It's been more than a decade since EA's last tennis outing, so it came as a big surprise when EA announced Grand Slam Tennis would be coming to the Nintendo Wii. The game features an all-star cast of past and present players, and with Wimbledon's inclusion, it's the first time we've seen all four Grand Slam tournaments together. Grand Slam is fun to play at times, but it's ultimately hampered by a frustrating control scheme and steep difficulty curve in the single-player mode.
Grand Slam has the foundation in place for a rewarding experience but is let down by a frustrating control scheme that makes the game a serious challenge--even on the easiest setting--to the extent that much of the game simply isn't fun. Grand Slam is one of the first games to support Wii MotionPlus and the result is disappointing; although the peripheral makes the controls feel more responsive and sensitive than a standard Wii Remote, it merely reduces the margin for error while making the game more difficult. In theory, the timing of your swing and follow-through determines whether you angle the ball to the left, right, or centre of the court, but in reality, the way that you are often heavily punished for the slightest errors makes the controls feel capricious and random. This results in the fun being rapidly sucked out of the game, especially in single-player matches where the AI almost unfailingly sends inch-perfect returns. An in-depth tutorial may have helped this difficulty curve, but Grand Slam only gives you a practice mode against a ball machine. While there are some menu animations that give a brief overview of basic and advanced shots, they're no substitute for a full-fledged tutorial.
While the Practice mode tells you what shot you're performing (for example, top spin, flat shot), Grand Slam offers no real feedback to help improve your style. This is exacerbated by the fact that your player starts with poor skills, and the only way to improve your skill and abilities is to win games against seasoned pros. Because the AI player rarely make lobs--even when you're up at the net--the easiest method to defeat the AI is with a serve and volley strategy, making the player run across the baseline to return shots. If you prefer to play on the baseline, however, you will need to return countless shots until the AI player makes a mistake, which it rarely does.
Grand Slam's single-player gameplay is split among a Grand Slam Career mode, exhibition matches, and party games. As the name suggests, the Grand Slam Career mode eschews minor competitions in favour of the four majors: the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, preceded by a few practice matches. These consist of an exhibition match with a low-skilled player, a match against a tennis legend, and a skill challenge, which is a doubles match based on the Tennis Party games. If you win all three pretournament challenges, you'll also get a chance to play a bonus match with a legend. You can only attempt each match once per tournament, so if you lose, you'll have to wait until the following year to return and get that chance again. To win a tournament, you need to win five consecutive matches against seeded players. An additional mode called Get Fit tracks the total amount of calories you've burnt while playing and allows you to set goals, earn awards for meeting those goals, and view your progress on a calendar.
The game boasts a roster of 23 past or present players, including such household names as John McEnroe, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Justine Henin, Boris Becker, and Andy Murray. Despite the improbability of Bjorn Borg and Andy Murray playing together in a tournament, there is a certain amount of fun to be had in the novelty of seeing new and old play against each other. Though you can play as a legend in exhibition matches, when you're ready to earn a Grand Slam, you'll need to create a new player. The customisation options for your player are fairly extensive, with tweaks to your appearance and playing style on offer, which adds up to a fairly satisfying experience. Players start off with a zero-star rating and can eventually match the five-star rating of such pros as Pete Sampras by winning practice and tournament matches in the Grand Slam mode.
In addition to overall skill/experience, you earn special abilities that provide specific performance boosts when you beat each legend. You can choose from Nadal's forehand topspin, McEnroe's net volley, Roddick's power serve, and more. The catch is that as you unlock abilities, you only have one slot at first, with a further two slots unlocked along the way. While this might be rewarding in a game with a shallower difficulty curve, in Grand Slam Tennis, it fails to be fun, even if eventually unlocking skills can be rewarding. You can change your abilities at any point, allowing you to tweak your player's strength to your preference, though, which does give you more options later on in the game.
Multiplayer is fun and simple to play in both offline and online games. Because both players are equally hampered by the control scheme, it ceases to feel like an unfair battle with the AI. Getting online is easy, and after jumping through a few menu screens, you can quickly get into an exhibition match with friends or other players. You don't need to set up an EA account to play, and with little to no lag, it's great to see online play implemented successfully in a third-party Wii game. There's also an online leaderboard where you can view your rank in singles and doubles matches, the top 100 players worldwide for both match types, and a country leaderboard that lists nations by their cumulative win/loss record. You can play unranked matches or ranked matches where you win or lose points for each win or defeat. Unfortunately, you can only play exhibition matches online, and it would've been great see a Tournament mode or party games available to play online. In addition to regular matches, Tennis Party has seven offline games for up to four players. Aussie Doubles is a particular highlight where three players take turns playing two versus one. Single players earn double the points, and the player that's first to win three points is declared the winner. Drop and Lob is also rewarding where you earn double for winning points when using a drop or lob shot.
Grand Slam has gone for a cute, cartoony style rather than realism, and it looks crisp and bright. The end result works well, and the likenesses of the players are surprisingly well crafted. Pete Sampras certainly looks like a caricatured version of the real thing, and you will be relieved to know that John McEnroe's character sports a fantastically bouffant mullet. Although the crowds lack up-close detail and the officials and ball kids appear motionless and lifeless throughout matches, the rest of the visuals are easy on the eyes. All of the courts are well represented in the game; for example, Wimbledon has sunlit grass, the US Open has floodlit courts, and the French Open has clay.
Unfortunately the game's audio doesn't live up to the same standard. The electronic soundtrack may have the celebrity name of Paul van Dyk behind the mixing, but it features rather forgettable tracks. Meanwhile, the voice of Wimbledon champion and veteran commentator Pat Cash lacks excitement and enthusiasm; thus, his commentary comes across as rather pedestrian. It's also a bit strange, albeit amusing, to hear him commentate while playing on court. He is featured as a legend in-game and tends to enjoy self-praise. The sound effects, on the other hand, are all well done with the ball, players, crowd, and ambient noises sounding as they should. Hearing the crowd rise and fall with the gameplay is great, and the crowd will really get behind a long rally.
Grand Slam Tennis has some great inclusions, with a varied selection of well-styled licensed players, all four Grand Slam tournaments, and a number of modes, including online play, to keep you busy. Despite this, the overall experience is let down by a control scheme that's frustratingly erratic. As a result, the gameplay is difficult and made even more challenging by the need to level up your character by defeating the sport's champions. Despite some successes, Grand Slam is a tough sell. Serious tennis fans will not find the finesse, controls and deep Career mode that they expect, while novices or those looking for a pick-up-and-play tennis experience will likely find it overly challenging.