Grand Slam Tennis 2 Review

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Game, set and match…

Fans of tennis games that are controlled with a pad have had to wait some time to play EA’s take on the racket based sport. Grand Slam Tennis 2 is a sequel to 2009’s Wii exclusive Grand Slam Tennis and EA’s second attempt at a tennis title, except this time the publisher is forgoing Nintendo’s motion based console in favour of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 releases.

A “next-gen” version had been planned back in 2009, but the developers inability to implement what we now know as ‘Total Racquet Control’ delayed development for some time. Almost three years later we have Grand Slam Tennis 2, it’s time to see if EA have smashed it with an ace or sent a double fault limply into the net.

Game: Grand Slam Tennis 2
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Reviewed on:

GRAPHICS

From a visual perspective things have obviously changed since the Wii iteration, but perhaps not as much as you think. The cartoony look which certainly suited the Wii is out, and replaced by realistic visuals that we have come to expect from this generation’s EA Sports titles. Whilst the game certainly has a more mature look, the vibrant colours which accompanied the Wii title have remained, and so they should. Tennis is a vibrant sport with colours ranging from the lush blue of the US Open’s Flushing Meadows courts the grassy greens at Wimbledon. Players play their part too, with Nike, Adidas, and Head gear donned by the stars certainly looking as exactly as you’d expect. The gear on offer is quite extensive, allowing players to experiment with many colours to achieve that pro tennis look.

The players themselves have a generally good likeness, some fair better than others with more attention clearly paid to top dogs such as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The four officially licensed Grand Slam venues look great with a number of courts available at each event to add more authenticity to the experience. It is really nice to see the smaller courts in the early rounds building up to the bigger grand stands in the finals.

EA sports titles are all about the TV experience and Grand Slam Tennis 2 is no exception. ESPN have been drafted in to display logos between points and during replays.

Animations are bit of a mixed bag, in general they are good with a variety of styles employed to cover a number of scenarios. Nadal returns with all the intensity and spin we have come to expect from his real life counterpart, whilst Roger Federer twiddles his racket between around whilst waiting to receive serve. On the other hand, sometimes animations can look a little off when players interact with the ball. The point at which racket comes touches ball, animations lose some fluidity and, with it, a sense of realism. This uneasy transition is confounded by the fact that some animations do not reflect the type of shot performed. Double-hand backhand animations are re-used for both top spin and slice shots when each action should certainly use an independent set of motions.

SOUND

Sound effects are generally good with realistic footsteps, grunts, and ball on racket sounds. Pat Cash and John McEnroe are back in the commentary seats to call the play-by-play action and initially are very good. Cash will comment on your shot, but all too often he will ask McEnroe a question relating to what you have just done on court. Hit shots deep consistently and Cash will ask what the pros and cons of hitting deep are. To be fair, McEnroe always has a good answer, but it is the same answer every time and it is played out way too often. Still, there is no questioning the quality of the commentary on offer, it is quite superb, but the quantity is clearly lacking.

GAMEPLAY

Tennis games as a whole have never really nailed the gameplay side of things with a narrow spectrum available. On one hand we have the very arcady Virtua Tennis which is long past its best, on the other we have Top Spin which is fairing better with more of a simulation feel but has never really captured the true feel of tennis.

The original Grand Slam Tennis was certainly a mixed bag with its cutesy look and ease of play, yet the 1-to-1 motion controls offered something different, they added a good deal of simulation which only excited the hardcore.

Unfortunately, in the case of Grand Slam Tennis 2 there is little to initially excite the hardcore. There are three control systems available which can all be used to achieve the same over all effect, all be it with varying degree’s of success.

Performing shots is all about movement, timing, and direction. Players will do well to get into position early, wind up a shot and place it well over the net. It all sounds rather good but too much of the process is automated. You can move and charge your shot whilst moving but the AI will lock you into place once you are in an optimal position removing an element of skill. Another element of skill is removed when placing shots, hitting the ball out is almost impossible. Even at the best of times tennis pro’s will hit a shot wide, even when they have good time and position on the court, they are known as unforced errors but even hitting a forced error in GST2 is like breaking Andy Roddicks service game. Pressure, bade placement and poor timing is not enough in most cases to hit the ball out of play, occasionally shots will hit the net to remind us that the stringy weave has some purpose, however little it may be. Timing appears to be a skillful players saving grace, a well timed shot will generally carry more power and place deeper into the oppositions side of the court and is vital to getting the upper hand.

Serving which was a relatively big criticism of the original Grand Slam Tennis has redeemed itself with a neat little system that takes into account the controlled player’s serving attributes. Service requires some placement and good timing, bad timing and/or direction will actually cause a serve to miss the mark by some way which makes us wonder why ground strokes are for the most part, denied the opportunity to venture to outside the lines.

The “Pro AI” which has been eagerly touted by EA is not so pro. At the higher dificulty levels AI opponents will rush the net in a bid to pile the pressure on. Once at the net it is seemingly impossible to hit a passing shot, whilst well executed lobs will be recovered with ease and followed up with another charge into the net. The only way to counter the AI is to move into the net before them and gain a commanding position. Serve and volley, chip and charge, net play in general was once a staple of tennis but these days the baseline dominates so it comes not as much as a surprise but dissapointment that these old fashioned tactics are grossly over used and required by the player to succeed.

The excessive use of net play is the knock on effect of the low skill ceiling created by the inability to hit the ball out. If the AI and player sat back at the baseline they could be there for hours pinging the ball back and forth, even the slower players seem to move at super speed and they probably need to, with shots hitting close to the line almost every attempt.

Things were not always this way, I loaded up the original GST on the day of writing this review and managed to hit 4 shots out in a row. My court position, shot timing, and aim were poor and deserved nothing less than failure.

You can come to terms with the gameplay using a total of three control methods. Motion controls are once again in place, albeit this time with the PlayStation Move. The somewhat impressive ‘total racquet controls’ are performed with the flick of the right analog stick and (if you are boring you can also use the face buttons plus the left analog stick.

Motion controls have been around in tennis games at least since the launch of the Nintendo Wii with Wii Tennis which isn’t the greatest game, but certainly garnered a lot of attention at the time. SEGA’s implementation has been a little mixed, their Wii games have been poor whilst Virtua Tennis 4 on the PlayStation 3 was interesting yet disappointing, as motion controls were clearly tacked on. Top Spin 4 is a great tennis game, but once again Move controls were tacked on with swings merely emulating button presses. Then we have the original Grand Slam Tennis, it was one of the first titles to support the Wii Motion Plus and it used the new tech very well. 1-to-1 controls were touted with slight twists of the motion controller represented on screen with players turning their wrist.

Now with Grand Slam Tennis 2 for the PlayStation 3, not only is the console more powerful, but the Move is clearly more accurate. Surely we would get a much better game? Wrong. A quick browse on the Grand Slam Tennis forums will reveal a number of Wii owners that went and purchased a PlayStation 3 plus Move to play what they thought would be a cracking tennis game. Unfortunately, they only met bitter disappointment, as motion controls are no longer 1-to-1 and are somewhat broken if you are looking to sustain more than a few shots over the net.  Performing powerful shots requires some draw back time which is understandable, what is not so easy to comprehend is the fact that you need to draw your racket back far too early, in some cases before your opponent has even unleashed a shot. We tested in practice mode and drawing back after the ball was on its way over the net caused the AI to take over and hit shots too early for us. We would literally be in a draw back position and our on-screen counter part would hit shots (too early) back. Drawing back before a shot was on its way would be fine, we had total control but that’s fine in practice, in a game you tend to wait to see where the fuzzy yellow thing is going before deciding whether to wind up a forehand or backhand.

Whilst the motion controls are for the most part, disappointing, the service action is superb. Timing a serve is much easier with the PlayStation Move, with power reflected in how quick the motion controller is thrust forward in its service action.

Thankfully a new control method contender has risen, ‘Total Racquet Control’ which is performed with the right analogue stick is rather clever as it separates player movement and shot swings making each independent of one another. The old school method of using the left stick to run and aim shots created a conflict of interest, you would be running to the right side of the court to meet a ball and would have to quickly change to the left if you wished to hit the ball back across court. The whole system was awkward but we accepted it, with Total Racquet Control it is very easy to run full pelt in one direction and line-up a shot in another.

A flick forward performs a flat shot, flick back to hit a slice, and hold the stick back then flick forward for top spin. It is all rather good an intuitive, it also opens up the opportunity for ‘manual’ controls which we have seen implemented in FIFA for some years now. EA have declined that opportunity for now, but with this intuitive control scheme the door is wide open.

Once you have come to terms with the general gameplay and chosen a control method you will certainly look to delve into the game modes on offer, which there are a decent amount of. Exhibition matches, training modes, a 10 season career mode, ESPN classics and online match-ups are all on offer.

Exhibition is your standard fair whilst the practice court  and the accompanying ball machine are back. Practice mode now informs you of how hard a shot has been hit ensuring practice makes perfect and a Tennis school featuring John McEnroe is in place to take you through a number of training challenges that aim to improve all aspects of your tennis game. The Tennis School is actually one of the more challenging modes with a limited number of attempts available and McEnroe hurling abuse at every missed shot.

The 10 season career mode is your standard fair of creating your very own tennis star with a number of customization’s and sending them into the tennis fray against the best in the world. A typical season consists of the four grand slam events, plus a warm up event for each of the tournaments. Players can grab a few extra skill points by completing training challenges and taking part in exhibition matches against rivals.

When you start the career your created character has very low stats, somewhere in the region of 30-40 points in each skill area, whilst the best players typically have a mixture of 80-90 stat points across the board. It may come as a surprise then when you enter your first season and crush every opponent, including top stars such as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. The career mode difficulty cannot be altered, instead each season gets harder with the difficulty setting automatically going up year-on-year until reaching a plateau at year five. We can certainly see why EA have done this, tennis career modes generally start off hard with created characters looking to earn some vital skill points and become much easier when that star has garnered enough points to compete. In the case of Grand Slam Tennis 2 we see a more traditional difficulty curve, but surely EA could have created a better rationale, such as playing in tournaments other than the grand slams or perhaps starting the created player’s career as a junior rising up to senior level. Career mode does seem a little thread bare, but it is the only tennis career mode to officially feature the four grand slams and certainly looks the part.

The ESPN Classics mode aims to re-create some of the best match-ups of all time, putting you in the shoes of players such as John McEnroe and Andy Murray in career defining situations. Scenarios span more than four decades, with a number of fantasy match-ups created to pit the best of yesteryear, against the stars of today.

To cap things off we have online play which offers singles and doubles Exhibition matches plus  Tournament and Grand Slam Corner modes. The latter two are somewhat redundant with respect to the fact that no one can be found playing them, even finding a doubles match can be a challenge so it is probably best to stick to the quick search ranked matches. There is no lock when it comes to control schemes, purists that wish to use the challenging motion controls will find themselves up against DualShock 3 users which is another disappointment in the Move camp.

If you are looking to pick the game up second hand then there is no need to worry about the online pass. Passes had been included with retail copies, but a mix up with codes has forced EA’s hand and the codes are no longer required for online play.

LONGEVITY

Out of the box there is an expected amount on offer. The 10 season career mode can likely be completed in one very long play session but should last the average gamer a week or two. ESPN Classic match-ups are pretty good and there are a fair few to keep you entertained but as with most sports titles, the real longevity can be found in multiplayer modes such as the ones found online. Grand Slam Tennis 2 certainly has a following and an online community but is rather small when you compare it to the likes of FIFA. If you are looking to play the online tournaments or even be matched up to players of a certain control type then you are out of luck. If you are happy to consistently play ranked singles matches then you Grand Slam Tennis 2 could be a tennis experience the lasts at least a few months and maybe until the next big tennis release.

VERDICT

Grand Slam Tennis 2 is a re-launch of EA’s take on the tennis game. On the face of it, this is a solid start for EA on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. However, it’s a disappointment that the developer that created such a fantastic Wii title have failed to bring the best parts through to this 2012 release.

Grand Slam Tennis 2 is certainly a fun game to play, the Total Racquet Controls are a bit of a revelation and should certainly be implemented in future tennis titles. Not only are they fun and intuitive, they open up the possibility of an increased player control experience where true skill can shine. Grand Slam Tennis 2 is a nice try and a good basis for EA to work off, but ultimately they could and should do better.

7/10

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