Grand Slam Tennis Review (Wii)
Under normal circumstances, tennis games wouldn't usually receive a whole lot of hype or attention from the mainstream media.
Then again, most tennis games aren’t debuting alongside a new controller technology that’s supposed to revolutionize the way gamers can interact with the industry’s leading console.
Hence the roaring hype for EA’s Grand Slam Tennis, a game that both Nintendo and EA have christened as the ushering in of a new era in motion control.
Now that the finished product is finally in our hands, it's sad to have to report that Grand Slam Tennis fails to successfully deliver the promised one-to-one motion recognition. It's also sad to report that the game also comes with a number of frustrating inconsistencies that show how the Wii MotionPlus technology is not quite the startling revolution that was initially promised.
When the developers of a game are bold enough to completely disable all types of "normal control," the new technology better be locked in and tweaked to perfection.
Unfortunately, the selection of remote control options in Grand Slam Tennis is far from perfect. Even with something as fundamental and basic as player movement, the game just feels a bit off.
While the added Nunchuk control is a welcome option, moving your player with the analog nub feels extremely jerky, to the point that subtle movements become more or less impossible on the court.
The game’s lack of finesse in the player-movement department forces players to dart around the court, pick a spot to setup a shot from and live or die with the results.
Players can forget about being able to shuffle or slide their feet to settle into the "sweet spot" when lining up a stroke, because any last-second adjustments will usually result in the player completely overrunning the shot and whiffing on the ball.
When playing with just the Wii remote, the automated running system in Grand Slam Tennis does fare a bit better, but frankly, there is no reason to want to play with a regular Wii remote -- given how poorly the standard hitting engine performs.
With only a regular Wii remote in hand, Grand Slam Tennis becomes a glorified version of Wii Sports tennis, where shots, for better or worse, are entirely based on timing (i.e., early swings create cross-court shots, while late swings produce down-the-line shots.)
The problem with the Wii Sports tennis style of hitting is that it often takes too long to line up a ball for a down-the-line shot. So instead of hitting a sure-fire winner, you end up hitting a shot that is returned by your opponent because he or she is able to recover during the time that you spent waiting for the ball to get to just the right angle.
Net play using the standard Wii remote is even worse than the ground stroke experience because the split-second window that the player has to time the "aim" of a volley is so small that hitting a net shot where it needs to go essentially becomes a total crapshoot.
Enter the game’s alleged MotionPlus advantage. While it’s certainly preferable to the archaic "timing is aiming" control scheme, the MotionPlus technology simply is not reliable enough to produce consistent winning shots.
For a device this innocent-looking, it sure does lead to a lot of kicking and screaming.
The fundamental flaw of the MotionPlus control scheme is its inability to determine whether the player is trying to hit a forehand or backhand stroke.
Because Grand Slam Tennis lacks a proper "neutral" stance, the game is constantly twitching around trying to place the player’s racket on the forehand or backhand side.
Problem is, when the player finally decides that he or she is ready to wind up and take the shot, the in-game racket may be twitching around on the wrong side of the player’s body.
The game then has to atone for the player by taking an awkward looking "save shot," which nine out of 10 times will either go sailing out of bounds or lead to a winning-shot opportunity for the other player -– insert curse words, punching and kicking of nearby objects and the desire to snap out the MotionPlus adapter and throw it into the nearest trash bin.
While the game kindly encourages you to recalibrate the controller if it is not picking up your swing stances properly, the forehand/backhand problem never really seems to go away.
The issue gets even more frustrating when using the automated running controls, as the game continually does stupid things like positioning your player for a backhand shot while you’re in the middle of winding up for a forehand.
All that being said, aside from the spotty forehand/backhand detection, Grand Slam Tennis does a solid job giving players control over their shots when in MotionPlus mode.
That is, unless you need to hit a lob, drop or overhead smash shot.
While slice, top spin and flat shots are all easily performed with different types of swinging motions, the three shot types listed above are exceedingly difficult to perform on command.
For lobs and drop shots, problems crops up because you have to hold down an extra button ("A" or "B") while focusing on executing a normal swing. Since the Wii remote gets a little longer with the MotionPlus adapter attached to the bottom input jack, it becomes a real reach trying to get to the "A" and "B" buttons all the way up at the top of the controller -- assuming you hold the Wii remote towards its base.
The overhead smash, on the other hand, is not an issue of reach so much as it is simply an instance of too much motion needed for what should be a simple shot.
Instead of simply raising the Wii remote up and dropping it down as common sense might suggest, players must go through a long wind-up motion to execute the overhead smash, and must also hope that during that motion another shot type is not accidentally triggered.
The ineffectiveness of the overhead smash effectively cripples the serve and volley style of play, as softball lob shots can no longer be punished with a crushing return, which is unlike any normal game of tennis.
Lastly, there is the issue of serving. While it’s easy to control the aim of your serve with the Nunchuk or D-pad, the complete lack of spin options on serves is mystifying, as is the game’s recognition of the serving motion itself.
Allegedly, all it takes is a simple "up" then "down" motion to toss and hit a serve. But in practice, the "up" motion never seems to be recognized accurately, and the timing of the "down" motion, which determines serve power, often seems like it gets goofed up because the game accidentally recognizes the "toss" and "hit" of your serve as a single motion rather than two separate swings.
For a game whose players resemble bobble-head dolls, and whose tennis balls look a lot like glowing, life-size softballs, it feels strange to say that Grand Slam Tennis succeeds at presenting an authentic brand of tennis. But strange as it sounds, it’s the truth.
The courts, the announcers, the audience, even the player grunts all seem lifted right out of a real-world telecast -- to the point that the game really immerses you in a great on-court experience.
The only real distraction is the camera angle, which, while great for the most part, switches to an abnormally wide angle when your player gets close to the sidelines. This makes it difficult to judge your opponent and effectively place shots.
The game does, however, offer a great roster of past and current tennis legends, capturing both the personality and playing style of each player -- whether it be John McEnroe’s legendary temper or Roger Federer’s deadly backhand strokes.
The selection of licensed courts is also a plus, as each Grand Slam location offers multiple courts to choose from, not just the main courts where the higher seeds get to take center stage.
The presentation scores an ace with its detailed courts and appropriate player personalities.
It’s typical for most first-year franchises to be a bit thin when it comes to features, and Grand Slam Tennis is no exception on the single-player front.
The game’s career mode offers little in the way of variety or novelty, as players simply travel from one Grand Slam site to the next, going through an identical sequence of game types:
1) exhibition match
2) star challenge
4) secret star challenge (unlocks if you win the three previous events)
5) Grand Slam tournament
After the first year of touring, most players will probably be ready to hang up their Reeboks and call it a career, yet it takes at least three seasons of the same tedious touring cycle to max out a created character and unlock most of the game’s medals and various types of equipment.
If the touring grind was not bad enough, the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) will surely push most players over the edge of frustration.
Not since Call of Duty 4’s "veteran" campaign has the single-player portion of a video game been so frustrating for me.
The chief culprit in both games? Superhuman AI opponents. In Call of Duty, the problems stemmed from shoot-on-sight enemies that respawned endlessly, never misfired and could kill you in two or three shots. In Grand Slam Tennis, the frustration comes from the computer opponents who (on medium difficulty or higher) seem to never miss a shot and can hit impossible winners from any position on the court.
Basically, if you want to have some fun with the single-player modes, you pretty much have to play on easy difficulty. The problem is, doing that makes the game a complete cake-walk -– one that most players probably will not want to revisit after they have unlocked all the performance-enhancing equipment and ability medals.
If there’s one thing the developers really got right in Grand Slam Tennis, it’s the head-to-head play.
While it can be incredibly frustrating to miss shot after shot against a computer opponent whose execution is more or less perfect, the sting of making so many unforced errors is significantly lessened when the opponent on the other end of the court is right there matching you error for error.
And while local players are limited to split-screen action, Grand Slam Tennis really shines with its online modes. Whether it’s you and a friend teaming up for some same-console doubles action, or you are all by yourself in a one-on-one battle against a friend/stranger, it's all good stuff.
Thankfully, the Wii’s bothersome Friend Code system can be avoided completely when taking Grand Slam Tennis online, as the game lets players track their friends by simply adding their EA Messenger screen names to an address book.
Lag is not much of an issue either. Occasionally you will come across a player who ruins the online experience with a connection so poor that the virtual character spends the entire match teleporting across the screen, but for the most part, online is a smooth, lag-free affair.
The one major oversight in the online play is the talent disparity between the game’s default roster of pros and your own created player.
Even after leveling up my character to 4.5 out of the 5 possible star ratings and earning three gold ability medals in the single-player career mode, I felt completely outmatched online when going up against top pros like Novak Djokovic, who seems to hit and serve the ball with a ferocity that no created player can ever match.
So while it’s great that the game has ranking ladders for both singles and doubles play, it’s a shame that there aren’t separate ladders for pros and created players because the latter group really seems to have no hope of getting a fair game from the former.
The MotionPlus problems don't disappear during multiplayer, but at least they're more tolerable when both players are filling up the error column.
Unfortunately, the other big multiplayer feature in Grand Slam Tennis, the local party games, does not fair nearly as well as the online modes.
While Grand Slam Tennis does boast a dozen total mini-games, at least half of them are recycled variations of the seven core games. Also, unlike the exotic and outlandish mini-games found in Virtua Tennis 2009, most of the party events in Grand Slam Tennis are the sort of simple games that you would play at a youth tennis camp (e.g., Australian doubles, king of the court, and so on).
If you realize this is EA's first effort with the Wii’s new MotionPlus technology, Grand Slam Tennis is not bad, it's just got too many detection and calibration issues that prevent it from being a truly solid title.
Instead, Grand Slam Tennis ends up simply being above-average. It’s fun at times, extremely frustrating at others, and overall, it’s really only going to appeal to the hardcore tennis fans who have enough mental toughness to persevere through the game’s technical flaws.
On a system where casual fun is the dominate form of entertainment, Nintendo seems to have made the right choice bundling its MotionPlus adapter with EA’s Tiger Woods 10 -- the implementation of the new MotionPlus controls in Tiger seem to be far better than they are in either of the Wii’s new tennis titles (Virtua Tennis 2009 and Grand Slam Tennis.)
On the Court: Computer-assisted running is useless with motion controls, movement with the Nunchuk feels too jerky, and the game’s forehand/backhand detection is in need of serious improvement. While there’s some fun to be had, it’s impossible to play Grand Slam Tennis for long periods of time without being overwhelmed by its faults.
Graphics: A bit blurry and low-res compared to the sharper-looking Virtua Tennis 2009, but Grand Slam Tennis does manage to pull off a great mixture of style and authenticity, in spite of the cartoon caricatures and huge, glowing tennis balls.
Sound: Everything sounds authentic, from the player grunts and the crowd and commentary, all the way down to shoes squeaking across hard courts but crunching and sliding through the red clay of Roland Garros.
Entertainment Value: Multiplayer is the main draw here, as career mode has very little to offer in terms of variety or replay value. If you can put up with the spotty forehand/backhand detection, the game will really immerse you in its matches during the head-to-head play.
Learning Curve: Despite its looks, this is not a kid-friendly game. Players will need to spend several hours on the practice court before feeling like they are in control of their character’s shot type and placement. Even then, it feels like you are always in a constant struggle with the inconsistency of the game’s MotionPlus technology.
Online: No Friend Code system to deal with is always a plus. Lag is a minor issue, though, only occasionally present. The lack of separate rankings for created players and pro players, however, is a real killer, especially for gamers who don’t want to play as/against Federer, Sampras and Djokovic all day long.
Score: 6.5 (Decent)