It's here, people. After months of feverish anticipation, Wii MotionPlus is upon us. Finally, Wii owners the world over will have access to the kind of precise, fluid and nuanced motion controls that countless developers and games have promised and failed to deliver since the console's launch. We've all seen the tech demos, read the internal specifications and heard the testimonies from developers and journalists alike - now it's time to put the hardware to the test for ourselves.
Along with entries in EA's venerable Tiger Woods PGA Tour and Sega's Virtua Tennis franchises, the MotionPlus launches alongside EA's first tennis offering since 1994, the Wii-exclusive (for now) Grand Slam Tennis. Designed from the ground up to utilise the Wii's motion-tracking controller, one would imagine that Grand Slam Tennis would serve as the greatest current example of the MotionPlus' improved motion recognition. It doesn't - that honour goes to Tiger Woods PGA Tour '10 - but Grand Slam Tennis establishes a serviceable foundation for a series that has a lot of room to improve.
Start the game with a standard Wiimote and you'll find a setup very similar to the tennis game found in Wii Sports (and that's a good thing). Shots are determined via timing and proximity to the ball and are executed with a swipe to the left or to the right. Lobs and overhead shots are executed by holding the A and B buttons respectively in conjunction with your swing. Plugging in a Nunchuk allows you manual control of your character; at any time you can choose to unplug the Nunchuk, delegating player movement to the AI and leaving you to concentrate on shot placement. Considering the somewhat unimpressive efforts to emulate a tennis racquet with a standard Wiimote in the past (I'm looking at you, Sega Superstars Tennis!) it's somewhat comforting to know that Grand Slam Tennis has played it safe and emulated a proven formula.
Plug in a MotionPlus and you'll experience Grand Slam Tennis on a whole new level. Be warned - MotionPlus play carries a significant learning curve and it may take you a couple of hours to get your head around how wildly sensitive the Wiimote becomes with MotionPlus attached. In fact, it's perhaps a little too sensitive; even after hours of play you'll still send balls flying into the net or off the court occasionally and it's not always clear why. The margin of error is much, much smaller and the game doesn't always track your motions well enough to compensate. Most of the time, though, you'll be pulling off shots with a level of accuracy and control that you couldn't hope to replicate with a standard Wiimote. Sadly, you're still required to use the A and B buttons for lobs and over-hand shots, which breaks the immersion somewhat. There are other issues not directly related to the on-court game - the MotionPlus likes to recalibrate during cut-scenes, and the serve mechanics flat-out don't work - but when it works it comes pretty close to delivering the 1:1 experience promised.
It's worth noting that EA's considerable muscle within the gaming industry has allowed Grand Slam Tennis to accomplish something no other tennis game has managed - an official Wimbledon license. In fact, all four Grand Slam tournaments are present (that's Wimbledon and the French, US and Australian Open tournaments) which is another first for a tennis game. Players can equip licensed gear and apparel from the likes of Adidas, Nike and Under Armor and pro players will play with their signature gear. The player roster contains 23 current and former players including the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova, as well as John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Pat Cash (who doubles as player and commentator), among others. It's a huge achievement and one which definitely helps create the atmosphere of a high-profile tennis tournament.
The graphics in Grand Slam Tennis use a clean, cartoonish style not entirely dissimilar to previous EA All-Play sports titles released for the Wii. Player models are rendered in an endearing, stylised fashion that exaggerates the signature looks and mannerisms of each player - we're not talking Punch-Out!!-esque levels of characterisation here, but you'll definitely recognise the likes of Federer, Nadal and McEnroe when you see them. There's also a Mii-esque character creation tool with a somewhat modest selection of different body parts and accessories to choose from. Players who have a MotionPlus plugged in will notice that their player will mimic their every movement of the racquet on-screen; there's a little input lag that's especially evident during local multiplayer but it's neat all the same. The courts are vibrant and colourful and the ball is about three times larger than it should be - little touches that might break the immersion of playing a real tennis match but nonetheless add to the character of the game.
Other aspects of the game's presentation are less satisfying. The game's soundtrack, contributed by German electronic musician Paul Van Dyk, is sedate to the point of being forgettable. While most of the game's incidental sound effects such as crowd responses and player noises are suitably done (McEnroe's outbursts played through the Wiimote speaker are a nice touch), the commentary during matches is basic and repeats many of the same comments ad nauseum, to the point that you might be left wondering whether it's working as intended. Furthermore, many of the game's menus can only be navigated via the D-Pad on the Wiimote, neglecting both the IR pointer and the analogue stick on the Nunchuk for no real reason. Admittedly these are minor issues but they're ones that you wouldn't normally expect from an EA title, so they're worth noting.
The bulk of the game's single-player content comes in the form of a Career Mode that challenges you and your custom character to enter and win all four Grand Slam tournaments. To be fair, they don't really play out like Grand Slams - they basically amount to beating a few players in a row - but anyone familiar with the somewhat overwhelming rules of such tournaments will tell you that it's probably a good thing. Your custom character gains experience in different skills via a simple five-star rating system that increases whenever you win a match or pull off a particularly spectacular shot. You're also able to attain the skills of pro characters by defeating them in certain pre-tournament matches - defeat Pete Sampras to unlock his legendary serve, for example. You eventually unlock a maximum of three empty slots for these skills and can swap them in and out as you please. It's a simple setup overall that lends itself to a degree of strategy when facing higher-level opponents.
Unfortunately, no amount of strategy can compensate for the sheer frustration that comes with facing even the easiest computer challengers. The AI seems to have no trouble at all making cross-court shots with pinpoint accuracy, meaning that you need to engage them in lengthy rallies in order to score against them - a luxury not always afforded to the human player with the temperamental MotionPlus controls. There is a practice mode against a ball machine that gives you an on-screen indication of the motions required for particular shots but it's a poor substitute for playing a match or even a tutorial. The control issues are exacerbated by the choice between using or not using the Nunchuk: do you stick with the Wiimote for unencumbered swings and leave player movement to the indecisive pathfinding AI, or do you use the Nunchuk and spend the entire time trying not to whip yourself in the face with the cord? Furthermore, even players ranked just one star higher than you in a certain skill will have a marked advantage, meaning that enhancing your custom characters becomes less of a reward and more of a necessity if you intend to complete Career Mode.
Thankfully the playing field is levelled somewhat when it comes to taking on human opponents. Local multiplayer allows up to four people to play standard singles or doubles matches as well as several party games which put fun twists on the rules - "Aussie Doubles" is a two-against-one mode with rotating partners, for example, and "King" is a doubles match where only the "king" designated at the beginning of each point can score. These party games don't match the surreal absurdity of Virtua Tennis 2009's court games but are enjoyable in their own right and will give you and your friends plenty of incentive to keep coming back. You can also turn on a "Calorie Burn" mode that keeps track of the amount of calories you're burning as you play. It has about as much merit as the fitness age in Wii Sports, but at least they're trying.
Grand Slam Tennis's online multiplayer allows you to play either friendly or ranked exhibition matches against anyone in the world in either singles or doubles configurations. There are leaderboards that list the top 100 singles and doubles players as well as a leaderboard ranking each country via a "Battle Of The Nations" system. Like most EA Sports games released on Wii, Grand Slam Tennis uses the "EA Nation" online infrastructure which allows you to add and manage your friends list, track your stats and send messages in a set-up reminiscent of the Xbox Live Dashboard. Best of all, Nintendo's dreaded Friend Codes are totally optional - you can import players to your EA account from your Wii's Address Book or add friends directly using their EA Nation details. You can even bring another player online with the one console to play a doubles match a la Mario Kart Wii, a feature sorely lacking in the vast majority of online-enabled Wii games. You'll experience the odd stutter or delay when playing internationally, but for the most part online play is smooth and lag-free. It's a shame that tournaments and party games aren't available to play online, but what is available works well and is easy to jump into on a whim. Bravo.
Grand Slam Tennis is a charming and colourful game that contains an unprecedented number of real-life players and venues and a multitude of simple pick-up-and-play modes that make single-player, online and local multiplayer quick and hassle-free; furthermore, the MotionPlus bundle available in many countries represents great value for money that will be the determining factor in which of these games people are likely to buy. The MotionPlus controls, inconsistent and ultimately underwhelming as they are, provide a level of direct control not capable with Wii games of the past. There are some definite kinks to iron out but Grand Slam Tennis is an overall solid debut in a franchise with a lot of potential and is sure to satisfy those looking for a casual game of tennis.