For many people, EA Sports and sports video gaming are pretty much synonymous. But as its competitors continue to wither away, it’s worth noting that EA isn’t infallible. NBA Elite was the studio’s highest-profile recent failure, of course. But even the EA Sports games that actually make it into stores don’t always dominate the market. Let’s take a look at a recent EA release that, at this point, hasn’t done so well: Grand Slam Tennis 2.
It’s probably premature to write a post-mortem for a game that’s been out for four months. But it appears that by any measure, Grand Slam Tennis 2 fell short of Top Spin 4, the current leader in tennis gaming. On the review front, Top Spin 4 fared much better, garnering an 84 Metascore from Metacritic compared to Grand Slam Tennis 2’s 71 (and a 70 for Virtua Tennis 4). Of Top Spin’s 54 reviews, 53 were “Positive” and one was “Mixed.” Grand Slam has 46 reviews catalogued: 18 “Positive,” 26 “Mixed,” and 2 “Negative.” The OS reviews of each game are in line with the critical consensus, with an 8.5 for Top Spin and a 6.5 for Grand Slam Tennis 2.
I wrote the OS review for Grand Slam, and after some further reflection, I’m wondering if that 6.5 was a little too high. For obvious reasons, reviews need to come out right after a game is released. But some major problems, like FIFA 12’s issues with generating new youth players, won’t appear until a gamer has been playing for a few months. And judging a game’s lasting appeal is almost impossible in the few days you spend playing the heck out of a game to produce a review.
We all know that plenty of critical darlings are commercial flops, and vice versa. Grand Slam Tennis 2, as of May 12, has sold about 80,000 copies worldwide between the PS3 and 360. Top Spin 4? About 760,000. Top Spin sold more in its 10th week of release than Grand Slam did in its fourth. No, those sales numbers don’t approach the NBA 2K series, but they represent a clear victory for 2K unless Grand Slam magically gains a ridiculous amount of momentum. We saw it play out in basketball, and we’re seeing it play out in tennis. Sometimes, quality actually matters.
But why is it that Top Spin 4 is so clearly a superior title? Well, to begin, it feels more like real-life tennis. You see unforced errors, service faults, balls hit into the net – you know, all those things you see in a tennis match that are unfortunately rare in Grand Slam. Top Spin also has a more interesting variety of courts. Yes, Grand Slam has the real Wimbledon, but a virtual version of the sport’s most famous grass courts doesn’t make up for a lack of variety, which Top Spin has in spades.
The biggest difference between the games, though, is replay value. In the original review for Grand Slam, I touched on the game’s weak career mode. A few months later, it’s clear that the mode isn’t just weak, it’s an unmitigated disaster. As you’d expect, your created player starts with very low attributes. But these attributes are basically meaningless, as you’ll have no trouble waltzing into major tournaments and destroying Nadal and Federer in the first hour of your career. There’s no sense of progress whatsoever, and for a gamer like me that prefers playing offline, that’s a game-killer.
Meanwhile, Top Spin has a tremendous career mode. You’ll still probably win your very first matches, but there’s some actual challenge involved, and you’ll be beating up on scrubs, not the real-life best in the world. As you progress through the mode, you’ll see and feel your player getting better. Unforced errors become less common. It’s easier to hit the spots you’re aiming for. And your court coverage, your biggest liability as an inexperienced player, continues to improve.
The game also prevents you from entering large tournaments until you have built up a certain reputation, a welcome dose of reality that makes your eventual triumphs in major tournaments that much more satisfying. There’s a level of depth that EA’s title doesn’t even approach, and although the mode is missing features like the ability to hire a doubles partner and enter doubles tournaments (something you could do back on the Dreamcast), there’s meaningful replay value that keeps me coming back, even today.
It’s a mode that only needs refining, while Grand Slam’s career mode needs to be buried and forgotten.
As everyone and their cat starts writing obituaries for 2K Sports following the presumed cancellation of the MLB 2K series, it’s worth considering how the studio can be successful in the future. Is tennis and basketball a path to long-term success? Well, maybe not. Perhaps EA is too entrenched in the other major sports for 2K to make the same impact they’ve made in these two sports. But in the case of tennis gaming, the data suggest that quality drives sales. If you need a virtual tennis fix during this year’s French Open, go for Top Spin 4. You won’t be disappointed.