Grand Slam Tennis
For as long as there have been Wiis, people have been playing Wii tennis, thanks to its inclusion as part of the pack-in Wii Sports title. It's a natural match, considering how easy it is to replicate the game's movement with the Wii-mote subbing for the similarly-held racquet. Naturally, there would be some evolution from that simple swing-fest to a full-fledged game, and when there's sports involved, it's normally means EA will get involved, which is just the case with this title, featuring some of the biggest names in tennis, a decent level of variety and, best of all, friend-code-less online play. It's most notable though for being one of the first Wii games implementing support for the Wii MotionPlus add-on.
Though you can play as a pro (with a roster featuring pretty much everyone you'd expect, including old-school names like John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg,) why would you, when you can be your own avatar? So, once you've set up your character, using the limited body customization options and a tremendous amount of licensed (and unlockable) gear (like hats, shirts, and raquets,) Grand Slam Tennis offers up several ways to play, including quick match options, party games (this is the Wii after all), a fitness tracker (again, a Wii staple) and online play, but it's the Grand Slam that's the way to take on this game, jetting off to the major tournaments, including Wimbledon, which is exclusively licensed to this game. When you arrive at a location, you're set up with a few steps to complete before getting to take part in the tournament, like exhibition matches and special challenges from tennis stars. Working your way along the path can be a pain when you just want to get into the tourney play, but they help hone your skills, improve your character and give you new abilities (when you defeat the stars) and unlockable gear. The game is actually pretty standard as far as tennis goes, which makes sense, as there's only two real directions you can go, and that's cartoony arcade play or straight-up simulation. This title takes the sim path, which is really the only way to go when you're using MotionPlus for the controls (see The Controls for details on what it's like to play.) The only non-sim elements are the "power-ups" you collect by winning challenges (though you can argue it's just like training and learning new skills.)
Since the Grand Slam only offers a few tournaments to complete, there needs to be more to the game to maintain interest. One of the more unique parts of the game is how everything can be tied together via the fitness tracker. Though it's far from any realistic measure of exercise, making it no substitute for an EA Active or Wii Fit, it attributes calories-burned to your gameplay, and the more you burn, the better your player is, with a five-star ranking attainable after frequent play. But the great thing is you "burn calories" in just about every mode, so you're not stuck playing a mode you don't enjoy simply to enhance your character. But then, there's plenty of reason to look around at the various modes, which include the unfortunately named Tennis Party. These aren't your usual collection of mini-games, but instead several variations on the game of tennis, including singles and doubles play. Though enjoyable when playing by yourself, with tweaks that add value to net play or lobs and modes like "King of the Court," where only the most recent "winner" can score and players rotate, and Tag-Team, during which you and your partner have to take turns playing shots, these are much more of a party when you have friends in the room to join you. The only downside here is the way the more realistic movements require more space to play when sharing a TV, otherwise someone's losing some teeth.
The friend code concept is probably the worst part of the Wii's online capabilities, because when it's circumvented, playing against real opponents can be as smooth as on any console. EA's proved this before, and shows it again with Grand Slam Tennis, which lets you play singles and doubles matches online (though unfortunately you can only play doubles if you have a partner playing locally.) Utilizing EA Sports' online systems, you can play against friends or just match-up with a stranger (of which there are about 100 at any given time) but the element most people will be drawn to is the Battle of the Nations competition, where your play will raise or lower point totals for your country on the online leaderboards. Playing on most people's patriotism raises the stakes for these games, so when you're playing someone from Brazil, you're more likely to try a bit harder than when you're facing off with a fellow countryman. It's an ingenious way to put a little more meaning into online play (and since voice chat isn't involved, it's less likely there will be any international incidents (so figure this isn't coming to XBox 360 any time soon.))
The only thing about the online play that was buggy was a touch of lag in the games, where players would catch up with balls that seemed completely out of reach. In sports, you're told to play to the whistle, but it's just natural to let up when you see the ball heading off court 10 feet from your opponent, but then suddenly it's headed back your way. This cost quite a few points in online play, but it just means you need to pay attention. Oddly, this lag could be seen in local games as well, especially when swinging with a backhand, as you suddenly teleport to the opposite side of the ball.
Naturally, with this being one of the first MotionPlus titles, controls are a big deal, but EA made sure to live up to one of the Wii's biggest strengths, and that's controller adaptability. If you don't have a MotionPlus add-on, you can play just fine, but it's definitely harder to hit the ball the way you'd like to. The whole system is based on when you connect, and when you're volleying back and forth, timing is not something you're thinking about. It's really somewhat about luck when it comes to placing your shots, though using the A and B buttons allow you to switch up to lobs and drop shots, while the height you swing to affects the spin on the ball. You can play without the nunchuk, which means you have to choose between front court and baseline using the D-pad, but the nunchuk doesn't leave your positioning up to the computer, which saves some heartache when you just miss a return because of the AI's decision.
If you have a MotionPlus though, it's an entirely different game. I fully admit, that the first seven or eight matches I played with MotionPlus made me want to go back to standard Wii-mote controls. I was beyond frustrated because I couldn't get it to work the way I wanted to. The main problem is a lack of a proper tutorial that forces you to repeat the motions correctly, like the ones found on games like We Ski (there are help screens and a practice court with a ball machine, but they don't "force" you to perform properly.) That's hugely important as MotionPlus is introduced, as the style of play is dramatically different. Instead of performing the actual movements I wanted to see in my player, I was doing the wrist flicking that's worked on Wii games to this point. Flicking is nothing but a failure here though. If you want to swing your racquet, you've actually got to swing your racquet in a full motion, or A) your movement probably won't register, or B) you'll put the ball in the wrong spot. Obviously, this is not a sit-on-your-couch game, and after a few matches, my arm felt the same way it does after playing some real tennis. Oddly, I liked playing with the MotionPlus without the nunchuck, as I could swing more freely without the wire in the way. Perhaps if I had a wireless nunchuk, it would be fine, but I got used to the use of the D-pad when I knew my shots were going where I aimed.
As good as the game feels when you get the control concept down (placing the perfect cross-court shot on your opponent on match point feels more victorious than any scoring play I've previously achieved in a video game) there's a lot of frustration when you know you did things right and you put the ball out of bounds, or worse yet, miss an easy shot that could have put a game away (something that happened too frequently, especially during tag-team matches.) (And good luck if you're trying to go for an overhead slam, a move that will work once every 20 or 30 times.) Part of the problem is the MotionPlus alignment can go screwy, requiring a reset by holding it still for two seconds (a fact that's mentioned in several loading screens.) You have to watch how your player holds the racquet on the baseline and see if it matches your positioning, and if it doesn't, quickly pause to reset. It seems ridiculous, and is hopefully something that's worked out of games as developers get used to the system.
On a side note, when waiting to return a serve with MotionPlus, you can move your racquet from side to side realistically. So why couldn't they map your celebrations too? When I pump my fist after a good play, or throw my hands up in frustration, it should be mimicked on-screen. Also, a way to argue close out calls would have been fantastic.
Not only is this one of the first MotionPlus titles, but it's also one of, if not the first EA Sports proper game with the company's new cartoon player models. This concept, which simplifies and stylizes models to get around the lower-powered Wii hardware and make smoother-looking games, is hopefully still evolving, because it doesn't impress much here. Yes, the characters are cute approximations of tennis stars (if you know tennis, you'll recognize most everyone) and their motion animations are smooth and somewhat varied (especially in reaction shots,) but the overall gameplay image is soft and slightly blurry; the settings, though authentic in design, have little texture; crowds are made up of detail-less cardboard cut-outs; and there's no interaction with the environments , so the footprints on the court at the beginning of a match are the same you'll see at the end, and the various non-player characters on the court, like the ball boys, never move a muscle. On the plus side, the presentation graphics and menus are beautiful, looking as good as the graphics on broadcast sports.
Unfortunately, these slimmed-down graphics haven't helped in getting through the game quickly, as load times feel lengthy in many places.
The audio in Grand Slam Tennis is impressive, but limited, as there's not a lot of variety of sounds in the sport, with the ping of the racquet strings, the bounce of the ball and the grunts of the players filling the majority of the aural catalog, with some generic audience noise as well, though their heightened responses to extended rallies is nice. (The added ping in your Wii-mote's speaker is also a nice attempt at enhancing the "real" feel of playing.) Other than that, you've got the match commentary, which sounds just like a real (but repetitive) broadcast, down to the tone and volume; in-stadium announcements , which sound authentic done in the local language; and some celebratory dance music following matches (which fills out a surround field well.) There are no real negative factors to be noted.
And in the End...
Is this the best tennis game available for the Wii? It depends what kind of tennis you're looking to play, as anyone just looking for a deeper version of Wii Tennis will want to look to Mario Power Tennis. This is far more involved and difficult, likely to appeal to the Virtua Tennis/Top Spin crowd, with an enjoyable mix of career mode play, party modes and online competition. But with the controls implementation difficult to get a handle on and the graphics looking unfinished, the Wii tennis throne remains slightly out of reach, but it's a solid debut for the franchise.