Grand Slam Tennis 2 Review
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Canada
From the big hair, wooden rackets and dodgy short-shorts of the 80’s – to the powerful, modern-day athletes who cover every inch of the court, hitting thunderous forehands which muster more topspin then an expertly spun dreidel. From the excessive grunting in the women’s game, to the temper tantrums present in the men’s, the sport of tennis has come along way since its quintessentially British beginnings.
Time has often dictated that individual-based sports tend not to be as inherently popular as the team-based equivalents; with football, rugby, baseball, ice hockey and American football dominating proceedings. However, this rule has never applied to the individual events of the Olympic Games, the sport of golf, and of course, tennis.
The game of tennis has always drawn a wide audience of fans, with its rich history and multi-generational appeal satisfying young and old. The simple rules, charismatic individuals and impeccable ambassadors for the sport have helped make tennis a sport everyone can enjoy. A fact which is also applicable to gamers.
The first popular video game, Pong, was essentially based on the very same premise as tennis. Guide the ball on to your racket or rectangle as was the case, and if you managed to successfully get the ball past your opponent, you’d win the point. Even the Wii – a console which tore down the barriers to entry that existed between gamers and non-gamers – chose tennis as its showcase title in Wii Sports, enticing inquisitive, yet previously pessimistic players, into picking up the controller for the first time. Even Nintendo’s evergreen mascot, Mario, has starred in his very own tennis game. That’s surely an achievement worth celebrating with a spot of tea and scones.
Many great players of yesteryear have held the baton of world number one, eventually passing the title to a new and worthy competitor. In the 2000’s we’ve seen Roger Federer mesmerise with elegant and clinical tennis; eventually, succumbing to the power and tenacity of the ferocious Rafael Nadal. Today, Novak Djokovic’s incredible stamina, flexibility, flair and unwavering determination have earned him the prestigious world number one position.
In the gaming world of tennis, Virtua Tennis was unmatched and unopposed in its brilliance and beauty for several years. Recently, the more simulation focused gameplay of Top Spin has led to a changing of the guard. Now, EA Sports have entered the fray with Grand Slam Tennis 2, hoping to rise up the ranks and claim that number one spot. But have they served up an instant ace? Or should they get back on the practice court?
Speaking of practice court, this is the first point of call you should follow when starting up Grand Slam Tennis 2. Should you choose to boldly enter a game without prior training, you’ll end up completely perplexed by the controls, swinging and missing the easiest of shots. This is because you’ll need to learn the ‘total racket’ controls that differentiate EA’s tennis sim from its competitors. And it’s a system that takes a while to get used to.
Upon starting Grand Slam’s training mode, the player is greeted by the famous voice of USA’s most colourful tennis player in his time and today, one of tennis’ most respected commentators and pundits, John McEnroe. John gently guides you through a couple of training exercises which are aimed at introducing you to the controls, setting you on your way to centre court. Actually, scratch that. The game outlines what you have to do with a few lines of text and a couple of diagrams, then John takes over and proceeds to shout loudly at you with every miss hit or successful attempt, neither of which are at all welcomed. John’s incessant baiting and ‘tough love’ will quickly exasperate even the calmest of individuals, including myself, who by the end of failing to correctly hit a far court slice shot for the umpteenth time, fired back at John with a couple of expletives of my own.
You Just Got Served
Grand Slam Tennis 2’s total racket controls work well, though problems do arise on the odd occasion. Each shot is influenced by the manipulation of the right analog stick. Tapping up in any forward direction performs a flat shot. Holding down and then tapping up performs a topspin shot. Holding down on the right stick and then releasing in the required direction performs a slice shot. These three shots make up the core components of your arsenal, with drop shots (performed by holding the right trigger and slowly releasing the right stick from a downward position) and lob shots (performed by holding the left trigger) add situational/tactical shots when required. For those who can’t get to grips with the right stick controls, arcade control options, which involve using the face buttons, are also included.
The training section is relatively simple. Perform the required shot, hit the highlighted marker and progress to the next drill. At first, the controls seem relatively awkward, especially slicing, which involves holding the opposite direction that you intend to hit the ball. Timings also effect the type of shot, be it power or quality. A useful in-game hud will tell you whether you are swinging ‘too late’, ‘late’, ‘good’, ‘too early’ or ‘early’. By mastering the timing of your shots and distances, (flick the right stick forward to hit inside the court, hold the right stick forward to send the ball deep) players will soon find that they can dictate the movement of their opponent, crucial to opening up an opportunity for a passing winner. The control – for the most part – feel great, delivering a tangible feeling of satisfaction when you expertly pull off a winning cross court forehand or send your opponent deep with a perfectly hit slice.
Sadly, serving is far too easy to pull off effectively. In my time with the game I can’t recall performing even one double fault, nor can I remember performing a handful of first service faults. This is due to the fact that the serving mechanic, which can be modified with topspin or slice, is rudimentary in comparison to the engaging total racket controls. By holding down the right analog stick to toss, holding it longer to generate power, players must then flick the stick up in the required direction, with the goal of landing in the peak of the gauge to perform a serve. After a bit of getting used to, players will be able to pull off maximum power, ace winning serves with unnatural ease. If EA had incorporated more risk into the service game, an area which affects many top stars, then this would have served to make the game a lot more realistic and difficult. Unfortunately, the unnerving moment of a 30-40 second serve situation is never replicated.
The same can be said for volley and lobbing, with volleying extremely effective yet inconsistent in its direction and power, whilst lobbing is near useless against computer controlled opponent. The drop shot on the other hand works as hoped, drawing in the player, or punishing a player who stays firmly on the baseline.
Unforced errors are also often a mystery, with each shot graciously landing on the line or comfortably in the court. Strangely, the computer AI are prone to unforced errors, so its makes for an even more baffling conundrum that each of your shots fail to leave the safety of the scripted ball physics. In reality, most unforced errors come from players over hitting the ball past the baseline, a error which I don’t think I have ever witnessed during my time with the game. And that says it all really.
Winners can be hit even if your timing is deemed to be ‘late’ or ‘very early’ which negates the actual amount of skill involved. Harsher punishment would have been appreciated when attempting difficult shots, as regularly, I found myself beating the computer on the hardest difficult without feeling reprimanded for supposedly, mistimed, thus bad shots.
Grandest Of Slams
After you’ve mastered the controls and got sick of Johnny Mac (one will take a lot less time than the other), Grand Slam Tennis 2 offers a number of modes to choose from.
Joining the usual offering of exhibition matches featuring singles and doubles is the ESPN Grand Slam Classics Mode. This fun, challenge-type mode allows you to either rewrite, or repeat classic matches in tennis history. Featuring matches from the 2000’s, 1990’s 1980’s plus fantasy match-ups, there’s plenty of challenges for you to beat and unlock. Mini-objectives are also included such as performing 10 topspin winners or win a set without your service game being broken. The ESPN Grand Slam Classics mode is a great addition, and a fun proposition with the difficulty maxed out.
Career mode is the typically standard fare of creating a character and rising up the ranks of the tennis world in a bid to become number one. The creator character features are disappointedly shallow and unconvincing, with a stingy selection of hair types and other assets stifling your creativity. One can only assume EA held back on including a variety of assets as to encourage people to use their ‘game-face’ option, where you can download your face into the game. For those who can’t be bothered and would prefer tinkering and tailoring, its slightly aggravating. Some consolation is offered in the form of a reasonable selection of licensed attire; still, more choice would have been nice.
With 10 years to achieve your goals, as well as plenty of other landmark objectives, there’s plenty of time to comfortably conquer the world’s Grand Slam Tournaments. Your player’s stats can be improved through training (back to the hellish dictatorship of McEnroe) and equipment can be bought which provides an ability boost. Its the standard career mode set-up that we’ve come to expect from tennis games, however, Grand Slam Tennis 2’s career mode has a number of niggling problems which greatly reduce the overall enjoyment.
First of all, it’s just far too easy. With no difficulty setting to choose from, you’ll find your wannabe champion smash through Grand Slam tournaments with effortless ease. You’ll win the Australian Open ranked higher than 85th in the world, and oddly, when you encounter proper players, you’ll breeze past them as if they were one of the many generic, fake characters. Even more unsettling is the fact you’ll encounter past players, with old attire and racquets in tow. It looks absolutely ridiculously and shatters any sort of illusion that the career mode is meant to be reflective of the annual season. In summary, the career mode is long enough to keep you satisfied, but if you were expecting a realistic, challenging mode, then you won’t find it here.
On Court Beauties
Staring upon Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova is as breathtaking as it is on television in Grand Slam Tennis 2, with beautifully rendered characters and convincing likenesses apparent for all the top pros. Courts are recreated faithfully, though the colour pallet seems slightly off, with the clay courts of Paris lighter than they usually appear. More effort could have gone in to the surrounding environment as the ugly court umpires and ball boys/girls are cheaply rendered. Other than that, its a great looking title though on very rare occasions the frame rate did plummet for a brief second.
Unfortunately, Grand Slam Tennis 2’s sound effects are by far its weakest trait. As previously stated, John McEnroe is a tyrant, however, when partnered with the more likeable Pat Cash as part of the commentary team, the end result is dull as dishwater. It’s obviously difficult to implement commentary in a tennis game due to the fact silence is expected during points, nonetheless, Pat Cash and John McEnroe are a total bore. Before you know it, you’ll have quickly heard every pre-recorded line, none of which is in-keeping with the onscreen action. Slowly, you’ll come to realise that the game is far more enjoyable with the commentary off.
Some of the top players such as Serena Williams, Nadal and Djokovic have their trademark grunts recorded which is a pleasing touch. Though just when you thought things were looking up, the crowd noise is next on the offenders list. Unenthusiastic, unresponsive and mediocre best describes the crowd and like the rarity of the frame rate issue, an error will occur when the crowd noise drops out entirely, ushering in a deadly silence.
Backhand The World
If you decide to try out your forehand online, Grand Slam Tennis 2 delivers a relatively lag-free platform for you to play against online opponents. Matches are extremely fun when played against an human opponent, as is usually the case, as EA’s total racquet control explodes into life. Send your opponent deep, attack the net; smash winners from the baseline, or lure your opponent in with a well-time dropped shot. The annoyances of the AI’s net dominance is gone due to the lob actually suddenly becoming effective. Be warned, that although tennis is a gentleman’s game, you’ll likely encounter your fair share of ‘rage quitters’, angry human beings who will disrupt the match if you begin to control the game due to their inept ability, thus in turn, bursting the bubble of their ludicrous assumption that they are ‘a good player’.