The game of tennis was one of the first sports to be replicated in electronic form, with the seminal Pong in 1972. Although it didn't get near to the chess-like complexity of the sport, in its essence, Pong was a battle of two players hitting a moving object back and forth, each vying for the dominance of an arena.
With a name so synonymous with sport, it was a surprise that a gaming monolith such as EA took so long to enter the market with Grand Slam Tennis, long after rivals had established successful franchises.
GST debuted on the Wii in 2009, with a more stylistically caricatured approach to the game. Where it innovated was in the implementation of the Wii Motion Plus, allowing for more realistic racket movement, an astute move by EA, given the popularity of Wii Sports’ tennis mini-game.
With Grand Slam Tennis 2, EA are offering another innovation to the tennis game genre, with the use of the right analogue stick to control shots. This dynamic is now ubiquitous in most EA sports titles, elevating the gameplay of most in the process. This is no different in GST2, and the stick proves to be very enjoyable to play with (particularly for topspin shots which require a down-up movement of the stick), although it offers no advantage over using the standard buttons or the PS Move.
If anything, the stick is more prohibitive than both other control methods because it’s harder to find angles, and it's easy to completely miss the ball all together when executing a slice. It's a pity because EA have potentially introduced a great control method; an expansion on Top Spin 4's service dynamic which gives the user a comfortable synergy with holding a racket and manoeuvring a shot. This could have been further elaborated with the PS Move controller, but again it's hit and miss, with attempts at slices and topspins being misread as different types of shot.
The flawed controlled scheme extends to the drop shot button, which does not offer the subtle advantage of the shot. On the contrary, it actually gives your opponent and advantage, allowing them to sprint to the net a whip a winner across court. Many tennis games are maligned due to the advantage of net play; GST2 follows in this inglorious tradition.
Every AI opponent, whether they be a defensive baseliner like Nadal or a serve-volleyer like Edberg, rushes to the net after just a few shots from the back of the court. The formulaic nature soon becomes jarring and what's more, a passing shot or lob rarely works against this net play. It just allows your opponent to smash the ball into the hoardings or into the line judges who regularly fail to flinch, even with a ball about to smash them in the face. They're obviously made of tougher stuff than the programming.
In terms of presentation GST2 carries EA's usual sheen of quality but does not impress as much as other EA titles. Although the game has the Wimbledon licence, the buzz surrounding the tournament is never truly realised. Crowds sound flat and the epic rallies do not generate Top Spin 4's crowd histrionics.
As to be expected from EA, there are some nice little touches, like Nadal indulging in some crotch fiddling between points or Federer anxiously twiddling his racket when receiving a serve. It's a pity some of these are not extended to every player (I'm yet to see a game that recreates Becker's back bending serve) and the animations for a slice are no different to a flat or top spin shot. This means the likes of Murray and Djokovic hit two-handed backhand slices, which looks odder than Nadal rearranging his water bottles.
Another innovation is the inclusion of John McEnroe and Pat Cash offering full-on commentary. It's good in theory but annoying in practice, especially when you've heard Pat Cash say “great passing shot mate” for the 50th time. After a couple of games in, I was half expecting Cash's clichéd script to add “let's throw a shrimp on the Barbie” or “pass us a tinny mate” but sadly it didn't come. Cash's annoyances aside, commentary, sometimes insightful, is not a bad first attempt for the genre. I have every confidence in EA making it far superior for future titles… as long as they don't hire Andrew Castle anyway.
The career mode is solid; not as exhaustive as Top Spin 4, although better than Virtual Tennis' board game facade. It's filled with challenges, warm-up tournaments, training and Grand Slams, but the sense of progression is neutered by the formulaic gameplay. At lower levels, players just don't hit the ball when it's in direct proximity, but at the higher levels the game is dogged by the predictability which alas forms the fabric of GST2.
Despite a notable number of failings, GST2 is an enjoyable addition to the heritage, more so when played with the right stick replicating racket strokes. Against a mate or online it manages to break free of its tennis-by-numbers feel to a certain extent, and I am excited at what the next incarnation of the franchise will bring.
What makes Top Spin 4 great is the nuanced differences between each player, in their attributes and variety of shot, and the inclusion of an ‘inside-out’ shot button is a greater innovation to gameplay than anything in GST2. The two remind me of once huge void between Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA, and much like those games, I'm sure EA will bridge the gap successfully – bring on next year’s inevitable follow-up.
GST2 is a Jo Wilfred Tsonga. It's a crowd pleaser, has touches of greatness and could eventually challenge for number one. For now though, it’s still a couple of years away from fulfilling its potential.