What's your favorite fuzzy-ball-hitting joke?
I'm not big on sports games, but every once in a great while I need to whet my whistle and play something a little… real. You can only slay dragons, fight demons, and drop blocks for so long before you find yourself desiring a taste of reality, even if it's in virtual form. It's a way of staying grounded, I suppose. And what better way to stay grounded than playing a tennis game, especially when the first underlying thought is "Awesome, another round o' Pong?"
But tennis games nowadays are not simple, "dude, I'm bored" recreations of Pong—they're some crazy-sexy-cool tennis whip-around tomfoolery! And the latest incarnation from EA, Grand Slam Tennis 2, is a beautiful encore. A metric ton (many are foreign, so we're goin' metric!) of superstars are crammed into the package: Andy Roddick, Björn Borg, John McEnroe, Maria Sharapova, both Williams sisters—all sorts of players from the powerhouses of the 1980s through present-day superstars. Plus, they're all playable in championships regular people recognize, like the French Open and Wimbledon, so taking down Andy Murray on the same center court McEnroe and Borg dueled on in their classic 1980 men's final (watched it on YouTube, it's one of the best ever) is oh-so-satisfying.
Playing with both sticks might sound hit-or-miss, but the play is extremely clean. The instructions on the loading screens between matches are deep enough to describe the two-stick style perfectly, and after a very quick few points, I preferred this control scheme over playing with the face buttons. The timing takes some time to get down, especially for top-spin and fierce shots, but otherwise, it's as easy to pick up as anything I've played in a sports game.
Along with the standard career and jump-in play modes, there are multiple flashbacks called "Grand Slam Tournament Classics" to play though; at total of 25 moments, like Serena versus Venus (when they were ranked #1 and #2 respectively), Federer versus Nadal, Borg versus McEnroe. Some of them charge players with keeping history as it happened, while others… well, have Novak Djokovic playing the likes of the then-unranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga! Regardless, these matches are played at a high level, without the ability to adjust them, so victories that need to be earned.
Visually, the game is inconsistent. Faces look recognizable if you follow the sport of tennis, but they still don't look quite right. Sometimes the skin tone is just off; other times, it's the stiff movement of some characters (I know Serena Williams isn't particularly dainty, but here her sprite moves like a puffed-up bodybuilder), but every character feels that little touch off. Thankfully, that's not as big an issue in matches, where the camera is just far enough away and running around the court is silky-smooth—even online was as quick as a local match—and the environments feel less virtual and more like a snapshot of the real courts they're modeled after. It's a strong improvement over the original Grand Slam Tennis, but with the original being a Wii exclusive, that's not that difficult to do.
The commentary throughout the matches might not be terribly helpful, but it does support the idea that this is as realistic as virtual tennis gets. John McEnroe and Pat Cash talk strategy after every point, then immediately pontificate about the mentality of match point. The transitions are clean and the guys "in the booth" are covering what needs covering, and it's fantastic. There's even some banter at the end of some matches that comes off genuine, as if the two guys had really been holed up in that booth for a long while and needed to poke fun at each other. I wish they had more to say, as the banter does repeat itself often, but for how easily it flows, they still sound somewhat spontaneous.
The "create a character" mode could have been more thorough, as it's rather thin and bland. There are a bunch of heads to choose from, but only two body types? How can I make him like me, short and skin-and-bones, when the male characters are, by default, 6'2"? How can I feel like I'm the one playing when the fella I'm forced to play as is seven full inches taller than I am? Even with the Game Face feature, the avatar feels likes a model to play with instead of a virtual me, and that's simply disappointing. Some of the downloadable characters, which other user have uploaded, have more… well, character, like Bozo the Clown, but the customization tools feel limited and sluggish.
That said, this is definitely a solid game for tennis fans (and needy bastards like me). The play is smooth, the commentary is amusing, and it ain't too bad to look at. The career is filled with real courts and unlockable upgrades like new shoes and racquets, so there's always some wiggle room with which to beef up your star player. And you can share characters with other tennis lovers around the Net. If tennis is your game, you'll love Grand Slam Tennis 2. If it's not, it's worth taking a look anyway. Now, back to the ball-smacking goodness!