Grand Slam Tennis 2 has the daunting task of following up last year’s brace of solid tennis titles. Both Virtua Tennis 4 and Top Spin 4 hold a racquet-like grip on the two opposing formats of the tennis genre: Virtua Tennis with its slick arcade action and Top Spin with its challenging simulation focus. It’s unsurprising, then, that Grand Slam Tennis 2 should feel like a blend between the two, conjuring up a game of bat and ball that’s much more realistic than Virtua Tennis but not quite as demanding as Top Spin. On paper it sounds like a perfect solution, but while GST2 never quite succumbs to a double fault, it rarely hits an ace either.
The fundamental problem is that EA's effort fails to etch out a personality of its own. The game’s headline Total Racquet Control system is about as close as it gets to forming an identity, but while the implementation is functional, it’s far from the game changer EA intended it to be.
Targeting swings with the right analogue stick feels stodgy and unsatisfying, and while with practice it’s possible to add accuracy to your shot, the results simply aren’t good enough to warrant the investment required. The problems are accentuated by the awkward motions attached to each of the game’s distinct shot types: while pushing forwards on the analogue stick to play bog-standard flat returns, and pulling backwards-and-forwards to play top spin shots makes sense (in a contrived, video gamey kind of way), flicking the controller to play slices doesn’t feel anywhere near as accurate as it should.
In committing to the Total Racquet Control system, EA’s compromised the quality of the game’s wider mechanics. Playing with buttons feels much more familiar – utilising the charge mechanics of Virtua Tennis and combining them with the timing aspects of Top Spin – but there isn’t enough depth in the shot options to make the gameplay feel fresh over long sessions. 2K's game avoided this issue by allowing you to mix precise shots with power shots, but such variety is left missing here. It leaves the game wrestling with an identity crisis – offering a learning curve a little too complex for Virtua Tennis patrons, but nowhere near deep enough for Top Spin fans.
Then there’s the PlayStation Move support. Being a tennis game, the optional feature makes perfect sense but, like its competitors, EA’s failed to fully leverage the power of Sony’s motion wand. Unlike SEGA's tennis title the motion controller is compatible with every game mode, and it offers more precision than Top Spin to boot. It’s certainly the pick of the bunch if you’re desperate for a fully featured motion control tennis game, but it still falls woefully short of peripheral’s potential.
The biggest problem with the motion control support is that it tries to replicate controller inputs with motion gestures, creating a disconnect between the player and the game. Unlike Sports Champions’ table-tennis mode – which remains the benchmark for high quality PlayStation Move integration – Grand Slam Tennis 2 does nothing to reward correct form. For example, if you swing a forehand return when your on-screen player is actually playing a backhand, the game responds regardless. Sure it lowers the barrier of entry for newcomers, but it shows a complete disregard for your inputs – you'd imagine a backhand return would play pretty differently to a forehand – and while you have some general control over shot placement and power, it’s not enough to make you feel like the PlayStation Move controller is a direct extension of your arm.
It’s frustrating more than anything, because there are moments where you see how close EA came to pulling off something pretty special with Move. Playing over the ball allows you to perform thundering top spin shots with decent accuracy, while cutting through takes the pace off and triggers a slice. Similarly, angling the motion controller outwards lets you position shots down the line, while swinging across your body lets you look for the corners. But all of EA’s hard work is undone by the inclusion of button modifiers to perform lobs and drop shots. Theoretically, scooping under the ball should allow you to float it into the air, but EA’s system just isn’t complex enough to track that kind of motion and it leaves the whole thing feeling a bit unfinished.
Whether you’re playing with a DualShock or PlayStation Move controller, the pace of the game is never quite right on standard difficulties. The ball physics – while consistent across the various court types – feel a bit slow, and you need to really ramp things up to Superstar difficulty before it starts matching the pace of a real game of tennis. It’s bizarre watching Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal casually stroking shots towards each other on the lower difficulties, and so it’s almost essential you crank up the difficulty the moment you pop the game into your PlayStation 3, particularly if you crave that realistic feeling.
EA’s talked up Grand Slam Tennis 2’s Pro AI system throughout the entirety of the game’s PR cycle, but the whole thing is let down by the game’s emphasis on serve and volley. Given the game’s player roster – which is largely dominated by veterans from the serve and volley era – it makes sense that EA would focus on tuning this area the most, but it’s utterly baffling when you see Rafael Nadal, a player who has dedicated his entire career to playing at the baseline, approaching the net on every other point. The animations aren’t quite right either, with Novak Djokovic’s loose, never-say-die play style poorly captured and Andy Roddick’s whip-like serve not particularly well imitated.
Thankfully, the players look like they should – which is an area both Virtua Tennis and Top Spin have struggled – featuring an uncanny likeness to their real-life counterparts. They sound similar too, with Sharapova’s irritating screeching sure to frustrate other occupants in the room.
Presentation as a whole is an area in which Grand Slam Tennis 2 excels. While Paul Van Dyk’s failed attempt at a prestigious-sounding house music soundtrack might fall flat on its face, the inclusion of all four Grand Slams, in addition to multiple courts from each tournament, really adds to the sense of occasion. The importance of this is best felt in the career mode where, playing as a relatively unknown rookie, it makes sense that you’d start out on a basic court with a handful of spectators. It’s always been bizarre when tennis games – Virtua Tennis in particular – have you shoved out on Centre Court for your Grand Slam debut.
Progressing through the courts, playing in front of bigger crowds and encountering more challenging opponents is a definite draw of the campaign mode which, otherwise, is a cookie cutter affair. Building up statistics by taking on training lessons anchored by John McEnroe add some substance to proceedings, but the career mode is exactly what you’d expect outside of that. Light RPG mechanics allow you to collect new gear and goodies as you progress, but outside of the lure of PlayStation Network trophies, it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for the career mode beyond your first couple of seasons.
The game’s Classic Match mode does a better job of attaching an engaging single-player component to the action, throwing you into a host of memorable situations and requiring you to meet a variety of objectives in order to earn points. As you progress, you’ll unlock new matches from numerous different eras, which act as both a great history lesson and a fun excuse for investment in the core gameplay mechanics.
As you’d expect from an EA Sports title, the multiplayer is lovingly polished too. Adopting FIFA’s lightning fast matchmaking feature, you can dive in and out of matches with relative ease, with tournament modes and lobbies all on offer to keep you engrossed. In games the net code is fast and fluid, with our hands-on serving up just a couple of instances of lag and network-related frustrations. It’s pretty impressive. How much you’ll actually want to invest into the online mode will depend on your enjoyment of the core mechanics though, and, again, those questions of depth come into play.
One thing you can be certain of if you opt to commit though, is the repetition of phrases from the commentary box. While we’re big fans of the inclusion of John McEnroe and Pat Cash’s dulcet vocal chords, the amount of recorded dialogue is agonisingly thin. We’d need an abacus the size of a tennis court to count the number of times we’d heard McEnroe recap the advantages of playing the ball deep during our hands-on time with Grand Slam Tennis 2, and it’s not the only phrase that pops up often.
As previously alluded, the player roster is solid, but its emphasis on classic stars leaves the modern day selection lacking. It’s the women’s game that suffers the most, with no sign of current world number one Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova or Caroline Wozniacki. Thankfully, the game overcomes its roster shortcomings by including a pretty robust creation suite and allowing you to share players online.
All things considered, there's a lot to like about Grand Slam Tennis 2, especially if you’re a fan of the sport in general. Sadly the game’s lack of substance, fuelled by its inability to carve out its own personality, is hard to overlook. From a presentation perspective it’s by far the best looking tennis game on PS3, but that’s not enough to ensure repeated investment. Decent but flawed PlayStation Move controls do nothing to elevate the package, and while there’s some impressive multiplayer support and a good selection of single-player modes on offer, you’re probably better served by one of PlayStation’s other more established tennis brands.