Electronic Arts has a rich history with many sports worldwide, however, Tennis is one that is fairly new to their repertoire. In fact, 2009's initial Grand Slam Tennis for the Wii (all other consoles' versions were rumored, and subsequently shelved) was the first dedicated venture into the tennis market in their nearly 3 decades of existence. A solid first offering with a few party games and gameplay modes, Grand Slam Tennis filled a huge gap on the Wii previously unavailable.
Nearly 3 years later, the second installment of Grand Slam Tennis has made its way to the 360, as EA puts forth its entry into a fairly competitive market for the sport. Top Spin is largely regarded as the "real" tennis game, while Virtua Tennis has done well to capture the casual gamer's market. Where will Grand Slam fit in?
It already has a bit of a licensing bonus over the other games. Whereas you still dont have the ATP and WTA league attachments, you have all 4 majors, including their signature courts. You now can play under the lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, or slide aimlessly from pillar to post at Roland Garros, while your white tennis sneakers change color from the orange hue of the clay courts. Tennis physics are to be fairly authentic as well. Players and shots will react differently to surfaces depending on their skill set and shot style.
If you played the first Grand Slam Tennis, you may be disappointed to find out the roster is exactly the same. Three years later, in an ever changing sports market, in a sport where superstars are born on a yearly basis (though, granted, those superstars stay around for years and years,) Grand Slam Tennis 2 has the exact same roster of licensed players as it did 3 years ago.
Game modes are pretty streamlined. You're looking at exhibition singles and doubles matches, a career mode and training school hosted by John McEnroe. Training school is an absolute riot, and anybody playing through (regardless of how good they think they are) have to play through. McEnroe is top notch as your tennis teacher, offering a bit of praise for your victories, but absolutely berating you for missing shots, or objectives. If you remember being chided while at the driving range in Grand Theft Auto IV, it's very similar and just as funny.
Outside of that, it's straight ahead tennis, which is why I hope you would be purchasing this game. You begin to see very quickly that this is a tennis game aimed at the serious crowd. Rather than the bright cartoony graphic stylings of Virtua Tennis, it's a darker, more sophisticated and mature look, especially courtside. The training exercises are very tennis and aim focused. There aren't really any targets (outside of glowing zones) or objects for you to hit. If you could compare, say, the MLB "The Bigs" series, and the straight MLB one, this game would be the latter.
In the Career mode, you create a tennis player with rough skills and bring him up in the bottom dredges of his (or her) respective tour to play the greats at the 4 major tournaments of the year. You have a limited number of years, and a limited number of objectives. Meeting them result in you receiving points which you can use to unlock new gear for your create a players. Failing obviously pushes you farther down the ladder, and out of contention.
Gameplay mechanics in general aren't bad. The game measures each shot you take, and will score you upon hitting the ball, ranging from "very early" to "very late." In a rather demoralizing turn of events, I was destroying the tennis world from the comfort of my living room, but my timing was terrible. Controls are mapped out in 3 different ways: Standard Arcade button presses, a system where you can play with the bumpers, or through the right stick, which is EA's tennis entry into the Total Control market. I found this mode to be a bit awkward at first, as you're not used to swinging a racket with your thumb. Overall, it's a bit tougher to play with than just buttons, but like the NHL series, a bit of time, and you'll be used to it. I swear by the total stick control in that franchise, and while I'm still not as enthusiastic about this game's version, it's probably just my inability to accept change more than anything.
Sitting in the broadcast booth are tennis legends Patrick Cash and John McEnroe. These two talented color commentators are joined by...nobody on Play by Play. I'd assumed that with the two of them in the booth, one would likely take the lead. Unfortunately, it seems like both play the role of color commentator, throwing in very good insight, but providing little in the way of play by play. Don't get me wrong -- I couldn't ask for two better and more knowledgeable color commentators in this game, however, they don't have the neutral voice to pace the action in between.
Something I know EA prides itself on, and something I take them to task for regularly in my reviews is their attention to detail. Grand Slam does a great job with some details. Create a Player is just as good, if not better than all the other games of its time. The angle of shots and their timing is fantastic. Tennis outfits, animations and reactions to surface play is all great. I'm a big fan of the on-court play, and the fact that dust naturally kicks up and floats around players' feet on dirty surfaces. The ball reacts differently to a strong serve on a hard court than a grass court. Every little gameplay mechanic like that feeds into the idea that EA wants to create the most complete and authentic tennis experience possible. I do, however, take a bit of exception to the fact that in a game where there are only 23 roster players, only 8 of them have their shot style and play. Novak Djokovic, for example, hits shots with the wrong stance, and wrong stroke.
You'll begin to see after a couple hours of playing Grand Slam Tennis that this game just doesn't have a very complete feel, and comes off more like a work in progress than anything. It has the stylings of a great tennis game, however, it is the first building block. The competitors are well established franchises, who have had the opportunity to build on their mistakes. With little to offer outside of tennis and training, a limited roster that needs a huge boost of DLC to round out, and nice graphics, Grand Slam Tennis 2 is the first of what could be great steps forward in tennis video gaming. It just isn't there yet.
Let's look at the final ratings and how they break down.
Graphics: 8.5. Credit where credit is due. The graphics in this game look good. Players move fluidly around the court, and look exactly as they should. Pat Cash has his signature headbands, and Chris Evert's hair has the always matching scrunchie. In going with the realistic approach, this game's graphics are better than most, and are the least of EA's worries going into the sequel.
Sound: 6/10. I guess scattered play by play commentary is better than no play by play. Pat Cash and John McEnroe are very insightful color commentators, however, are left without somebody to pace them. Essentially, all you're receiving are random snippets of color commentary spliced into the silence. It seems like McEnroe will be providing play by play from the get go, but it is Cash whose voice is heard most often, though not enough. You're left with what seems to be in incomplete commentary track. Music in the game is what you can expect out of a tennis game: Energetic yet nonabrasive European techno music which you hear out of most similar games. In-game sounds are a bit over-the-top, where it sounds like almost every tennis ball is being shot at a hollow metal drum, however, they do well to capture player emotions down on the court, one thing that adds an element of authenticity to the roster.
Controls: 7/10. Controls are versatile if nothing else. If you don't like one way the controls are, you can switch to any number of control types on the fly since they are all mapped out at once. I found the Total Racquet Control feature to be difficult to get into, though it will probably be a blessing for hardcore tennis fans. One thing to keep in mind with the way EA does their gaming control schemes nowadays is that you cannot "store" or "wind up" your controls. Whereas a game like Virtua Tennis allows you to hold onto your control as you approach the shot and gives you a margin of error to work with, Grand Slam Tennis provides no such buffer. If you begin your shot too early and begin to control your player toward it, he/she may not even move out of place, and the ball will fly by. That may take a bit of getting used to. Short of that, the timing system is a great idea, and should help eager gamers begin to learn ideal times to hit and return the ball.
Gameplay: 6/10. It's a good start, but something is lacking. Strip away the glitz and glamour, and you're left with what this game truly is: A very rigid tennis experience with flexible controls, but few gameplay options, a small roster, and no Kinect support. The tennis game itself is very straight forward. You're either learning how to play the game, or you're playing it. There aren't any mini games where you're chasing pineapples, whipping 40 foot tennis balls into bowling pins, or feeding tennis ball shaped steaks to approaching lions. It's nice to be able to play on licensed courts, but outside of the ground composition, and the way the ball reacts to it, there isn't much else that offers distinction.
There isn't much in the way of special presentation, so I will skip that score and go to the end.
Overall, this is a good tennis game. It's not a great one, and while it's certainly not the best, it definitely isn't the worst (you can't get much worse than Top Spin 2.) I would recommend it to somebody who craves a proper tennis experience without being an over the top comedic look like Virtua Tennis, and is sick of the Top Spin series. Otherwise, casual gamers looking for that fun sports title to play with their friends for hours should pass. Give EA another year or two to work this one out. It needs to jump in on the Kinect bandwagon, and bring with it a better roster, which is probably the most inexcusable thing about the game. At the time of release, it was missing 8 of the top 10 women's tennis players in the world, and 5 of the top 5 men. I can understand that development of these games take time, but no Caroline Wozniacki? She's been in and out of the top 5 in the world for the last 3 years. A good go by EA Sports, but it needs a bit more before it's considered a contender.
Suggestions: Suggestions: A larger roster with more legends and current names. A lot more "fun" things to do. Keep Pat Cash and Mac in the broadcast booth, but get them a play by play commentator to pace the energy of rallies, and build a sense of excitement, or at the very least, have better crowd interactivity. I can see Grand Slam is attempting for authenticity, and it's true that very few tennis play by play men or women will speak during rallies. However, the crowd usually does the job of building excitement otherwise. This is still a video game, however, and, without a stable commentary track, or decisive crowd noise, there isn't much left to build excitement.