Grand Slam Tennis 2|
I’ve been writing sports reviews for Game Chronicles for nearly ten years now, and one of my first projects was a little game called Top Spin for the original Xbox. At the time I had no real love for the game of tennis, either in my real life or my virtual one, but a lot has changed in the past decade. I’ve played and reviewed several tennis games, and I’ve even started smacking the fuzzy neon-green balls around the real court – I’m pretty sure playing tennis (or at least pretending to play tennis) is required when you move to California…plus it’s a great place to meet chicks in short skirts. And while I am aware of the existence of professional players and all the various tournaments (mostly due to video games) I still don’t go out of my way to watch them on TV.
At its core, video game tennis is the ultimate evolution of the granddaddy of all video games, Pong, but instead of paddles you control increasingly lifelike human models on either side of the center net, each with their own complex array of stats that will slightly alter the way you control them while playing the game, but regardless of stats for either the built-in pros or your own custom character you are about to take on a ten-year career path, Grand Slam Tennis 2 is all about how well you, the gamer, can master the controls.
I don’t even remember the original Grand Slam Tennis. Until now my video tennis has been all about Virtua Tennis or the Top Spin series, with the occasional detour into Outlaw Tennis or even Hot Shots Tennis. After a bit of research I learned that this is the long-awaited return of the Grand Slam Tennis franchise, and the first time we’ve got to play this game in HD on a next-gen console. EA Sports went all out for this release including all four Grand Slam tournaments as well as Wimbledon plus they managed to work in every major tennis player from past and present, even going as far as putting John McEnroe into the broadcast booth for some insightful (and soon to be repetitive) commentary.
Tennis, much like golf games, seems to be growing up when it comes to controls. It used to be you could just tap a button to swing a golf club or a tennis racket but EA Sports is always striving to boost the realism and overall immersion so Grand Slam Tennis 2 introduces the all new Total Racquet Control. Sure, you can still use the various face buttons to fire back your different shot type and put some added mojo on the ball using the LT and RT for a lob or a drop shot, but once you start to master the infinite subtleties of the analog stick you’re going to fall in love with video tennis all over again. By pulling back in various directions then releasing the right stick you can control the type of shot and by pushing that same stick forward you can strategically aim your shots over the net. Nailing smashing forehands, backhands, overheads, and volleys with precision, accuracy, and power has never been this intuitive.
There is a load of content to explore in Grand Slam Tennis 2 but most gamers will want to dive right into the Career mode that has you create your own character using a surprisingly robust character generator where you tweak everything from eyebrows to ankle socks. Gear up with all the famous brands like Nike, Adidas, Wilson, and many more, then unlock new gear that will actually enhance you stats later in the game. Once you get past your appearance you can also choose your play style mixing up moves from all the legendary pros, so you can serve like Federer and smash like Borg. It’s almost like genetically engineering the perfect tennis player using DNA from existing pros.
Your ten-year career is sectioned up into a calendar of events that allow you the occasional break to train up your abilities in various practice events before diving into a tournament or playing in some of the most historic events in tennis, including the Australian Open, French Open, U.S. Open, and exclusive to EA Sports, Wimbledon. You get to pick how long each tournament lasts, both in sets and matches. Shorter games won’t give you as much time to complete bonus objectives and earn extra XP, but the longer matches start to wear thin about halfway through, especially if your opponent isn’t that challenging or McEnroe’s repetitious commentary has you scrambling for the mute button. Personally, I found the mid-level match length perfect.
Naturally, nothing is going to beat the challenge of playing another human but the new PRO AI system used in Grand Slam Tennis 2 is the next best thing. The playing styles and behaviors of the sport’s greatest stars have been captured right down to their signature motion-captured swings. You’ll have to employ realistic tactics and strategies as you go up against each legend on a variety of court surfaces including clay and grass, and the organic AI adapts to your game in real-time so there is never a dull moment.
Speaking of AI, there is a surprising amount of intelligence going on in the broadcast booth. At times it was uncanny how in-touch the commentary was with what was actually happening on the court. It was almost like Pat Cash and McEnroe were sitting on the couch next to me dishing out sage-like tips and advice. If only that were true, then I could tell them to shut the hell up. Much of McEnroe’s commentary is quite useful, both in general tennis advice and strategy for use in the game and in real-life, and some of it was even pertinent to the current match, but when you have to listen to the same canned dialogue telling you the pros and cons of playing deep or attacking the net, etc. over and over and over again it gets mind-numbingly annoying by the second or third tournament, especially if you choose the Long tournament length of six games and six sets. They need to have a lot more generic commentary and a lot less strategy-related stuff, and they need to adjust the frequency of his comments based on your chosen game length, otherwise you can exhaust his entire repertoire in a single tournament.
Grand Slam Tennis 2 makes great use of EA’s exclusive ESPN license, not only with the streaming ticker that shows results from real Xbox Live players, but also with the inclusion of ESPN Grand Slam Classics, where you can relive (or rewrite) the most memorable moments in tennis history from Borg vs. McEnroe to Nadal vs. Federer. Play your way through history unlocking all 25 amazing Grand Slam moments. And when you’ve exhausted all the solo content you can always head online for exciting multiplayer action in single games or tournaments, or even play with the person sitting next to you, assuming you can learn to play from the top of the screen every other game. I was surprised at how many people were already playing this game during the first few days after launch, and getting into a game was very easy with smooth and lag-free online game sessions.
The graphics are virtually flawless, not that there is much room to mess things up. The players all look amazing and move and react with all their signature moves, and the various venues look spot-on identical to their real-world counterparts. The crowds are fuzzy with little detail and the line judges and ball boys look like they all came off a cloning assembly line. There is some nice intro fly-overs and between-shot angles that mimic a TV broadcast. The slightly elevated angle for actual gameplay works nicely, and there are some great instant replay camera angles, complete with slow-motion.
The audio is pretty weak, but only because the game doesn’t demand much. You get the triumphant ESPN sports themes and the occasional squeak of sneakers or the grunts and groans of the players as they exert themselves on various shots. You actually set this volume when you create your character. As previously mentioned, the commentary from Cash is highly interactive with what is going on in the game, but I winced every time he solicited strategic commentary from McEnroe because I knew I’d heard it a dozen times before. Johnny is particularly harsh when critiquing your progress through the training academy, so try not to cry in front of him.
Grand Slam Tennis 2 is a tough one to call. While I have enjoyed other tennis games more, there is something surprisingly complete and authentic about not only the gameplay but the overall presentation. There are no cutesy mini-games or diversions. This is all business, and despite a few nagging issues, the overall mix of the new Total Racquet Control combined with the PRO AI and all the Grand Slam events including Wimbledon make this the most complete tennis experience you can play on your Xbox 360.