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EA's Grand Slam Tennis serves up an ace on the Wii!! ...or something.
News reported by 
March 17, 2009, 21:39
Sampras Serve

As a lad of Indian descent, Tennis was expected of me. Tennis and Mathematics. Tennis, Mathematics, and an eventual career in Medicine or Engineering. Ping Pong was a mandatory elective, soccer was optional, and basketball was entirely out of the question. Given that, I played tennis, but I never really knew if I enjoyed it. It took the loss of opponents, youth, and flexibility to make me realize that, yes, I actually did like playing tennis. But that realization came far too late, and my annual tennis match does little to quench my thirst for the sport of nerds.

Enter Wii Sports Tennis, the first Wii game that most of us played, a universal epiphany. From the satisfying thwack of the ball from the remote's speaker to the visceral rumble of the controller upon impact, Wii Sports Tennis really embodied the catchphrase "Playing is Believing". It may not have been exactly like playing tennis, but, damn, if it didn't feel just like playing tennis. All of our pre-release concerns about mandatory doubles play and lack of player control melted away as we lost ourselves in the sublime joy of the racket-ball interaction. Even the fact that shot recognition was, at times, a little dodgy did little to dampen our fun. Best of all was the way the game allowed everyone to play on a level playing field, gamers and non-gamers alike. The first time that I played, my aged father almost beat me (granted, I was slightly dizzy from being clocked in the head by his Wii Remote). No worries, I emerged victorious, but just the fact that we could genuinely compete was incredible, a paradigm-shifting moment.

Those of you 'hardcore' (closed-minded) gamers who still don't understand the appeal of the Wii, the above paragraph should give you a good indication. Games are always more enjoyable when everyone can get in on the fun.

While Wii Sports Tennis was a groundbreaking title, it definitely wasn't a perfect game - that dodgy shot recognition that I mentioned earlier, lack of flexibility and options, lack of online, a few exploits... That makes it especially puzzling that (in my estimation) it still hasn't been surpassed as the system's premier motion control experience. With the Wii Sports suite, Nintendo laid out a blueprint for how to successfully integrate motion control into simple, arcade-style games, but few companies seemed to notice.


Well, Electronic Arts finally got the memo, and they have taken the baton from Nintendo and delivered a worthy, significantly expanded follow-up to Wii Sports - Grand Slam Tennis. This isn't an already existing tennis game, clumsily retrofitted with Wii controls (*cough*Mariopowertennis*cough*). Grand Slam Tennis is a ground-up franchise, built specifically around the Wii platform. And that applies to the graphical style, the controls, the design decisions and flexibility... the whole package. Here's the only thing that you really need to know about Grand Slam Tennis: It's awesome, and you should buy it. I'm not going to tell you to reserve it, but pencil in the release date (June 16, 2009) and put aside some money (probably about 50 bones). Seriously, go write it on your calendar right now. I'll wait. For those of you who need more than that, I suppose I can go into a little more detail...

Let's start with that graphical style. Developers have a fine line to walk when choosing a graphical style on the Wii. Photorealistic games will always pale next to the HD competition. On the other hand, games that are too cartoony may turn off a significant section of the Wii market. EA has, in my opinion, come up with a very appealing compromise between these two choices. The graphics are just stylized, iconic, and distinctive enough to pop off of the screen without seeming too childish or x-treme. Grand Slam Tennis has clean, appealing visuals, the athletes are recognizable and, most importantly, the framerate is consistent. At this point, the animation could be just a bit smoother, but the title is still in development (and that might be an unavoidable by-product of motion control).

I don't have much to say about the sound in the game, except that it does its job and admirably recreates the thwacks and grunts and squeaks of a real-life tennis match. One thing to note: Half of our session was played on a muted system. When the producer, T-Dizzle (whatup, T-Dizzle!), turned the sound up, the game truly came alive. We seldom consciously notice the overall impact of evocative, accurate sound effects on the gameplay experience, but this scenario put that impact into stark relief.

Grand Slam Tennis is, unlike Wii Sports, a fully licensed tennis product. It has a variety of tennis stars, from John McEnroe to Pete Sampras to Roger Federer. Each of them, when controlled by the CPU, has AI routines that reflect their play styles, even down to behavioral quirks. (I didn't get to personally witness a McEnroe meltdown, but I fervently hope that such a thing will be included in the final package.) Additionally, in classic EA style, you can create a character and lead it down the road to victory (or defeat, I suppose).

Now for the most important aspect: Control. Grand Slam Tennis feels good. Really good. And there are several levels of control depth, for players of all skill levels. The game can be as simple as Wii Sports Tennis or... more complicated than Wii Sports Tennis. Grand Slam is quite an elegantly designed game, from a control perspective, differing from Nintendo's product in some key areas. In Wii Sports Tennis, power level, shot type, and spin were all determined purely through gestural motion control. While this system was very effective and immersive, it often resulted in incorrect shot interpretation, which could get slightly frustrating. To rectify this problem, Grand Slam Tennis only uses motion to determine power and spin. Shot type selection is done with button modifiers (hold A while swinging to hit a lob shot, hold B while swinging to hit a dropshot). It might sound complicated, but it was very intuitive, and, overall, a positive change, ultimately allowing the player more flexibility, as well as more accuracy in shot type. The range of shot power in Grand Slam Tennis also seems dramatically wider than that of Wii Sports Tennis. I was able to consistently pull off gentle slice dropshots and deep topspin lobs almost immediately. Sweet. EA has provided a training mode to allow players to come to grips with the game's control scheme, but, honestly, it shouldn't take too long.

Additionally, the degree of control over player movement is entirely up to the player. If you just want to focus on hitting the ball, the game will automatically move you into the proper position a la Wii Sports Tennis. However, you can override this automatic positioning with the D-Pad if you want to, say, charge the net for a volley. Plugging in a Nunchuk controller gives you even more control over the player's positioning. It's nice that this depth is present, and it's even nicer that it's purely optional.

Sampras Groundstroke

There's an elephant in the room that I haven't yet mentioned, and that elephant is named Wii MotionPlus. This new peripheral, which is scheduled to be bundled with Nintendo's Wii Sports Resort product, enhances the accuracy and responsiveness of the standard Wii Remote controller. EA is one of the few third-parties which had early access to this peripheral, and Grand Slam Tennis, as well as Tiger Woods '10, the promising upcoming continuation of the Tiger Woods franchise on Wii, will be among the first games to take advantage of MotionPlus. (Because of rumored delays to Wii Sports Resort, EA might even beat the peripheral to market.) Wii MotionPlus does add an extra degree of finesse and accuracy to Grand Slam Tennis, but the reason I haven't mentioned it until this point is that I wanted to stress that the game is still very fun, playable, and worthy of purchase, even without taking the MotionPlus support into consideration.

Plugging that tiny peripheral onto the end of your Wii Remote definitely brings about some interesting control changes, though. First of all, your in-game character mirrors your racket movement on a 1:1 level. Simply, as you rotate and move the racket around, your avatar will do the same, repositioning himself, if necessary. That might be just a cosmetic effect, though. The more important benefits of Wii MotionPlus are improved shot recognition and enhanced aiming capability. Without the MotionPlus peripheral, Grand Slam Tennis can still occasionally confuse your topspin shot for a slice shot or flat shot (although it will never confuse a normal shot for a lob, as detailed above). MotionPlus decreases the likelihood of this kind of input error.

It also changes the aiming mechanic of the game slightly. When using the Wii Remote alone, the aiming works much as it does in Wii Sports Tennis. Hitting early will send the ball cross court, and hitting late will allow you to make an inside-out shot. One nice innovation is a small arrow that travels over the net as the ball approaches, indicating the exact angle of a shot made at that time. However, according to the game's producer, once MotionPlus is plugged in, the direction of your shot is primarily determined by the motion and follow-through of your swing. Timing is a much smaller factor.

Those are the primary difference of playing with or without the MotionPlus peripheral. I definitely enjoyed my time with it, but the game was very playable and fun, either way. I didn't really have enough time with MotionPlus to make any conclusive statements about it, but it's a great option, and I'm excited that 'it's in the game' (har har).

It should be said that I found that plugging in MotionPlus also allowed me to hit much more powerful shots, but the game is still being balanced and tweaked, and the producer said that this is definitely not their intent. They want to keep a level playing field between MotionPlus and non-MotionPlus users, for the sake of fair competition.

Used to date Chibi Mandy Moore.

Used to date Chibi Mandy Moore.

In terms of game modes, Grand Slam Tennis greatly expands upon Wii Sports Tennis' meager offerings. There is a single-player career mode, which I can't say too much about yet, the aforementioned training mode, several party games (which I can't talk about yet), and some other stuff that I can't talk about yet. One thing I CAN say (I think) is that both singles and doubles are definitely included in the package. I neglected to inquire about Canadian Doubles, but, upon reflection, I should've. The clincher is EA's inclusion of online play.

Probably the most critical flaw of Wii Sports Tennis was that you had to have friends present to get the most out of the software. No longer. Now you will be able to find an opponent anytime, anywhere (you'll probably still be in your rumpus room, though). In my view, this feature's inclusion makes Grand Slam Tennis a must-buy product, as it significantly extends the value and longevity of the already fun core game. I can't describe the online features in detail, but the things I've heard are very promising.

This has all been a long-winded way of saying that Grand Slam Tennis is, even in its unfinished state, a fantastically enjoyable product. It has become probably my most anticipated game, across all platforms. Innovative, polished, and very, very fun. It is, so to speak, the new hotness.

It brings to mind something that my childhood tennis teacher, Linda Moe, always used to tell me: "Please don't tell anyone that I was your tennis teacher."

Anyone still reading? Hello? Bueller?

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03/17/09, 21:39
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I had no idea Indians were expected to play tennis. Interesting.

I think yeah, the main lacking of Wii Sports tennis is no control over the player. EA is smart in that they're doing both. Let the uber casuals swing the racket without worrying about the rest, but for those of us who want more... nunchuck player control + racket swinging = key. Do you ever feel like you're going to rip out the nunchuck while swinging? That's my major worry, the cord isn't super long. Or did you not get a hands-on with the nunchuck as well?

Posted by 
 on: 03/17/09, 22:12
I didn't get a hands-on with the Nunchuk. But that is definitely a concern. How long is the cord? I'm sure it's something you could get used to, but Wiimote+ only seems like the best solution to me, occasionally using the D-Pad to charge the net or get into position for an especially nasty shot. Holding a Nunchuk in your other hand would probably feel a lot less like tennis.

Besides the slight hitches in animation, the only real problem that I had with the game was a bit of extra lag on the serve. I think it's something they could address before release, though. That doesn't have anything to do with what we were talking about. I just forgot to mention it, and I didn't want to try to insert it into the precariously large chunk of text above.

All Indians play tennis. And table tennis.

Posted by 
 on: 03/17/09, 22:18
I'm not too worried about nunchuck motion not feeling as realistic, I still like the whole mind game of positioning in tennis. It's really a very strategic game once you realize that, in most cases, no one is going to miss a ball if it is anywhere near them (in video games anyway, I miss EVERY ball in real tennis regardless) and that you often have to battle for positioning for awhile, inching your way into where you need to be before you finally get that one chance...

Hmm. My cousin never played tennis NOR table tennis. But he is a fake Indian, what with the being half white thing.

Posted by 
 on: 03/17/09, 22:53
Yeah, that doesn't count... he should still be eligible for soccer, though.

The new punching system in Fight Night Round 4 (yes, I'm going to talk about it, dammit!!) is totally physics-based. So if you stick someone at just the right range, it does far more damage than if you hit them when they're too close or strike a glancing blow. That's a pretty cool, realistic feature, I think.

Real tennis is almost as much about footwork and momentum than the actual strokes. That stuff is totally essential. So I asked T-Dizzle if your distance from the ball would affect your shot, and could you get too close and get jammed, and such. He said that you COULD get jammed by being out of position, but positioning wasn't as important as the actual stroke in Grand Slam Tennis. That's why I think relying on the automatic positioning wouldn't be so bad in this game, unless you want to try a surprise tactic. You can still ace people and hit the ball so sharply that the automatic positioning won't get them there in time, but most of the game is going to be decided with the strokes, themselves, rather than fancy positioning. You can definitely move around a bit to anticipate your opponent's attacks, but that kind of thing will be fine with the D-Pad, I think.

Posted by 
 on: 03/17/09, 23:11
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