EA Sports has such a wide range of available sports titles that it always comes as a surprise when there's a sport that isn't covered. One of the first titles to support the Wii Motion Plus add-on, 2009's Grand Slam Tennis for the Wii sported some cartoon-like graphics but was a very solid title. The sequel Grand Slam Tennis 2 is available on the Xbox 360 and PS3, skipping the Wii altogether this time around. The sophomore effort also delivers a very solid tennis game.
The first thing that needs to be discussed is the roster in terms of players and venues. Like the other big tennis titles on the market, Grand Slam Tennis 2 features more men than women on the roster, and while the overall number of players is low, there is an emphasis on the legends of the sport. While some of the legends, such as Boris Becker and Pete Sampras, have been featured before, others like Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport are appearing for the first time in digital form. The game is still missing some of the other legends, like Andre Agassi, as well as some stars like Kim Clijsters. You can download other people's creations to fill up the roster, but it would've been nicer to see those players done by the studio artists.
The game also features the least amount of venues of any current tennis game. There are only four venues, which are artificially expanded by having all three of the different courts in the event selectable for play. The only consolation for the dearth of options is that all four of the venues are part of the tennis Grand Slam series, with Wimbledon being the highlight. That venue is rarely used in a video game, so it was quite a feat to obtain the rights to feature the most recognizable Grand Slam tournament of all.
As far as the character creation system is concerned, it is a little disappointing. When you customize your head, you get almost the same amount of detail that you'd get from the Tiger Woods series. For those who don't want to go through the trouble, the Gameface feature is back. It's been scaled back to only accept pictures from EA's site, so those still holding on to their Xbox Live Vision cameras won't be able to use it here. Still, it makes for a more robust system for this part of the body. Beyond this, though, the creation system feels very limited. There are numerous articles of clothing available to buy, but you can't customize much else. Your body type only comes in a few configurations. You can choose to emulate the swing styles of other pro players in the game, but there are no options to select more generic ones. The head customization alone is a big plus, but it's too bad that it's not available for the rest of the body.
There are a few modes available for single-player play. There's the obligatory training mode, where you learn about the basic controls, and there's quick play mode, where you can choose any players and any court for a game of singles or doubles tennis.
The first big mode for single-player is ESPN Classics Matches, which are similar to the Jordan Challenges in NBA 2K11. You're given a variety of historic matches as well as fantasy "what-if?" matches spanning a few decades of tennis history. The matches give you the situation up to that point and insert you into a key moment where you take over and either repeat history or alter it. Completing the main objective gives you points, as does fulfilling a few bonus objectives per match. The points are then used to unlock a new set of matches for the mode. The chosen matches and situations make the mode exciting and addictive, but what really makes this a winner is just how accurately the game mimics the playing habits of the pros. The game's slick presentation also contributes to its rather authentic feel.
The other big attraction in single-player mode is the career mode, where you can take your custom player through a pro tennis career spanning 10 years and starting with a 100 world tennis rank. Unlike other career modes, this is stripped down to the bare essentials. Every week, you can participate in one of four activities, none of which involve minigames. You can engage in training sessions to build up your stats. You can participate in exhibition games, where you complete objectives to get points that can yield attribute points and new gear. You can also participate in all of the tournaments to increase your world ranking, or you can take the week off, though it feels like a useless option since you don't have to worry about things like stamina recovery.
If there's one thing that kills the excitement for career mode, it would be the difficulty level. In most career modes, you either have a selectable difficulty level or you work through plenty of lower-ranked matches and tournaments before you get to the more prestigious matches against high-ranking players. Here, the difficulty is set up according to year, with no restrictions in terms of what you get to do and who you play against. You can enter every tournament as a player with the lowest ranking, play against the marquee players, and work hard to ensure your loss. All of the style and mannerisms exhibited by the pros are gone in this mode early on, and faking them out takes no effort. In essence, without making any improvements, you can win everything — including the Grand Slam tournaments — within the first year of your career. While it certainly gets more difficult later on, you'll have accomplished everything quickly and the years simply repeat with no real changes. Only the most dedicated will finish the mode; everyone else will simply move on due to the lack of challenge.
The online multiplayer in Grand Slam Tennis 2 isn't as fully featured as the competition, but it works well enough. The game comes with an online pass code, but it doesn't require it. As expected, both ranked and player matches are available for matches in either singles or doubles mode. There's an online tournament mode in which you can participate that's good for up to 16 players, and there's a section called Grand Slam Corner that lets you compete for the top spot in all eight courts of varying difficulty.
It is a good set of modes that is plagued by performance issues. The ticker on the bottom of the screen informs you of recent matches players have had, but the game seems to have a hard time consistently matching you with players, unless you create a game yourself. Once you finally get connected with someone, performance varies wildly. One match with a person can be smooth while another match with the same person can suddenly turn into a slideshow. The spotty online performance means that you'll be primarily sticking to offline multiplayer play until these issues are fixed via patches. Then there's the issue of player selection. For some reason, if you pick a player and indicate that you're ready to play, your ready status is removed if the other player hasn't locked in his/her selection and scrolls to another player on the list. It is annoying, and one has to wonder why this was left in the game in the first place.
The controls are good but not unfamiliar. Like most of EA Sports' games, the right analog stick gets a heavy emphasis as it controls every motion of your racket. Amazingly enough, simply pushing the direction you want the ball to go to works fine for most of the difficulty levels. Those who master the finesse needed for the scheme, which includes swing modifications with either trigger, will do fine against higher difficulty levels. Interestingly, the act of serving is much more difficult with the analog stick since it requires a three-step process to hit the ball and has a curved graph for an indicator instead of the standard meter used by other games. It takes a lot of getting used to, and while you can still serve decently, mastery of the scheme takes much longer. Luckily, a more traditional face button setup is there for those who don't like the analog stick scheme, and that works just as well as any other game of the sport.
For the most part, the graphics live up to the standard set by other EA Sports games, specifically the ones where fewer players are on the field. The players, both created and professional, have so much detail that some skin blemishes can be seen when zooming in on the models' faces. Their body animations and clothing animations look normal as they move. The lines people on the court react accordingly once a ball is headed their way, though the ball kids at the end of the nets still don't move if the ball lands in their line of sight. Even though the number of playable courts is limited, they're rendered nicely, and the little details are nice.
There are a few dings against the game, though. While it doesn't happen too often, players sometimes warp to the spot where the ball is headed. The player might have been able to make it there naturally, but seeing this in effect either reminds one of lag in an offline game or cheating — especially when the computer opponent does this. One thing that happens more often is texture pop-up in the crowd. As the camera pans over the crowd in opening shots or replays, the player will see details change dramatically as solid blocks become much more defined. This effect isn't present in EA Canada's other games, so it's disheartening to see it in this high-caliber title.
The sound also has the same level of quality. The hits of the ball against a racket and against the different surfaces sound authentic as does the sound of players running across the court. The music follows the same path as the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series in that it goes for original, majestic fare as opposed to licensed genre music. It fits well with the sport and makes the soundtrack stand out among the barrage of licensed tunes that gamers have come to expect from sports titles. The real treat comes from the voices, especially the commentary. Pat Cash and John McEnroe, both former tennis superstars, deliver some wonderful commentary that provides insight for newcomers to the sport. The fact that the lines aren't delivered perfectly makes it feel like a natural TV broadcast; it's something that some sports games still can't get right. While the commentary is good, it gets repetitive within a few matches. Also, since McEnroe is your trainer in Training mode, hearing him blast you for making mistakes can be traumatizing or amusing, depending on your take on his infamous tirades.
In the end, Grand Slam Tennis 2 is a solid tennis game that sits below Top Spin 4 in terms of quality. The gameplay mechanics are more simulation than arcade, but it isn't too technical to the point that you need precision to execute moves well. It looks great but flawed, and the same goes for the commentary. The character creation system could have been stronger, and while the career mode is more simplified, the grinding nature mean that most players will never bother to complete all 10 years. Only the ESPN Grand Slam Classics stands out as being flawless, though one could still argue that the limited roster could have made this mode even stronger. Nevertheless, the game is done well enough that those who have gone through Top Spin 4 and are looking for something less taxing would be fine with this game for local multiplayer. It may not be excellent right out of the gate, but if EA really puts some muscle behind the series, it will only get better with time.
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