EA Sports and ESPN serve up a new tennis sim loaded with licensed content and a healthy dose of features and modes.
I'll be up front -- tennis is not a sport I play or watch on TV. Still, I can readily respect the athleticism and twitch decision making that skilled players possess. Grand Slam Tennis 2 (GST2) includes over twenty licensed athletes, including legends like John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Chris Evert, as well as modern day superstars like Nadal, Roddick, and the Williams' sisters. You won't find some other legends such as Andre Agassi or Steffi Graf here, but there is a deep create a player mode which gives you plenty of freedom to create and share your player(s).
While there are several modes to jump right into, I would recommend the Tennis School first. Here, McEnroe coaches you on serving, net play, how to handle the three different types of court terrain, and lots more. Lessons are clearly presented and you can always check to see what the objective and instructions are by pressing Start. McEnroe offers encouragement as you go. Complimentary to this mode is Practice mode, which has a ball machine that let's you practice a variety of return volleys and slams. This is a good time to figure out how you want to control the game -- you can use standard face button controls, the PlayStation Move controller, or EA's Total Racquet Control system which puts all functions onto the right stick.
PlayStation Move worked good for me in relatively limited testing, but I've more or less had my fill of motion controlled tennis games over the years. I spent a good while trying the Total Racquet Control system, which looks good on paper, but isn't quite the same as using face buttons to execute top spin slams and high power serves. Total Racquet Control is more readily accessible than the face buttons, even if by just a little bit, but getting perfectly consistent and mastering the nuances of completely stick based controls was something I never got comfortable with in previous EA titles such as NHL 09 and NBA Live.
Getting comfortable with the controls is key no matter what mode you decide to hop into next. There's a good amount of content to choose from between a ten year single player career, the ESPN Grand Slam Classics (my favorite), and online. Of course, you can also just hop into an exhibition via Play Now and quickly setup and launch a Singles or Doubles match-up, choosing from the featured players or your own created one. The Career mode is lengthy, something I am surely still a ways from completing. In it, you are an up and coming star and you have ten years to win as many grand slams tourneys as you can, including the Australian, French, and US Opens, as well as the big one, Wimbledon. Players level up and build rivalries against other CPU players, which again include the roster of licensed players as well as any that might have been downloaded via the Share A Pro feature.
If the career mode is a bit too committal, you might try Tournament, in which you can have anywhere from four to 128 players compete (eight human players maximum, the rest will be AI). Better still is the ESPN Grand Slam Classics mode, which quickly became my favorite mode because it takes you right into a real, classic situation, such as the Williams sisters battling it out back in 2003. It's up to you to uphold history, and the pressure of the moment is surprisingly good. You unlock more (twenty-five or so) of these events as you go, and once you have beaten the event, you can sit back and watch it in Free Play mode.
The online mode for GST2 allows for singles and doubles matches, tournaments, and ranked matches via the Grand Slam Corner. I was impressed with the depth of the leaderboards, which shows a variety of stats including winning streaks. A ticker at the bottom, which you can customize, shows you who beat who, along with their rank number, as well as real sports scores from several leagues. Online matchmaking works fine, and the game will try to pair you with someone with a similar rank as you, or within five ranks anyway. Gameplay was as smooth as playing offline for me in several tests as well.
No matter what mode you play, the presentation quality of GST2 is great. Visually, framerates stay smooth and the main characters animate very fluidly and, apparently, realistically, based on how the real player moves and plays. I'm not enough of a tennis guru by any means to notice or fact check this, but I can appreciate the effort. I thought the different courts and lighting effects were good, too. The ESPN presentation is streamlined and fitting, with professional commentary that has a decent mixture of available lines to draw from. Load times are also brief and menus are easy to navigate, making this a well presented title.
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