When the Wii was first shown to the public, the fancy live action trailers gave the impression that the Wii remote would mimic your every move, turning your living room into a virtual reality holodeck. While those dreams have long since been shattered, the Wii MotionPlus add-on looks like a step in the right direction, and one of the first games to make use of it is EA Sports Grand Slam Tennis. Promising unprecedented racquet control and a deep roster of modes, does it serve an ace or double fault?
If you've weaned yourself on Wii Sports Tennis' simple rundown of options, prepare for a veritable avalanche here. The single-player campaign has you creating a player from a limited list of options and then hitting the circuit to take on over 20 of the world's biggest pros on the world's biggest stages. With plenty of the grand slam tournaments represented, and a robust roster of real pros both past and present, the authenticity is definitely here-even if it doesn't look particularly realistic.
As you win matches and tournaments you're rewarded with unlocks that give your player increased skills. You can defeat a real pro to gain their most obvious attribute, or unlock equipment that will give your shots a boost. You can only equip one performance boost at each of three levels, but it allows for a lot of flexibility as you prepare for that clay court showdown with Rafael Nadal.
You also get a party mode for up to four players that allows you to set whacky rules for each game, though carnival-style shenanigans are kept to a minimum. There's also a fitness element that permeates every mode that details how many calories you've burned. It's a bit suspect as we seriously doubt that 10 minutes of swinging your arm will burn 40 calories, but at least it gives you some sense that playing Grand Slam Tennis is better for you than parking your butt on the couch and pressing buttons.
The final component is the online play. You can forget friend codes and all the other hurdles that usually come with playing online games on the Wii. You can match up against random players for ranked or exhibition matches, and then add those strangers to your friends list after the match.
As you complete matches you're ranked on a leader board, and the game does an adequate job of matching you up against the right level of competition. You'll be playing for whatever country you select, so every time you win, some points are awarded to an international leader board to see which country possesses the most skill. It's simple, yet surprisingly motivating. The stat tracking is robust and we experienced hardly any lag even when playing on a weak Wi-fi connection.
Compared to most Wii sports games, Grand Slam Tennis is virtually bursting with modes and options. The grand slam single-player provides plenty of motivation to keep playing, the fitness angle is a nice touch, the party games give tennis a new twist, and the online goes well beyond the call of duty on the Wii.
Grand Slam Tennis was made to be played with the Wii MotionPlus. If you don't have it, and don't want to buy one separately for 25 bucks, then we recommend just sticking with Wii Sports Tennis. However, if you buy Tiger Woods 2010 for the Wii, you can spend an extra $10 and get the add-on. It's definitely worth the money as Tiger is a great game, and then you'll have the MotionPlus for Grand Slam Tennis.
If you don't invest in Nintendo's latest gadget, just like Wii Sports Tennis, shot placement is determined solely on timing. You can play with just the Wii Remote and the computer will run for you, or you can attach the Nunchuk and handle it yourself. If you're going to let the computer take control, make sure you select a player with serious foot speed. Otherwise, it's going to be difficult. Alternately, you can make sure to build your created character's speed first, and then you're in business. In the early going, the Nunchuk is the way to go, but if you have a player who can run, the computer does an admirable job and you can concentrate on your shots.
If you do have MotionPlus, prepare for a steep learning curve, but it's 100 percent worth getting over. You'll have problems beating players on the easy setting at first, but be patient and you'll be rewarded with exacting precision. You do not have perfect one-to-one control of your racquet. Instead you have to set up for each swing, let 'er rip, and be deliberate with where you want the ball to go on the follow-through.
It's important to return the Wii Remote to the neutral position after each swing. Otherwise, setting up for a shot will sometimes be misread and you'll whiff. It's the way you're supposed to play real tennis, and once you have it down, the control you have is deadly accurate-especially after you've boosted your created character's swing ability.
Once you've mastered the cross-court return or how to send one down the line, you can basically abandon the Nunchuk and let the computer run. Then reaching a ball is often a matter of perfectly timing your swing to get the best extension. With the Nunchuk you can go to the net using the analog stick, and with just the Wii Remote you press up or down on the D-pad to attack or retreat. Either works great.
Lobs and drop shots are handled with the B and A buttons, respectively. These shots can receive some added umph by giving them topspin or backspin with the Wii Remote equipped with MotionPlus. Lobs, in particular, can be extremely effective because the ball bounds off the court much more quickly and it can catch your opponent off-guard.
Speaking of the ball bouncing, the various court surfaces have a huge impact on the play. Clay courts allow for medium bounces and players take longer to recover, making winners incredibly important. Hard surfaces supply plenty of twitch gaming as the ball and players both react with fervor. On grass, things are much slower. The ball feels like it's creeping at times and the bounces are muted, making shot placement paramount. It's incredibly realistic, and that's probably the best way to describe the gameplay as a whole.
We've yet to play a tennis game that feels as true-to-the-sport as Grand Slam Tennis. The more we played the better we got with placing our shots, and the more addicted we became.
The graphics engine powering Grand Slam Tennis definitely needs an overhaul. Its limitations are somewhat masked by the cartoony art style, but there's no denying just how bland the visuals are. Animation is one of the bright points as players troll the courts, control the net, and make breathtaking dives to save a point. The pros are rough approximations of the real players, and as mentioned earlier, the customization options are weak. Compared to other Wii games like Virtua Tennis, it looks downright awful.
The audio is tastefully done with nonintrusive announcers who punctuate the on-court action at all the right times, but they could use a lot more lines of dialogue. The crowd does a good job of recognizing amazing plays and lengthy rallies, adding even more tension to an already intense game. The techno music that permeates the menus won't be spinning at the club this weekend, but they're fairly catchy and innocuous.
If you're a tennis player, or just someone who's mastered and grown tired of Wii Sports Tennis, pick up Grand Slam Tennis with a MotionPlus add-on and prepare to be amazed. Just saddle that amazement with a little bit of patience. The learning curve makes pick-up games with the uninitiated a bore, but with the incredible online functionality, a viable opponent is just a series of ones and zeroes away. If this is the first step in the implementation of MotionPlus, then color us impressed.
Reviewed on Nintendo Wii.