During your first half-hour with the Career mode in EA’s Grand Slam Tennis 2, don’t be surprised if the following happens: after an exceptional display of aptitude and dexterity in which you’ve neatly dispatched at least three nondescript chumps, you find yourself holding the trophy for something called the EA World Tour in Dubai, which came as a result of you beating Novak Djokovic and/or Andy Roddick in a breeze of uninterrupted straight sets. At first you’ll probably peruse every available menu in an attempt to ramp up the difficulty, or lambast a game that seems to reward aggressive net-rushing over every other technique. Take your next step however – a trip to the Australian Open – and you’ll find that this is all thanks to the smartest learning curve ever seen in a tennis game. And possibly even a sports game full stop.
Because rather than strong-arming you into wading beyond a band of sketchily drawn phonies before eventually going head-to-head with the world’s finest, Grand Slam Tennis 2 throws you in at the deep end and tasks you with trying to stay there. Hit the midway point of the Australian Open and your opponents are going to start responding to you hawkish techniques by lobbing you whenever you approach the net; start hanging around at the baseline and they’ll start landing impeccable drop shots. Bit by bit you raise your game solely through experience, and it’s a totally organic process. You learn the ropes not via the standard (largely unhelpful) process of being bombarded with non-stop hoops to jump through, and the carrot of maintaining your unjustly earned top-tier status is a surprisingly coercive incentive.
As is the case with almost every EA Sports title, usage of the right thumbstick is now emphasised though never forced upon you. As with Fight Night’s initially intimidating Full Punch Control, Full Racquet Control is a dynamic and comprehensively gripping scheme that feels advantageous from the get-go. It enables you to change the course and style of each shot in a split second, and charting the path of the ball without moving your character in the same direction feels like a very notable step forward. It’ll take a bit of time to get your head around the fact that the bottom half of the right thumbstick is mirrored – so if you want to slice a ball into the top right of the court, you’ll have you to affect the stick to the bottom left – but it’s well worth mastering. Using buttons erodes rather a lot of its personality.
It’s a bit odd that people with limited amounts of leisure time aren’t accommodated more, but if you don’t play three or five set matches you don’t have enough time to complete the Career mode’s bonus objectives, consequently making it more difficult to level your player up to a satisfactory degree once the difficulty tier starts to rise. Career mode aside, the rest of the package is pretty much as you’d expect, but the ESPN Grand Slam Classics – a riff on NBA 2K12’s excellent Greatest mode – is a very generous and rewarding side endeavour, though the lack of a substantial video highlight reel on completion is a shame. The commentary (by Pat Cash and John McEnroe) is not inferior to the audio tracks you’ll hear in any other EA Sports Title – and it’s several miles beneath the excellent one that’s heard during Fight Night bouts – but there are a few notable howlers, such as when Pat Cash unleashes the following pearl: “As my old coach used to say, the backhand must go over the net.” Wisdom indeed.
There are a few other minor issues that err on the inexplicable. When you’re serving you’re only able to take absurdly pensive pigeon steps, so there’s no opportunity to briskly flummox your opponent with a fortuitous serve a la Virtua Tennis. Grand Slam 2 also takes a page from Top Spin 4’s book and uses small grabs of text to comment on almost every shot that you take, despite the fact that the gameplay is a student of the far looser school practiced by Top Spin’s SEGA counterpart; thus, screwing up isn’t even that much of an issue. There’s nothing wrong with being advised when you’re making actual mistakes, but being told that you executed a shot “Too Late” when said shot completely confounded your opponent, you start to wonder why the developers made these snippets a permanent fixture.
And that dichotomy pretty much summarises Grand Slam Tennis 2; it’s the halfway house between the arcade flippancy of Virtua Tennis and the none-more-hardcore pedantry of Top Spin. The campaign isn’t stat-heavy and sedate, nor is it a garish boardgame – it’s somewhere in between. As an overall package it’s not vastly better or worse than either of those games, but it strikes an appealing balance that will almost certainly spawn a comparably sizeable number of hard-won devotees. And in a tiny genre that always seemed to have been totally sewn up, that constitutes a rather massive success in itself.
Grand Slam Tennis 2 is available now for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Watch the launch trailer for Grand Slam Tennis 2 below: