[23 March 2012]
Were it not for the beautiful HD graphics and character models, Grand Slam Tennis 2 might as well be Mario Tennis 64. This isn’t a condemnation of the game—Mario Tennis remains one of the greatest games in the Mario lineage—but it does point to a disturbing fact about tennis video games: the AI of the games has hardly changed in the last decade or two.
The real-life gameplay of the sport may be at fault for this. Though an obvious truth, given tennis’ one-on-one nature, if you’re not hitting the ball back to your opponent, you’re losing the game. As such, the sport necessitates that you are always where the ball is/will be. In real life, human error and the difficulty of hitting precise, accurate shots adds drama and variance to this model. In video games, which require a level of automated functionality in addition to human action, the placement of your shots is rarely in question (ie, in bounds).
Playing without the fear of the side and endlines makes Grand Slam Tennis 2—and in effect, most tennis games—much more like Checkers than Chess. Defensive shots are a rarity as the ability to return balls on the fly to exact court locations presents little challenge. The game becomes an exercise in tedium: forehand left corner, forehand left corner, backhand right corner. Game, set, match.
To offset this tried and true model, the designers at EA might have considered adding a real-time accuracy meter to ball striking. Instead, the gameplay revelation in Grand Slam Tennis 2 is the Total Racket Control functionality. This addition theoretically gives you control over each shot. By pulling back on the right analog stick and moving it forward, you add top spin. By simply pulling back and letting go, you strike a slice shot. There are various other deviations from this method, but all are simple to master and implement. The first time that I played Novak Djokovic, I won without surrendering a single game.
Though this gameplay appears remedial, it mostly outweighs the converse problem, which dominates most of sports games: overly intelligent and powerful AI. In the Madden series, for instance, linebackers frequently become adept at reading plays and leaping for interceptions. In most basketball games, opposing teams will go on unstoppable runs. In essence, a significant portion of sporting games’ AI has the ability to say: “You’re Not Winning This.” Grand Slam Tennis 2 suffers from the opposite, which, while it remains less infuriating, does not make the game noticeably better.
This issue primarily presents itself in the game’s career mode. After creating my generic defensive baseline striker—who, for the first time in my experience, I was actually able to design to resemble me (the graphics in the game truly are astounding)—I tore through a small tournament before heading to the French Open, which I immediately dominated. My player carries a 35 player rating. Djokovic, for example, was in the 90s. The early rounds were against similar low lifes, but as I progressed, I kept waiting for someone like Andy Roddick to dispense of me. Alas, the time never came, and I soon crumbled to my knees in exuberance at center court after winning match (and tournament) point.
It’s not that 19-year-old digital me won the first tournament that I played—it was the ease at which I did it. I checked the game for difficulty settings but couldn’t find any. Regardless, I was playing on the default difficulty. The game tries to encourage challenging yourself by reducing the number of games and sets per match and increasing the bonuses that you earn if you can achieve goals in limited game time. But given the truly archaic player advancement system and the fact that ranked as 35 out of 100 I was able to win the French Open, the desire to make your matches shorter isn’t to challenge yourself—it’s to get it over with sooner. In this regard, the game’s career mode isn’t much of a career mode at all. You’re just being better than everyone for a long period of time… with a character that kind of looks like you.
Fortunately, as previously mentioned, the presentation of the game (barring the repetitive commentary, which appears more limited than most sports games) is some of the cleanest that EA has ever offered. Players move fluidly and naturally, the facial and physical attributes of the professionals—both current superstars and the historical pros—are pristine, and there are few if any glitches that can frustrate. But without varied play styles, the need to improve your character, or truly innovative gameplay, Grand Slam Tennis 2 lacks the kind of oomph or innovation to make it remarkable.