to level up your created player for online ventures.
The best description for Grand Slam Tennis would be that it is a true diamond in the rough. It was perhaps asking a bit too much of EA to get everything right for their first attempt, but even then, Grand Slam Tennis has all but made pressing buttons instead of swinging arms to hit a tennis ball an archaic, unsatisfying and pointless exercise. You’ll cheer, you’ll jump up and down, you’ll even strongly consider throwing your controller on the floor in disgust. But it’s part and parcel of the most realistic game of tennis so far and for the love of the game itself (virtual and real), you’ll take both the good and the bad on the chin. Tennis elbow and all.