February 09, 2012
EA Sports is a fearsome beast. Every year, it ensures that teams of hundreds churn out iterative sequels with industrial efficiency. It’s terrifyingly prolific; a bit like Santa’s workshop, except Santa has been replaced with Peter Moore and his funny goatee beard.
Sometimes Moore’s little helpers lovingly whittle something to be treasured, like this year’s FIFA. Sometimes they lazily carve out a dud, like the NBA Live series. But regardless of quality, almost without fail, consumers lap it up. Love it or hate it, EA Sports is huge.
So when the most successful group of studios in the history of sports games decides to make a tennis title, you have to sit up and take notice. EA Sports has a template for success, one that’s been refined and improved upon for the last 20 years. With Grand Slam Tennis 2 that template has been almost obsessively adhered to.
No EA Sports title would be complete without some major sporting talent. So, plundering the past as well as the present, Grand Slam Tennis 2 features exquisite character models of over 20 legends of the game, from Borg and McEnroe, to Federer and Nadal. Each of these players look, play and act with impressive realism.
Nadal’s loopy forehand and baseline power, Sampras’ simian gait, McEnroe’s serve volley stroppiness - it’s all here. Though perhaps not as pronounced as the marketing material would have you believe, each character quirk and signature swing is certainly noticeable. The first time I played against McEnroe, I lost a few points merely out of intimidation.
What disappoints is not the quality but the quantity. While the male line up is robust, the contemporary female roster is poor. Around half the size of the men’s list, it concentrates on famous names rather than good players. Of the Williams sisters, Sharapova and Ivanovic, only one currently features in the WTA top 10.
In respect to licenses, however, Grand Slam Tennis 2 gets it all right. Every one of the four major tournaments is present and correct, with Wimbledon joining the Australian, French and US Opens for the very first time in videogame history. If there’s one thing EA Sports knows, it’s how to snap up a license.
On the court and Grand Slam Tennis 2 is just as assured. Like many of its stablemates, the game’s preferred control method comes via the analogue sticks, with one moving your player around while the other sends either flat, sliced or top-spun shots whizzing over the net, depending on the direction in which you prod. Meanwhile, an arcade-esque button-only control scheme is also available.
Both are hugely accessible. Before long you’ll be pinging balls around the court and dragging opponents all over the place with glee. The tactility of each connection, the rhythmic trance of a rally and the shotgun crack that accompanies a good hit all combine to make for an enjoyable experience. Moment to moment, Grand Slam Tennis 2 is unrivaled.
With this in mind, you would hope for an engaging Career Mode, a place to spend hours happily swatting your way up the rankings. Unfortunately, while you can easily spend a huge amount of time trudging through Grand Slam Tennis 2’s ten year Career Mode, you’ll likely get bored first. It’s rubbish.
The most glaring issue is just how easy it is. Regardless of the difficulty setting, you’ll drift through your first year with ease, winning every tournament you enter, besting the greatest names the sport has ever known and achieving a full Grand Slam. The game locks your first year at Rookie difficulty. A child could beat it.
This lack of challenge derails the whole experience, even invalidating the Career Mode’s training sessions. Presented by McEnroe, who gets angry when you fail, these mini-game sessions become available before big tournaments, with success offering a stat boost. But when you can beat anyone with your measly starter stats, what’s the point in training at all?
Indeed, there seems little point in playing the Career Mode beyond the first year, except for achievements. Difficulty levels ramp up in subsequent years, but when you’ve won everything the first time around, what’s the point? It’s ludicrous.
Far better is Grand Slam Classics, a familiar EA Sports game mode, but a welcome one nevertheless. Featuring 25 unlockable, one-off challenges, you’re tasked with reenacting or reversing classic Grand Slam clashes from down the years, from Venus versus Serena, to some of Borg and McEnroe’s epic tussles. This is where those expensive licenses and image rights pay off. Offering a substantial challenge, it’s a brilliant addition.
Beyond that the remaining game modes are more pedestrian, with one-off matches and custom tournaments available both online and off. It’s a relatively meagre offering for an EA Sports title, but still keeps up with the competition thanks to the sheer range of customisation options. The inability to play 2 v 2 online remains a shame, however. Doubles matches are only supported in local multiplayer.
The achievements, meanwhile, are about as vanilla as it gets. Merely encouragement for you to complete the game’s various modes and features, there’s little creativity here. How about a few rewards for an against-the-odds fightback, eh? No such luck. Still, at least there’s only a few online achievements.
There are highs and lows throughout Grand Slam Tennis 2 then, but perhaps the most representative element of the game is its commentary track. Fronted by John McEnroe and Pat Cash, it is entertaining, informative and occasionally amusing. Both pundits make for charismatic, knowledgable hosts. But they also make me want to chew my leg off.
The amount of recorded lines is massively disappointing. So they just repeat themselves, over and over. Seriously, if I hear McEnroe extol the virtues of hitting the ball deep one more time, I’m likely to go postal. EA Sports clearly got the duo to lay down a minimum number of lines, the intention being to build upon the soundbites in further iterations.
And that’s pretty much what Grand Slam Tennis 2 is. It’s the minimum number of lines, the first step in what will ultimately become a regularly iterated series. It’s a solid base upon which to build, some tasty core gameplay with a basic EA Sports framework built around it. But it’s not everything it can be. It’s holding back for next time.
When you buy a game, you don’t want it to be the first step somewhere, you don’t want it to be a warm up, or bait for a sequel. You want it to represent everything the developers are capable of. Grand Slam Tennis 2 isn’t that. Not quite. But you can still have fun along the way.
The commentary is great, but very, very limited, while the soundtrack is the most generic electronic nonsense. Grunts, trainer squeaks and racket thwacks are better.
The body language of the game’s top pros is represented nicely. But aside from some half-decent venues, everything surrounding the players lacks detail.
Accessible and enjoyable, even with the option of a little more depth for hardened tennis fans, the experience is still a touch too easy.
A solid suite of online and offline modes, with a million unlockable trinkets and customization options. Grand Slam Classics mode is the highlight, while Career Mode is the lowlight.
Dull. No rewards for dramatic comebacks or crunch shot heroics, the interesting stuff is reserved for the in-game XP system. At least there’s only a few online achievements.
Despite EA Sports leaving itself plenty of room for improvement in future iterations of Grand Slam Tennis, what’s here is enjoyable. Perhaps a little too easy for tennis veterans, the experience of being out on court, thwacking the ball around is great fun. It’s just the Career Mode that lets the game down.