We sent Brenna Hillier to take down a champion in Grand Slam Tennis 2 at a launch party for the EA Sports title. On reflection, this wasn't the best-laid plan.
EA Sports had a bit of luck promoting Grand Slam Tennis 2, managing to secure an appearance by legendary Wimbledon champion, Pat Cash, at a launch party in Sydney last week. Cash is a household name in Australia, where televised tennis, along with swimming, is practically required viewing if you expect to have any water-cooler conversations. My mum had one of those troll dolls with a tennis racquet named Pat, and would often stare dreamily at as if its puggish features would resolve into the champion's more chiselled visage; I grew up considering him a hero. I was quite excited to meet the man, and kept inconspicuously checking my dictaphone, ready for a global headline quote about the magnificence of the PS Move motion control or something.
In fact, I gathered quite a few pithy comments about the Move controls while warming up for the tournament. Unlike Wii Sports tennis and ping pong, most gamers' touchstones for motion control racquet sports, Grand Slam Tennis 2 aims to give you one-to-one precision control over all aspects of the racquet's positioning, ideally granting you the ability to do slice and top spin and other manoeuvres I don't even know the name of because I stay indoors all the time.
In practice, in a small, cramped room full of people who rarely pick up anything handier than another beer bottle and are practising that motion quite a lot, this inevitably derails into flailing, and when everyone's a bit tired, dispirited waggling. Counter-intuitively, Grand Slam Tennis wants you to wave your Move controller well before the ball reaches your player, making the full racquet sweep and twist noticeable moments ahead of the ball actually colliding with the strings. This disconnect takes some time to process, and if my own and fellow journos performances are anything to go by, even longer to master.
I haven't mastered it. I arrived with the intention of taking photographs and eating cake, and was promptly press-ganged into a tournament, with the grand prize of a match against Cash himself. "Oh no, I won't play," I demurred, edging for the food, as I was pretty sure nobody was keen to watch me go through the hours of included tutorials or explain the rules of tennis to me. EA Australia's charming but ferocious PR reps had other ideas and after a brief warm up against a friend, which I played to a tiebreaker, I took the court against my first rival.
"I haven't even played the demo," he confided in me, morosely predicting a short match with me as victor. I refrained from mentioning that my last tennis game was on the Master System, and that I had quit tennis lessons after three miserable years when my coach firmly told my mother not to bring me back for fear I'd infect the other children with my incompetence.
I served first. I aced once, lost a couple of brief rallies, and then double faulted - that was it for VG247's chance at glory, but I roped in a couple of loose freelancers to take up our cause. One made it all the way to the third round before being smashed to smithereens by a man who explained that you had to twist your wrist just so and knew the names of all the players - real names, not "that lady who grunts" and "that guy who sounds like a hat" - which I consider an unfair advantage.
Shamed and sent to the sidelines, I started madly Googling Pat Cash in the hopes of recognising him. He looks, it turns out, rather a lot like his in-game avatar - kudos to EA Canada's facial scanning - and none of the increasingly sweaty men in my vicinity looked right. He'll probably turn up in a limo, we decided, with all girls and champagne and such.
Nothing so dramatic. The man wandered in, barely noticed by anyone else, handed over a backpack to a PR rep, and was promptly whisked off to a "quieter" room - that's a euphemism for a space less crowded with increasingly intoxicated gamers and inadequate ventilation, I'd say, having taken shelter near the only source of fresh air myself. Before he left, I got in a good old stare.
"Did you see his arms!" I exclaimed.
"I don't make a habit of looking at men's arms," someone replied, which is a shame, because it's not every day a world champion athlete is walking around in short sleeves for you to have a peek at. Pat Cash has biceps like armadillos cuddling to conserve body warmth. The veins on his wrists could serve as shelves for storing small items securely. I had already been hit in the face with a flailing Move controller three times, and had made a mental note to step back once the pro had one in his grasp lest I be left bloody on the floor. There is a world of difference between a fit gym bunny and a man who smashes projectiles across a net for a living, I decided.
And that is the appeal of Grand Slam Tennis 2 in a nutshell; that it grants us access to a world we'd never otherwise see. Only a handful of people have ever achieved a Grand Slam - wins across all four major tennis tournaments - and for most of us even a friendly match is a major effort. EA Sports has been throwing the word "aspirational" around a lot lately because it's a very neat summary of the appeal of sports games; I'm beyond bad at sports, but I can press buttons, and that means I can diligently work my way through a decade career and take a Grand Slam. (If I had a Kinect, I could even do it with my own face, which is rather neat.)
There's something special about that - call it the crack-like appeal of RPG elements if you like, but back at the console stations, a couple of writers had started getting seriously competitive with their matches despite the lack of any progress to take home. There were roars of triumph and shouts of horror, fists pumping in the air, and at one stage what looked like it might escalate into a fistfight, but was disappointingly diffused.
My little group of eliminated hopefuls was glumly stuck on the outskirts while the tournament ran its course, and when PR returned to hand us our consolation prizes - copies of the game - there was a general exodus. I didn't get to talk to Pat Cash about the increasing realism of games. I didn't get a photo to show my mum. I didn't get past the first round of the tourney. I had to put up with being gender-balanced into dozens of photos. I didn't get any cake and I professionally eschewed the champagne. But I got a copy of Grand Slam Tennis 2, and despite my long-standing disdain for sports games, I sincerely doubt I'm the only attendee skiving off home to fire it up and live the dream.
Grand Slam Tennis 2 launched on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with move and Kinect support, on February 9 in Australia and February 10 in Europe, and is expected on February 14 in the US.