It’s late June and once again Britain has been swept up by the usual tennis fever that surrounds Wimbledon. As sales of strawberries & cream sky rocket, interest peaks and for two short weeks we’re suddenly enamoured with a sport that gets little coverage any other time of the year. So this small window should be the perfect time to release a tennis game into the market and that’s just what EA have done, with their latest title Grand Slam Tennis.
Most of their sports franchises get very little fanfare outside the usual suspects like Tiger Woods and FIFA, but this is quite a special release for two reasons. The first is that it’s a tennis game, a sport EA have barely touched during their long history; second, Nintendo have released a new peripheral as a pack-on with this title, something that’s even rarer than a Brit winning Wimbledon. The new hardware in question is Nintendo’s much-vaunted Motion-Plus device, which slots into the bottom of the wii remote, effectively adding another gyroscope and giving the controller a better idea of how to interpret your movements. Nintendo will be releasing it alongside Wii Sports Resort later next month but for now it’s down to two tennis games (Sega’s new Virtual Tennis title also utilises motion-plus) to show off this new level of control.
And it’s this we need to speak about first, because for all the hype surrounding the new device, does it actually make a difference and have EA actually implemented it right? The answer to both questions is empirically yes. Let’s go over the controls without motion-plus fitted first, because it’s still very playable without motion-plus attached. Making your shots is very similar to Wii Sports Tennis as it’s all down to timing your swing correctly to direct your shot. Unlike Wii Sports, however, lobs and drop shots are pulled off by holding the A or B buttons when you swing. It doesn’t quite feel as imprecise or random as Wii Sports sometimes did, and it’s certainly better than Take Two’s Top Spin. And if you plug in motion-plus then you have the best tennis control system on the Wii. When you first get started it’s highly recommended that you give yourself a bit of time with the in-game tutorials, not because it’s hard to use but because it takes your brain a little time to get used to the amount of control you now have over your shots. Rather than using your timing to determine where your shot ends up, any follow through you add will make a big difference and when you get your head around it, you’ll find you can place the ball pretty much wherever you want. Lobs and drop shots still need a button-press though and this does make it feel a little less intuitive.
The major issue we had with the controls was in directing your player around the court. There are two methods available to you for this: either you can let the game control your character like Wii Sports, which makes it easier to concentrate on your shot but removes some of the strategy and makes some balls impossible to return; or you can use the nunchuk, which obviously gives you better control but feels very sluggish. Having made such a great leap forward, it’s disappointing that this aspect wasn’t as fine-tuned as the shot controls.
Elsewhere, EA have included a lot of different modes and content, giving this much greater depth than either Top Spin or the newly released Virtua Tennis. There are full career modes, letting you create a character to battle the likes of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and the sour-faced Andy Murray on your way to Grand-Slam glory. There are several other exhibition and party modes, which can be fun diversions, but the other main draw here is the excellent online mode. Other EA titles have ignored Nintendo’s horrendous fiend-codes and once again they are nowhere to be seen here, replaced with EA’s own user accounts. You can get an online match set up within a few minutes of starting up the game and it’s pretty easy to find and compete against friends. Matches are short and sweet, lasting just a few games, which is just about perfect for the online arena. One of the most interesting additions amongst the online features, which has been seen before in FIFA, is the worldwide nations ranking system. This totals up the results between online players around the globe, giving each nation an overall score and a place in an international leader board. At the time of writing Britain was languishing in 33rd place, behind such great tennis nations as Cambodia and Kenya…Consider this a call-to-arms for British tennis fans to instil some national pride and prove that we don’t suck as bad playing online virtual tennis as we do playing the real thing.
There’s no doubt that this is the best tennis-sim on the Wii, and possibly the best of this generation, depending on whether you prefer motion controls over traditional pads. But with some more attention and refinement on the player movement this would have been nearly perfect. It should still be an essential purchase for tennis fans, and for anyone who wanted more depth than Wii Sports could offer.