The annals of professional tennis history are filled with phenomenal runs, great breaks and both surprise and dominant victories. However, up until now, those storied events have only been able to be witnessed through recorded video footage, witness reports or documented text. Though each event will always live on through those means, EA Canada has decided to bring some of those storied match-ups back in playable form. The result is Grand Slam Tennis 2, a sport simulation experience that features a powerful roster of current superstars alongside some of their heroes from the past. Fans’ dreams can now be made true through interactive means.
Combining 12 current-day pros with 11 familiar faces from yesteryear, Grand Slam Tennis 2 is a sequel to a game which ended up being a Wii exclusive. The plan was to create high-definition console versions, but that didn’t end up happening. Instead, the development team behind the series placed its focus on creating an updated experience for those devices. Out of that decision, this game was born. Now, the important thing is to decide whether it was worth the wait for armchair tennis fans. The answer is a definite yes, but there are areas where the court could use a little touch-up.
Earlier this generation, the folks at EA Canada revitalized their NHL hockey franchise, creating an incredible control system known as the Skill Stick. It allows for the player’s stick to be controlled using the controller’s right joystick, providing the opportunity to deke, dangle and shoot like the superstars do. It controls very well and has received quite a few accolades. As a result, the team behind this title decided to adopt a similar system known as Total Racquet Control. With this mechanic in play, different types of shots can be directionally employed through various types of joystick based gestures and button input tweaks. You will notice that the game feels more fluid and a tad more realistic because of this change, although I personally found that the standard shot button/left joystick combination was more precise and easier to use. Though, in all honesty, the stick controls were more fun in the long run, especially when it came to serving.
Serving is quite simple, but requires a bit of practice to perfect. In order to toss the ball up into the air, the right stick must be moved to a downward position. After that, a meter will pop up on the side of the court that is opposite to your utilized player’s location. Depending on the power involved, the graph-like meter will fluctuate in size, creating a hill of sorts. Despite their differences, the dominant mechanic remains the same for all types of serves. In order to get the best out of each attempt, it’s imperative to flick upwards (in a specific direction helps) as soon as a scrolling line meets the mid point of the hill. Mastering this design can allow for some pretty ruthless serves and quite a few aces.
Former American superstar and current broadcast announcer, John McEnroe, is a major part of this overall experience. Not only is he a playable character and one half of the Grand Slam Tennis 2 commentary duo; he’s also the Tennis School tutorial teacher. In that digital practice facility, the opportunity to test out the new Total Racquet Control system presents itself, through around fifteen different drills. They teach you how to serve, hit, volley and aim. The focus is really on the latter aspect, in order to make sure that shots will drop where they’re supposed to. Due to this emphasis, each tutorial asks players to hit or break specific targets. Using the stick made completing each task more difficult, so I ended up resorting to the standard button system, despite using the new controls for most of my matches. It’s fluid and more fun, but is challenging to get the hang of when shots are completed using different flicks. Being yelled at by the coach also became annoying.
From the start, players have three single player game options to work their way through. The first one is just your average free play mode, allowing for dream match-ups to be created between anyone on the roster and/or a created player. It doesn’t need much more explanation than that, as any sports gamer knows to expect that opportunity. However, the real meat of the experience lies within the next two modes: Career and ESPN Classic Matches. Each one has its own focus, providing a chance to either be the hero of the current day tennis regime, or someone who’s taken the time to dive into sporting lore.
Starting a new Career means creating a player, using EA Sports‘ patented character creation system, which features the option to share designed prospects with the community. This time around, we’re not given as many choices as a game like NHL 12 provides, though that’s not to say the creation suite isn’t a solid one. You’re able to tweak the size, positioning, colour and style of certain facial features, while choosing the type of body the player possesses. It would have been nice if more hairstyle options were made available, but that’s not something that mars the game by any means. It’s easy to overlook that, as the listed types are of decent quality. Most of the fun comes in choosing real-life players’ animations to use for each situation, allowing for the development of a rather unique collaboration.
After taking the time to create a stud, the world of professional tennis becomes available. The strange thing is that you’re dumped right into the fray, instead of having to prove your worth in any sort of amateur league. The first action available is pre-tournament play prior to the Australian Open. There, good results can change your rank from 100 to somewhere in the 80s. It’s a great opportunity to get used to how the game’s mechanics work before entering into one of the sport’s major tournaments.
Over the course of your ten year-long professional career, each of the four Grand Slam tournaments will present themselves as an exciting opportunity to compete against the best the world has to offer. In-between those events, it’s important to take advantage of practice tournaments and exhibition matches against rivals, where new equipment can be unlocked for statistical bonuses. You can also choose to train in different areas, although that option doesn’t present anything unique or interesting. It’s essentially just the Tennis School tutorial system all over again, lacking the in-depth experience that some of EA‘s other sports games provide.
The problem with the employed Career mode design is that there’s just not enough to it. You have a few very basic options and that’s about it. There happens to be a lack of creativity in a mode that feels too septic. Sure, being able to take a rising pro from a very low rank to number one is a neat challenge, and a daunting one at that, but it needed more to fully flesh out the experience. What’s there works relatively well though, providing a decent campaign. After all, it’s fun to go head-to-head against some of the best players in the world for bragging rights, even if it’s only on a digitally modeled court.
One strange thing about that mode is how the difficulty works. In my first year, I had a rating of 37, which is about 50 points below the cream of the crop. Though, despite that glaring statistical deficiency, a Rocky mentality set in and all four of the Grand Slam titles became mine with relative ease. Now, I know what you’re thinking; the difficulty was set to something low like amateur. You’d be correct in thinking that, because I had set it to that to test out the game and my personal skills. However, unlike with other sports games, the difficulty option was only available in the main menu. It also seemed like the challenge level was progressively ramping up from year one to year two. For example, the first Australian Open victory was incredibly easy to attain, while my second go around against some of the same players was quite tough. That difficulty change was rather jarring and weird, in addition to being unsuspected so early on.
The folks at ESPN have a major role in this experience, sponsoring in-game replays and providing the ESPN Classic Matches mode for us to enjoy. Essentially, it’s the type of scenario mode that we’ve seen before in other sports games. However, from a presentation standpoint, things are definitely better with this iteration. When you go to play one of several amazing tennis events from the 1980s into the 2000s, everything is set up by the announcer. It’s a nice touch which goes a long way, especially for newcomers to the sport. Being able to put your own touch on historical successes is also a treat, with so many neat experiences on offer.
Classic Matches mode is designed with a points system in mind. In order to progress backwards in time from our last decade to the colourful 1980s, players must earn a certain amount of points for fulfilling objectives, in addition to winning said scenario. These goals are also present in the aforementioned Career mode, with varied shot victories being a prime example of a category. Once enough points are totaled, the next set unlocks. It’s a design that works quite well, because most tennis fans will be willing to work their way through more recent experiences to get to the classics. Then, once all of that is completed, there are fantasy matches to enjoy.
In addition to all of the single player content, two online modes, leaderboards and a lobby system are available for those who’d like to take their digital sporting online. Head-to-Head matches are your standard one-off competition type in either single or doubles, but tennis’ great ranking system comes into play. The ticker at the bottom of the screen, where EA usually lists day old scores from professional sports leagues, is also used to say which player beat his competition. There, players’ leaderboard ranks are showcased with the hope that a David versus Goliath scenario will unfold.
Facing other users is definitely a ramp up from the computer, which can be challenging at times and somewhat easy during others. For that reason, a lot of folks will prefer trying their hand against the best that Xbox LIVE and PSN have to offer. Granted, the servers aren’t as busy as they are in other sports games that I’ve played. Though, perhaps it was due to timing, since most of the tags on the leaderboards happened to be from the UK.
Last, but not least, is the Online Tournament mode. That happens to be where players can battle it out in the hope of winning a coveted trophy and its associated bragging rights. Essentially, this option is just ranked matches played out in a winner moves on scenario. It’s a good idea and is something that could become quite popular if enough people check it out. The fun factor will, of course, depend on how much traffic it receives.
While there are some issues to be found, the gameplay found on the Grand Slam Tennis 2 disc happens to be very fluid, with entertaining rallies and polished content. It’s an impressively detailed and well-presented version of the sport, where modern day meets the past. Plus, there are the previously-mentioned animations to fawn over. Each roster player has his or her own unique traits and play styles. Of course, that list is relatively small. It’s too bad that there weren’t more players added, such as Milos Raonic, but it usually comes down to licensing and competitors’ exclusivity deals. We do get some big names though, including: Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Evert, Borg, and Henin.
Visually speaking, Grand Slam Tennis 2 is a high quality serve. The overall design is very clean, with character models that employ great amounts of detail. It’s easy to tell which era some of the legends were captured from, considering their attire and designs were taken from their career plateaus. On top of all of this, tennis gurus will find some important licensed courts (such as Arthur Ashe Stadium,) which all look great. Colours pop, surfaces wear down and little details like radar and score boards are included (although the radar gun seemed off by two kilometers each time.) Every part of its visual design is of impressive quality, presenting an experience that is as clean as it is detailed. Next time, it would be nice to see varied camera angles and close-ups showing wear on the players, but there’s a really good visual core here. Partnering with ESPN definitely helped to create that important television quality experience.
As mentioned previously, John McEnroe is a major part of this digital match. He joins Pat Cash to create a solid and knowledgeable announcing duo. Their insight is interesting and it’s nice that different introductions were recorded, in order to show some personality. However, repetition becomes a major factor early on, as the same lines of analysis are used over and over again. It seemed like every match would feature several identical lines, so it’s too bad that more weren’t recorded and stitched in. The interesting duo’s analysis unfortunately becomes annoying as a result, and it’s shame. The court action sound effects are also of good quality, with some grunts to be found.
It’s been a few years since the gaming community last heard from the Grand Slam Tennis franchise, and it’s nice to see a version for the high-definition consoles. It would have been nice if more content was added and the experience was a tad less septic as a whole, but those things can be worked on for the series’ next outing. While it’s not an ace just yet, Grand Slam Tennis 2 is a very solid effort.
This review is based on a copy of the game that we received for review purposes.
Longtime tennis fans will be pleased with what is a very polished and accurate representation of a formulaic and strategical sport.