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Nintendo Wii Review: Grand Slam Tennis

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EA Sports is the preeminent creator of sports game titles. Their roster of franchises includes, among other things, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, Fight Night, NHL, Madden, FIFA Soccer, and NBA Live. Why wouldn't they try to add a tennis game to that roster? And, if they were adding a tennis game, why not make it for the Nintendo Wii? After all, the Wii's motion-sensing controls are a perfect fit for a sport that requires swinging a racquet. The result of this new addition to the EA Sports lineup, Grand Slam Tennis, is a title that could make for the start of a very promising franchise, but that by itself certainly leaves something to be desired.

Grand Slam Tennis can be played with either the new Wii MotionPlus accessory or without it. Before we get into the specific successes and failures of the game, let me make this very clear – if you want to play the game, play it with the Wii MotionPlus (and the nunchuk which allows for better control of where a player is on the court). Playing without the add-on, which enhances the player's precision and provides more immediate feedback when turning the Wii, is a hugely frustrating experience. With the WiiMotionPlus, one gets a good sense of what effect turning the Wii remote has on the racket – it turns on instantly onscreen. But without the add-on, the controls feel incredibly sluggish and the direction of the ball following a stroke is far more random.

As with many sports titles, the game has both a "season" mode and a quick play one. The season mode here, is called "Grand Slam" and consists solely of the four Grand Slam tournaments – The Australian Open, The French Open, Wimbledon, and The U.S. Open. There are some matches played at the various venues prior to the main tournaments themselves, but there are no smaller tournaments or invitationals available in the mode which makes the entire process very repetitive, very quickly.

Traditional gameplay (there are some non-standard games available) unfolds exactly as one would expect from a tennis match, with the human player always appearing at the bottom of the screen even after the in-game players switch sides on the court (a move that makes complete sense). Swinging the Wii remote at various angles and movements causes different types of shots – topspins, flat shots, and slices — while pressing a button as the Wii remote is being swung can allow for the play of drop shots and lobs.

It all sounds easy but the learning curve is terribly steep, and until someone figures out exactly how to hit that perfect cross-court backhand, the game can be very frustrating. After that… well, it can still be very frustrating. Serving never quite approximates a real serve – at least on the human player's side, and in the hardest mode it can be exceedingly tough to return a serve, much less get a service break on the computer. 

To play Grand Slam mode, you first create an avatar using some extremely simple and limited choices. The game's graphics are exceedingly cartoony – perhaps a wise choice as the Wii's graphical capabilities often leave something to be desired when it comes to realism – so your choices in terms of hair and face can result in some pretty amusing results. If you choose to go with a more serious look, don't expect the above average approximation and set of choices Tiger Woods delivers in this area. The choices in terms of outfits and racquets is similarly scant. There are several brands of clothes/gear available, and much of it can be unlocked by winning matches, but after playing Tiger Woods, this feels like a no-frills version of that game's Pro Shop.

Leveling up players is a two step process. First is by winning enough matches that allow you to open (up to three) slots in which to put special abilities.  Then, by winning "Legend Challenges" before a Grand Slam tournament, you get various abilities (better forehands, better serves, increased hustle, etc.) which can be put into the slots.  It's a straightforward system but doesn't include much depth beyond the sheer length of time it takes to increase your star rating and thereby open up more slots.

The cartoony graphics work well and are fun enough when it comes to the main characters, but the background graphics and other secondary visuals are incredibly disappointing. It's okay that the line judges don't move when a ball comes exceedingly close to them – I like that they stand there with no fear. However, most assuredly they ought to not let a ball hit them — or pass through them as they tend to do.  While having ball boys/girls is a nice little addition to the game's realism, they too are examples of a lack of collision detection. They should be solid objects that you can't simply run through (and heck, having them move every once in a while to grab a stray shot wouldn't be bad either).  The spectators are clearly no more than two-dimensional cardboard stand-ins, so why Grand Slam Tennis would choose to have some camera shots pan around and behind the spectators and thereby highlight their two-dimensional nature is perplexing.

The sound, outside of some dull announcing and unimpressive music, is better.  The in-game effects include appropriate ball noises and even grunts from certain players. Additionally, it is in the sound category where the crowd really comes alive, following good rallies enthusiastically. 

Grand Slam Tennis sports a lineup of 23 actual tennis players, 11 "Retired Legends," and 12 "Current Stars" from all over the world.  It sounds like a pretty good number, but once you start playing a little you'll notice that 23 really isn't that many when each match requires you play one of the 23 – they start repeating very quickly.  It is nice to see the likes of Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker, Andy Roddick, the Williams sisters, and John McEnroe across the court – even if some of their shots make you want to scream "you cannot be serious!"

In fact, players may want to continue with more of that famous McEnroe rant, "That ball was on the line. Chalk flew up!  It was clearly in…" because on more than one occasion the umpires seem as blind as bats in terms of where a ball was and, more frustratingly, whether or not it bounced twice prior to being hit.  There is nothing more frustrating than watching an automatic instant replay in which it is evident that despite the call which cost you the match you hit your shot prior to a second bounce.

In addition to the quick play and Grand Slam modes, the game features some cute little party games and a pretty decent online mode which easily connects you with players of similar skill levels. The game is certainly more fun against a human opponent which won't fall for the same tricks in positioning shots that the AI falls prey to (on service against the computer no fewer than half the points are winnable after one's first shot following the serve). The game can also count the calories the player has burned over the course of a match (and even set calorie-burning goals), and while the game may be more realistic standing, it is certainly easier to play while sitting down.

There is certainly something satisfying about tweaking McEnroe's pride by hitting winner after winner after winner against the afroed tennis legend, no matter what the game's other faults might be. The same can be said for taking down Boris Becker, Andy Murray, and all the other tennis superstars included.  However, the game feels distinctly incomplete – there's not enough depth to the gameplay in terms of number of characters and number of venues/tournaments. While it's easy to pickup a rudimentary knowledge of how to hit certain shots, it is nearly impossible to perfect one's technique to the point where one is never sure if they're simply not competent or if the game has betrayed them.

I hope that EA Sports sticks with Grand Slam Tennis as a franchise, because it should be great to see where they take it in the next few years.

 

Grand Slam Tennis is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.


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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.