Version tested: Wii
This review replaces our original verdict on Grand Slam Tennis, which was withdrawn last week due to errors affecting the review process. Please see the Editor's blog for an explanation.
In a month that's seen motion-sensing controls rocket to the top of the agenda across the spectrum of consoles, Wii MotionPlus's timing surely couldn't be better: Microsoft and Sony talk about the future in aspirational terms at the start of the month, and a fortnight later Nintendo's dream is reality. Strangely, we'll have to all wait until 24th July to see the first Nintendo game for the new accessory, when Wii Sports Resort is released. In the meantime, Electronic Arts debuts not only the first WMP game, but the publisher's first tennis game in 15 years, Grand Slam Tennis.
But not to worry, right? Because tennis should be an ideal way to demonstrate the precision accuracy of Wii MotionPlus - swinging the Wii Remote around like an imaginary racket, delighting as the new upgraded technology senses our shot-selection with a fair degree of accuracy, strawberries all round, etc. Combined with EA's pedigree in releasing glossy, accessible sports titles, it should be a winning combination.
Without Wii MotionPlus, the game works almost identically to Wii Sports' tennis offering, with running taken care of for you (although you can position your player with the d-pad or nunchuk if you don't mind a wire tethering your Wii Remote), flat shots pulled off with a short swing, a slice performed by swinging high to low and top-spin by going low to high. The harder you hit the shot, the shallower it will land. In addition, pressing A along with your swing produces a lob, while pressing B delivers a drop shot. Aiming is a slightly darker art without WMP, with an early swing making the ball travel left, and a late swing making it travel right.
While it's certainly possible to extract shallow enjoyment out of Grand Slam Tennis without Wii MotionPlus attached, it feels frustratingly imprecise. The moment you add Nintendo's little add-on marvel, you'll never want to play it any other way again. It's that dramatic an improvement.
The game works best when you follow its advice to use "smooth and easy motions" with "follow-through to aim/place the ball". Boot it up and a ball machine immediately puts this process to the test, firing the ball every which way at you until you've had enough, and it's easy to see how well the game reads your movement.
Suddenly, forehand and backhand swings respond intuitively to your actions, and once you nail the timing and velocity, shots go in the direction you want them to more often than not. EA's system has its quirks and certainly isn't infallible, but with practice and a certain amount of patience, it's the most fluid and intuitive motion control system we've come across.
One such quirk is the need to use the A button when you want to lob, and B when you want to dink a drop shot over the net. In addition, if you allow the game to handle running for you, it second-guesses what sort of shot you're going to attempt. If you happen to have decided to attempt a backhand when the game's already put you in a forehand stance, it sometimes confuses matters and you can fluff a perfectly decent shot opportunity as a consequence. Other times, you'll simply miss inexplicably.
The baffling absence of a fully-fledged training mode doesn't help. In every tennis game we can think of going back a decade, the chance to practice different types of shot via court games or an academy is standard issue. For EA to come out with a game with an all-new control system using cutting-edge hardware, and then fail to introduce it properly, is extremely strange. The ball machine helps, but it does nothing to enhance your tactical awareness, and offers little incentive to stand there balefully returning balls to the automaton. You'll want to get stuck in and actually play the game, but options here are a little thin on the ground as well.
If there's no-one around to play against, the path through the game isn't as thrilling as it could be - at least on the surface. You can work your way through a four-tournament Grand Slam (encompassing Wimbledon, as well as the French, Australian and US Opens) over the course of a season, facing a mixture of tennis legends and the current crop of top pros. In between tournaments, you'll engage in mini-challenges, one-off matches and quirky doubles variations, winning new clobber en-route, or sometimes a new special skill.
As a means to encourage repeat play, your budding pro will be awarded extra points in their star rating as a reward for success, starting off at zero and rising in half-star increments up to a maximum of five. It's never explained how exactly this translates into making your player better, and as such the allure of slogging through the career mode diminishes fairly quickly, when one-off matches can be just as much fun anyway.
But as is generally the case with sports games, playing Grand Slam Tennis against a human is where it's at, and happily it's possible to get an online game going in a matter of seconds. Matches are remarkably tense affairs, pleasingly lag-resistant, and a second player can join you on your machine if you fancy some doubles action. Getting matches going against a friend is also straightforward, with the ability to either add buddies linked to your EA Sports account, or those already stored on your Wii friends list. Simple, seamless, quick to connect, and great fun.
Matches can be ranked or unranked, although you'll have to go through the slightly irksome process of signing up for an EA account and all the fun that goes with that to actually play ranked matches. If you do, then you can establish a bona-fide worldwide singles rank and work on becoming top dog - something far more interesting than trawling through offline single player matches, as fun as they can be.
If you're after simple offline multiplayer thrills, though, you're not short of party game options. For example, you can indulge in games where drop and lob shots are worth double points, or tag-team games where you take it in turns to win the point during the rally. Others set time limits, where the player with the most points after two minutes wins. And so on. It's all fairly perfunctory stuff, but it's there if you fancy bending the rules for kicks.
As you might expect from EA, 23 of the game's major stars have been licensed, and it's these pros that you'll be facing throughout. But unlike most other tennis titles, the focus isn't entirely on the current crop. So alongside the likes of Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, you get old stagers like Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Pat Cash popping up for another crack at Wimbledon. Impossible, obviously, but it adds an undeniable allure to the game to be able to play against the stars of the past as well as the latest and greatest.
Another interesting decision is the caricatured cartoony visuals, which are somewhat in-keeping with the Wii's cuddly family-friendly appeal, and make a pleasant change from the ultra-realism served up in all competing tennis games. The animation is slick, and the attention to detail is subtle and surprising - as is the hilarious petulance the players display when things go against them. It will be interesting to see if EA sticks with this for the other versions when they turn up.
The biggest issue people are going to have with Grand Slam Tennis in its launch phase is shelling out GBP 20 a pop for MotionPlus units to unlock the obvious multiplayer potential it has. While online is a great way to enjoy the game, there's nothing quite like taking on a friend in the same room as you. And if you're hoping for local doubles action, well... that's one hell of an investment for a tennis title. Right now, you're either going to have to spend the money to find out, or hope that your friends are willing to part with the extra cash for the slightly-better-value bundled versions. In these early days of the WMP, such issues are going to be moot for many.
And in Grand Slam Tennis's case, they may be entirely moot, for this is a game which absolutely requires a WMP to unlock its potential. Despite our initial - and entirely incorrect - reservations and problems with Grand Slam Tennis, our re-assessment of EA's new brand couldn't really contrast more heavily. Far from being "crippled by unintuitive controls", the reality is that it's beautifully intuitive, and just about shades Virtua Tennis 2009 on Wii by simply having a more satisfying feel to it. It might feel a little lightweight as an all-round package, but as a multiplayer game it's hard to top. It's a close-run thing, but as far as tennis titles go right now, this sits right at the top of the pile, and is a cracking advert for the Wii MotionPlus.
8 / 10