Grand Slam Tennis is EA Sports’ first foray into the Tennis genre, releasing first on the Wii, with PS3 and Xbox 360 versions promised for later in the year. Even before the Wii was launched, the potential for the Wii-mote to provide immersion and a deep sense of realism in a tennis game had been recognised. And while Wii Sports tennis was fun, and still is, it always left players wanting just a little more depth in gameplay given the potential of the control system. Has EA served up an ace? Or have them stumbled into an embarrassing foot fault with the first game in this new franchise?
Grand Slam Tennis does what you would expect of a tennis franchise serious about sales success and enlists the licenses of tennis stars of the current as well as past eras (eg. Federer, Nadal, McEnroe, and Boris Becker). You can play as or against them, or create your own player, but sadly there is no Mii support. One of the most endearing features of Wii Sports tennis was the Mii implementation. You played as a caricature of your yourself, with and against caricatures of your friends and family, being watched on the sidelines by, well, caricatures of your friends and family. Hilarity was assured as you watched your character diving around the court, celebrating winners, and cursing misguided shots. Miis would obviously decrease the supposed "realism" of this game, but given that this is a Wii title, it is hardly going to push the graphical boundaries of true-life anyway. The licensed Pros are, after all, cartoon representations in this game as opposed to the life-like character models I would expect to see in the yet to be released PS3/360 versions.
Grand Slam Tennis is one of the first games to support the Wii MotionPlus accessory, and is available to purchase together in a bundle. MotionPlus is not required however, and the game is also available standalone. Without MotionPlus, the game plays almost identically to Wii Sports. In both games "timing is aiming", as the fill-in screens during loading explain to you, and you will find that these tips are the only advice the game will give you since there is no tutorial mode. Of course Wii Sports doesn’t have a tutorial either, but then Grand Slam Tennis does add additional controls and it would have been nice to tell you about these in an optional tutorial.
Swing your arm with "good" timing and you will hit the ball directly down the court in front of you. Swing "early" and a right-handed player will hit the ball to the left – the earlier the shot is hit, the further to the left the ball will travel. Too early and the ball will land out of court. A "late" swing directs the ball rightwards in the same fashion. That is where the overlap with Wii Sports tennis ends. Grand Slam Tennis adds additional control options, starting off with the how you actually make your swing. Swing through in a flat horizontal plane, and you’ll hit a "flat" shot. Swing instead from "low to high" as you follow through, and this will add topspin. Swing from "high to low" and you’ll pull off a slice. Pressing up or down on the D-pad toggles your court position between baseline and the net, and you can hit drop and lob shots, by holding down B or A while you make your swing.
The addition of the MotionPlus attachment makes aiming shots far easier than trying to work out the correct timing for hitting the ball at a particular angle. With the new accessory, you now simply have to swing your arm towards the direction you want the ball to travel. Swing through to your left and the ball goes left. Right for right, and straight through for straight. The more exaggerated the directional swing, the further the ball travels wide, so it takes practice to stop the ball landing out of the court. MotionPlus also allows you to twist your wrist for topspin or slice, but I had trouble pulling this off consistently so used the swing mechanism described above to add spin more reliably. As already mentioned, there is no tutorial mode so you will have to get used to the new controls by self-training on the practice courts. Thankfully you receive instant feedback here on how the game has interpreted your motion control input, so you can adjust your swing and ensure that the game has a good read on you.
So having explained all the technical aspects of the swing, how does the game play? Remarkably well in fact. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the basic controls, you’ll be able to jump straight into a "Play Now" match, or even jump online and play against a remote human being (more on the online play later). You’ll soon find yourself working the ball around the court with remarkable precision and "painting the lines" with your new MotionPlus toy. I’m going to come right out now and say that the motion control input is nowhere near perfect, and you’ll occasionally have a shot go nowhere near where you intended, but it is definitely a big step up from what we have seen in the past 3 years. I will excuse some of the faults for a first generation title such as this, especially because they only detract slightly from the overall enjoyment of the gameplay.
This is essentially an upgraded Wii Sports tennis. An unofficial sequel if you will. The essence of the game remains intact, but improvements to the swing and aim mechanism, and introduction of net play and lob/drop tactics, complete the game for added depth and realism. And it is still very fun.
One aspect of the controls remains to be discussed, and I will only touch on it briefly. Many people complained about the automatic player movement in Wii Sports tennis, and longed for a manual way to move players around. Their pleas have been heard, and you can plug in a nunchuck to move your player around on court if you wish. As a tennis player myself, I appreciate the importance of footwork, and understand why it is an important aspect to tennis simulator games played on traditional controllers. However I play motion control tennis for different reasons, and my focus is on getting an accurate swing to direct the ball precisely. I didn’t like the wired connection between my nunchuck and Wii-mote interfering with my swing (whether real or perceived), and this distraction made the game too complicated for me to enjoy. Others may feel differently, and will welcome the nunchuck control option.
Grand Slam Tennis has plenty of game modes to keep everyone entertained, starting with the flagship Grand Slam mode implied by the game’s title. This lets you play each of the four tennis slams, to try to become one of the few tennis greats to win the "Grand Slam" (winning all four slams in the same calendar year). Lose, and you’ll still progress but will need to wait until the following season to achieve the goal. In each slam, you will play warm-up matches, challenge past tennis greats for a chance at earning skill upgrades, and play some of the mini-games on offer before progressing to the main knockout draw. The mode is engaging, although tennis fanatics will rue the omission of any events outside of the four slams. More disappointing for me was the lack of a co-op doubles tournament mode. There is a party game mode which is designed for 2-4 players to quickly drop into a game and play fun mini-games, but the fact is the modes are simply not-very-fun rule variations and you are far better off playing a standard multiplayer exhibition game. Finally the game gives men an excuse to buy the game that *might* work with their wives and partners – "Get Fit" tracks your daily play not on the traditional "how many hours did you waste playing this game today" scale, but instead by tracking your calories burnt. At least it is cheaper than a gym subscription.
The final game mode is the best of them all – online play that works on the Wii. Hosted on EA servers, the game doesn’t require friend codes but it does require free registration with EA online. It is very easy to jump into a game and it won’t take long before you are matched up with a competitor in either ranked or unranked matches. You can also play doubles with a local friend. Playing online for points not only increases your online ranking – any points you win or lose will contribute to your country score. A nice touch that will cater for nationalistic rivalries.
EA Sports Grand Slam Tennis is an excellent opening to what inevitably will become a long running franchise with regular and probably incremental updates. Unlike the first Tiger Woods Wii game, Grand Slam Tennis doesn’t have a broken control scheme, and despite a few random faults and nuances it is definitely a refreshing motion-sensing title for the Wii. MotionPlus is implemented well, and for the most part works as advertised. The gameplay is fun and will be easy for most to pick up and play. It takes off where Wii Sports left off, but doesn’t over complicate the game. Far from perfect, but it is a game that will be enjoyed by a wide audience and well worth your consideration especially as a MotionPlus bundle.