In 2009, I was one of the first purchasers of the then new and innovative Grand Slam Tennis title from EA Sports. It was only being released on the Wii, and at that time, Wii Motion Plus was just being released. As a fan, player, and lover of the game of tennis, I was excited to jump into the experience with my new and improved Wii Remote. In short, the game was a lot of fun. It wasn’t a blockbuster, but it was entertaining to play, and the motion controls were a big step forward at the time.
Fast-forward to present day and EA Sports has just released the second iteration of the series, this time with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 getting some love. As the first title was heavily focused on cartoony graphics and motion control, I was skeptical as to how this game would translate to a standard controller and a more powerful machine. Well, EA Sports has put together an entertaining game here. It won’t be in the running for sports game of the year, but for tennis games, it’s certainly a great addition to the library.
One of the strengths of most EA Sports games is the licensing power the publisher holds. This game is no exception. Packaged up here are 23 players, past and present, which is very standard these days. You’ll have tennis staples like Federer, Nadal, Williams, and Sharapova, and you’ll also have Sampras and McEnroe as well. It’s not just the players, however, that reflect the fully-licensed package. Apart from full ESPN licensing, which is used for broadcast presentation, replays, and menus, the four Grand Slams are also represented using their actual names, and several official courts for each as well. So instead of playing the “Down Under Tournament,” you’ll be playing the actual Australian Open, complete with Arthur Ashe Stadium titling for the big matches. This is true for the French Open, US Open, and Wimbledon as well, and it makes for a great experience, playing on the like-named courts we all watch on TV.
Once you’ve hopped into the game, the presentation is a mixed bag. The design is excellent, with players and courts, past and present, sprinkled about, but the menus are a bit cumbersome. One major issue that plagues the experience from time to time is the load time. It’s tough to nitpick, as it does not happen all of the time, but every third or fourth screen change, it will take a frustratingly long time to move on. Couple this with the relatively long load time before matches and other game sessions, and it can be a bit off-putting. It’s far from a deal-breaker more of an annoyance.
Once you’re looking at the game in motion, you certainly can tell that this is the same Grand Slam Tennis series that was on the Wii in 2009. It’s not nearly as cartoon-looking, but there still is a hint of flare in the design that suggests that 1:1 realism wasn’t necessarily the goal. The result is a look that is distinctive, and it gets the job done. The highlight of the visuals is the extent to which the players move and act like their real-life counterparts. You’ll recognize individual serves, backhands, and motions of all of the stars. Movement can be a bit choppy when outside of the canned animations, but otherwise is smooth and as believable as I’ve seen in a tennis game. Lighting and shadows dance on the court, and the contrast in stadiums is awesome to see. In the first round of Wimbledon, you might be on an outside court with torn-up grass and a fence separating you from the sidewalk, with 20-30 fans in the bleachers. Get to the final, however, and a packed house in Centre Court is a blast.
The sound is great, for the most part. Effects such as feet sliding and rackets striking the ball are fairly standard, and chair umpires provide their monotone scoring in the appropriate languages and accents. The commentary is a difficult aspect to explain, because it is both the best and worst part of the game. John McEnroe and Pat Cash sound absolutely fantastic calling the match. They make appropriate and timely comments, many of which are entertaining and witty. It’s just great until about the third match you play, which is when you’ll realize that they are beginning to repeat themselves a LOT. I mean, I was going to cut my ears off if I heard Johnny Mac give his 15-second overview of why it’s important to hit the ball deep. Unfortunately, as good as the commentary is in doses, I found myself looking for the on/off setting after about 5-6 matches.
So how does Grand Slam Tennis 2 play on the current-gen console? The short answer is that it’s decent. There certainly is fun to be had here, but if you are a dedicated fan of one of the other two big players (Top Spin and Virtua Tennis), this game probably won’t be the one to pull you away. Gameplay is tight and engaging, but feels a bit like it’s stuck in between arcade play and a simulation. On the one hand, there are no power-ups, crazy gimmicks, or other tricks that would place it in the arcade category, but on the other hand, there is not much technical prowess or exact motion required for success. The game is won by getting to the net. It’s that simple. If you can get even the slightest of angles on an opponent and then follow in an approach shot, you’ve won.
This is mostly because you will hardly ever miss a shot. You don’t have to time the directional aspect of the shot, or the depth. If I want to put a shot crosscourt to the left, I simply hold left, all the way, from the beginning to the end of the shot. Over the course of my time with the game, I would say that, on average, I missed maybe 1-2 shots per match (perhaps one long, one volley in the net, for example). While it’s nice to have success, a tennis game is a much more rewarding experience when there is a risk factor when going for angles namely, at least some remote possibility of missing.
There are two control options in Grand Slam Tennis 2. The first is called Total Racquet Control, and as you can probably guess, it uses the two analog sticks almost exclusively. The left stick controls movement and aiming, while the right stick controls your swings. Shots are loaded up by holding up and pushing down for a slice, holding down and pushing up for a top-spin shot, and pushing up and releasing for a flat shot. Timing is such that the second movement should be executed just before the point of contact for maximum power. The longer you’re able to load up, coupled with optimal timing, will make for the best shot possible. For drop shots and lobs, the same is true, but with the one of the two shoulder buttons held. Purists will most likely insist on using the Total Racquet Control system, but after trying for a few hours to get into it, I simply could not. I’m not claiming that the system is bad I just could not get into it. Then again, I prefer the face buttons to the sticks in games like Fight Night as well, so to each his own.
That said, I opted for the traditional face button setup, and I was much more comfortable. The four main face buttons will allow you to load up and release flat, slice, or top-spin shots, with drop shots and lobs working the same way as mentioned above. Once you arrive at the location of the upcoming shot, you can begin to hold both the chosen swing button and the direction of your shot, releasing just before contact for optimal power. The best part about the game mechanics, in my opinion, is that it truly rewards getting to your shot early and preparing. This means that there is a premium on reaction time when the ball is hit to you, and if you guess right, or get there early, you can really take advantage these are the most satisfying parts of the game. It should be noted, too, that drop shots and lobs are next to useless in this game.
In terms of things to do, you’ve got your standard lineup, with one notable addition. Exhibition, Tournament, Online, and Career modes are all here once again. Exhibition matches allow you to jump into a match as any player, against any player, at whatever venue, and with whatever settings you wish. Tournament play is essentially the same thing, but in a bracket setting. Online play is actually quite enjoyable, as EA has introduced a mode call Grand Slam Corner, in which you’ll play Grand Slam tournaments in an effort to defeat a standing champion at each, and then hold the position. Secondly, Battle of the Nations essentially keeps track of overall country scores, which adds a nice dynamic of national pride to the mix. Of course, you can jump into an online single or doubles match at any time. Career mode is very much what you’ve come to expect, and does not require much explanation. You’ll create a player, and for each Grand Slam event, you’ll play exhibition matches, execute training sessions to raise your attributes, play warm-up tournaments, and try your luck in the big dance before moving on the next venue. Of course, all the while you’ll be tricking out your player in the latest garb and equipment.
New this year is ESPN Grand Slam Classics. In this mode, you’ll unlock many of the famous matches from Grand Slam lore, dating back to the mid 1900s. It’s a blast to play in these well-remembered duels with players like Sampras, McEnroe, Borg, and the like. Winning these matches and unlocking all of them is perhaps the most addicting portion of this entire game. It’s a great distraction from the standard offerings, and raises the overall value of the game significantly.
While Grand Slam Tennis 2 is not a Game of the Year candidate, it’s certainly a very good game of virtual tennis, and a great value especially at $49.99 - $10 cheaper than your average retail sports game. It’s not without its frustrations, and it’s not a technical masterpiece, but the online modes, smooth career offering, and ESPN classic matches will give you plenty to do. For a fan of tennis games, if you’re looking to scratch the itch of swinging the old racket, I can certainly recommend this one to you.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of Grand Slam Tennis 2 provided by Electronic Arts.