EA Sports Grand Slam Tennis
There's little doubt that for all the record breaking sales figures and glowing editorials there's been too few games (especially third-party titles) that have really got to grips with the possibilities of the Wii's motion control. While it's possible that it's simply taken the development community longer than expected to get to grips with Nintendo's new console there's also been a growing sense that the limitations of what the Wiimote can actually sense may well be at the core of the problem. Thankfully, with the launch this month of the Wiimote add-on WiiMotionPlus, that could all be about to change and EA Sports Grand Slam Tennis is set to be the first title to try and show us what we've been missing.
With its release timed to perfectly coincide with Wimbledon fortnight Grand Slam Tennis sees EA return to the world of tennis after an absence of fifteen years (has it really been that long?). In terms of content on the disk this is as fully featured as you'd expect from EA and comes complete with a single player career mode and a multitude of multiplayer and party options to keep you busy.
Career mode features the now standard character builder (no Mii's here) complete with licensed clothes and equipment from the likes of Nike and Adidas for you to equip your freshly crafted tennis god with. You're then able to take your new charge on the professional tour moving from Grand Slam to Grand Slam improving your stats as you play. In between tournaments you'll get to challenge various real life pro's to gain their special abilities which you can assign to one of up to three talent slots in your player's skill set. Party mode comes complete with huge list of mini game type challenges with everything from your normal four player games to things like scoring double for certain shots and tag team matches. There's also a handy if slightly basic calorie counter for those of you interested in such things. There's even online multiplayer available which seems to work pretty well and includes interesting things like national leader boards, singles and doubles top one hundreds and a beefy My-Stats page to keep track of your progress.
However, all this is really just window dressing, what everyone is interested in when it comes to Wii tennis games is the controls and in this case how the new Motion Plus effects things. To start with it's worth noting that this isn't a MotionPlus only game, there's a full selection of control options to suit any Wii owner. You've got your basic Wiimote only mode, your Wiimote and nunchuck option and then the ability to add MotionPlus to either of those. Wiimote only is simply a timing based affair with movement controlled by the AI. Much like Wii Sports Tennis it's just about getting your swing timing right with some limited control over shot placement. Add a nunchuck to the equation and you get control over your players movement via the analogue stick which does give the game another layer of depth. However, its how the game plays when you clip the MotionPlus onto your Wiimote that most people are going to be interested in. The theory is that the new technology will allow for near 1-1 replication between your arm movements and the on screen action allowing you to play Grand Slam Tennis just like you would real tennis, complete with all the subtleties of shot and angles that you'd expect. The genuinely amazing thing is this rather grand sounding theory is actually pretty much proved in practice.
Despite a healthy degree of scepticism, once on the court it's amazing just how intuitive it really is. Want to try a forehand passing shot into the far corner? Simply play the shot as if you're holding a racquet and ping, the ball goes where you want. Try a lob and up shoots the ball into the sky, add some subtlety to things with a slice or spin and the game does the same. It's still not a perfect 1-1 representation of what your arms are doing in real life (would you really want that unless you're some kind of tennis god?) but it's so far removed from what you've been used to that you'll wonder why you were so impressed with Wii Sports in the first place.
Interestingly, and something I'd never really considered before, unlike pretty much any game before you'll find pressure and nerves now effect your game as they would in real life. No longer is simply being able to press a button at the right time enough to pull off a perfect passing shot, now you've got to actually do it, something that's that little bit harder when the pressure is on in a tight game. It works the other way too of course, put the time in and being good starts to feel like a genuine skill and reduces the chance of being beaten by the Wii equivalent of a first time button basher accordingly.
One thing worth pointing out is that this new found freedom does mean there's more of a learning curve than you may have been used to in more traditional tennis games. While you're obviously not required to be a tennis pro in real life to be good in the game it is harder than you've come to expect from tennis games in the past. The accuracy of the MotionPlus means that there's a smaller margin for error than normal and you may feel a degree of frustration for a while even on the lowest difficulty. As ever with motion control there's also an element of learning how the game wants you to do certain things but it's pretty fair most of the time and as annoying as it may be most mistakes are yours rather than the game's. To be honest, with such a radical new control option it's a shame EA hasn't seen fit to include some kind of training mode where the game could actually teach you a bit about how to play (there is an in game ball-machine to practice with but its hardly the same). One thing that is annoying is the tendency of the MotionPlus to get out of sync at times. It's not a problem to fix, simply hold the Wiimote still for a second or two and it auto calibrates perfectly well, it's just that if you fail to notice it's got out of sync in the first place you can spend a point or two with swings that defiantly don't match your actions.
It's hard to review Grand Slam Tennis without it sounding like a review of the MotionPlus as well - so entwined is the device with the game. In fact, played without the new gizmo it becomes an entirely different experience far more akin to Wii Sports Tennis with an official licence slapped on it and a bunch of extra game options. Played like this it's still enjoyable enough but really nothing special and anyone considering buying it without at least one MotionPlus needs to keep that in mind.
As you may have seen from screenshots EA have wisely ditched the quest for graphical realism in favour of a more stylised cartoony look. While it may grate with some it stops you being constantly reminded that the Wii really isn't capable of the polygon count we've grown used to on other consoles and things like the over sized ball actually improve the experience from a gameplay front. The roster of real life players you'll encounter is also pleasingly inclusive. Twenty three players are featured including present stars like Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray but there's also past masters like John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Bjorn Borg to have fun with, all nicely crafted in the same slightly caricatured style.
They say timing is everything and there's a sense that EA will be onto a winner here simply by being the first fully integrated MotionPlus tennis game to hit the shelves. The things that stand out while playing are almost all down to the impressive new bit of hardware rather than anything revolutionary EA are doing with the game (although as the future will no doubt prove plenty of people will get even MotionPlus controls wrong). Play without the new tech and this is fun yet average and feels very much like a first toe dipped in the tennis waters by EA with the promise of more to come next year. Once MotionPlussed up however you'll be having too much fun to care if you should be thanking EA or Nintendo for providing the greatest tennis experience you can have in your front room. Just when you were thinking the Wii's shine may be starting to dim those crafty geniuses at Nintendo are all set to prove it's only just begun and EA Sports Grand Slam Tennis is the perfect way to herald that second coming.