With sports video games, I tend to enjoy the slightly less mainstream offerings, tennis and golf, a little more than most. Of course I like football and baseball, but developers seem to be more willing to take chances with tennis and golf titles. Just look at the plethora of non-endorsed games that feature mascots or other animated characters like Hot Shots Golf, Mario Tennis, Virtua Tennis, and more.
However, Electronic Arts' take on tennis is more in line with its other core sports franchises, and that's definitely expected. Grand Slam Tennis 2 does its best to immerse the player in tennis, featuring a whole host of recognizable, household names, and including recognizable, retired veterans like John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. It's also the only tennis title that features the actual courts of Wimbledon, along with the other Grand Slam events like the Australian Open, French Open and U.S. Open.
The courts and players are lovingly represented in Grand Slam Tennis 2. Character models look really close to their real-world counterparts, but there's an element of style that keeps the characters from approaching that "uncanny valley" area of creepiness. Animations seem pretty spot-on, and the fluidity of the characters is impressive when they move about the court. Likewise, the world-famous courts are well represented, and hardcore tennis fans will have little to no trouble recognizing them.
From the presentation side, Grand Slam Tennis 2 exceeds in just about all quadrants. John McEnroe provides his voice to the match commentary and tutorial. When playing through the tutorial, which is designed to acclimate players to the new Total Racquet Control scheme, McEnroe provides his famous short fuse to the proceedings when you screw up, and that should bring a smile to even the casual tennis fan's face. McEnroe is accompanied by Pat Cash, who returns from the original game for core commentary, and the overall commentary work is pretty well done. It feels dynamic enough in most situations, but it runs the risk of quickly getting repetitive. I heard the same lines repeated after a few sets throughout the career mode, and that was certainly disappointing.
Grand Slam Tennis 2 features a pretty slick menu and interface designed around the use of a standard controller and the Move controller. It's easy enough to jump into a match at the onset of the game, with a number of real players unlocked and ready to go. There's also a full character customization option if you'd like to create a new player; in addition to all the body modification you'd expect to see, it has a host of features, and you can even pick swing animations.
Grand Slam Tennis 2 has a handful of modes, the biggest of which is comprised of the career mode. You can take a user-created character or real-world player and run him or her through the rankings over the course of 10 years, with the ultimate goal of hitting the number one spot at the end of the run. To do so, you'll need to participate in a series of events prior to each Grand Slam, usually smaller tournaments and optional training as a way to improve your character's stats. One neat aspect of the career mode is all the optional goals you can participate in, requiring you to do certain things in a set to score points, which tie back to your character's upgrade system. While you can choose to play smaller matches to speed through the campaign, you're honestly better off taking things slowly, playing entire matches, and attempting to hit every optional goal to improve your player.
Outside of the career mode, you have an option to participate in some classic tennis matches via the ESPN Grand Slam Classics mode. This mode divides matches by decades, starting with the 2000s and working its way back. From the onset, you'll have about six matches unlocked, featuring classic pair-ups like the Williams sisters against each other at the Australian Open. These matches feature lots of fun and iconic throwbacks for tennis fans, and an unlock system is tied into the older decades, meaning you'll pretty much need to play the matches in order by decade to advance. There are a lot of great pair-ups featured here, so it's worth checking them all.
Finally, there's a full-fledged online mode, and this is one of the few EA Sports titles that does not require an online pass to play. This comes from a small screw-up on the code side, as each copy of the game certainly has a code included, but the code isn't necessary to play, which means that those picking up the used game can jump online without ponying up $10 for an online pass. Online play seems to work really well, and although the game has been on the shelf for a little while, I had no trouble finding online players, so the community is still active enough. You can search for players via ranked and player matches, singles and doubles, and you can even participate in full-blown tournaments that allow for 128 participants, with the catch that only eight can be represented by real players. That's still a pretty robust tournament mode, and it's sure to appease fans looking for a realistic approach to online play.
One big addition to Grand Slam Tennis 2 is the previously mentioned Total Racquet Control setup. While the standard arcade controls are still present so you can map various shot types, like slices and top spins, to the face buttons, Total Racquet Control gives you the option of using the right analog stick as a makeshift tennis racquet. Depending on which direction you pull back on the stick, you'll perform one of four shot variations, and you can further modify those shots with the shoulder buttons. This control scheme feels pretty intuitive from the start, but I found myself struggling a bit with shot placement, which even made the tutorial mode a bit of a chore. It works well enough at the onset of career mode, where difficulty is less of a factor, but unless you get really well acclimated to the new setup, you'll struggle in the later matches and against skilled online opponents.
One nice thing about the control setup is that you never need to switch schemes if you don't enjoy the Total Racquet Control. The arcade layout remains active, so you can switch to pressing the face buttons on the controller, or go back to the right analog controls, at any given time. I found that both control methods pale in comparison to the Move setup, which ended up being my preferred way of playing. The Move support is well implemented and feels so natural for the controller that you'll have little to no difficulty in making it work. It's also easy enough to calibrate, and it doesn't seem to lose that calibration even after hours of play. You'll also get a nice little workout from it, and it makes the experience far more enjoyable than simply flicking an analog stick or pressing face buttons.
Overall, I found myself genuinely impressed with Grand Slam Tennis 2, even if it is a departure from the cutesy, wacky tennis experiences that I typically play. Fans of the sport will really enjoy the way EA implements the history of tennis into the experience, and there are enough recognizable faces to please even casual tennis fans. The excellent presentation is backed up by equally great gameplay, and the optional Move support is really well implemented and performs admirably. Grand Slam Tennis 2 is worth picking up, and the fact that the online portion of the game is still active certainly makes for an appeasing purchase.
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