Review / Grand Slam Tennis (Wii)

It’s a sign of the times that EA have essentially been given the green light to launch MotionPlus – Nintendo’s latest and most important peripheral since the Wii’s launch, with both Tiger Woods 10 and Grand Slam Tennis. Typically all of Nintendo’s hardware arrives simultaneously with its own killer app designed to show the technology’s full capabilities, but in this case Wii Sports Resort is being released almost 2 whole months after the arrival of MotionPlus. So is this show of confidence in EA warranted?

When first playing Grand Slam Tennis with MotionPlus, it quickly becomes obvious that there’s a fair amount of unlearning to do. The canned flicks that have become the norm in most Wii games, including Wii Sports Tennis, simply do not work here. The game requires players to play shots similar to how they would in real life. After some initial difficulties on the practice court, adding slice, top-spin and placing the ball become far more intuitive. EA could and should have done far more to introduce gamers to this brand new control scheme – a prime example of this is their failure to clearly mention that recognition works a lot more smoothly when the player returns his racket hand to the center of his body and keeps relatively still between points. Drop shots and lobs are mapped to buttons as opposed to motions, and serves are directed using the d-pad. Serving in particular is a disappointment, and feels far too similar to Wii Sports Tennis, lacking the 1:1 feel of regular shots.

It’s tempting to discard the Nunchuk early on and concentrate on playing shots correctly –  a sound strategy to get started,  but in order to beat the better computer opponents, the Nunchuk really is a requirement. When controlled automatically, characters occasionally run to the wrong side of the ball, turning simple forehands into risky and unnecessary backhands. When using both the Nunchuk and MotionPlus however (and after some serious practice), Grand Slam Tennis offers an unprecedented level of control and immersion.

Presentation on the whole is a mixed bag. The clean, cartoony art direction helps distinguish it from its competitors and works well on the Wii – particularly on large screens. The exaggerated expressions and animations really do capture the real-life players being represented. The static 2D crowd and officials however could use some serious work. Pat Cash’s commentary is generally engaging and occasionally witty, though it can become repetitive over time.

The career mode on offer is simple, and works around the four major tournaments of the year. Once the gamer has designed their character using the fairly basic editor, he joins the circuit and begins the process of upgrading his abilities. These are primarily gained by beating ranked players in exhibitions games before major tournaments, with famous players offering appropriate upgrades – beating Martina Navratilova for example helps improve net play. The RPG aspects of the game offer a strong incentive to really be thorough before each major to give yourself the best possible chance of winning a trophy (or even getting past the early rounds). In addition, characters also have a star ranking out of five which shows the player’s overall capability, and this improves through regular play and even in the middle of matches.

Outside of the main career mode are a selection of multiplayer games that spice things up in addition to straightforward doubles play. Modes that offer double the points for winning drop shots or lobs have an excellent risk/reward element, and King of the Court allows for quick singles play even when four players are present. In fact the biggest problems with multiplayer are the space required by four players in front of the tv and the fact that gamers will likely each be playing with different control schemes which tends to create an uneven playing field. At its best though, Grand Slam Tennis offers some of the most frantic and competitive local multiplayer gaming on the Wii.

Online, Grand Slam Tennis uses EA’s excellent EA Nation system which allows players to setup a single username and friend list for all the games from EA that use it. Players can then decide whether to play any of their friends who are currently online, or allow the game to arrange a match against a player with a similar rank. Extensive leaderboards keep track of everyone’s records, and a particular highlight is how competition between countries is encouraged – beating opponents from other countries adds to your own country’s rank. Online play is relatively lag free and seamless, and it all comes together to be one of the strongest online components of any WIi game released so far.

There seems to be a contradiction at the heart of Grand Slam Tennis. On the one hand its cartoony and expressive visuals and simplified career mode suggest a game designed primarily for the expanded audience. On the other hand, its complex controls and high level of difficulty suggest a title conceived mainly for the traditional audience. Grand Slam Tennis really does demand a lot of its players. Standing is a must if shots are to be pulled off consistently and discipline between shots to stay still and return your hands to the center is tiring business when playing for more than an hour. The game’s difficulty also seems rather unbalanced – even on easy it can be difficult register a win against even the lowliest of opponents early on. It all adds up to a rather hardcore and demanding but ultimately very rewarding experience. For those gamers dedicated and energetic enough to learn the controls, Grand Slam Tennis is an easy recommendation.

+ Remarkably well implemented online mode for the Wii
+ A refreshingly hardcore and demanding experience
+ Solid implementation of MotionPlus helps create an immersive experience

– Steep learning curve
– Difficult even on easy
– Controls can become inaccurate