It’s been far, far too long since we had a good tennis game, as Sega, 2K and EA collectively gave up on the sport a good half decade ago. Now though they’re making a little bit of a comeback. Breakpoint Games – geddit? – are looking to revitalise tennis games with Tennis World Tour, coming up with some new and interesting takes on how to turn the sport into a video game.
One of the biggest shifts is in how they want to let you focus on the strategy of the rally and not the millisecond accuracy needed to position, prepare and then shoot. The game is really very forgiving, a bit too forgiving at the moment, in how it lets you quite easily reach and send the ball back across the net, and there’s actually some background systems to make sure you get to the ball as long as you push the stick in the right direction. It allows rallies to flow nicely, letting you think about the next shot and where to place it instead of the specific timing.
“That’s a tough choice we’ve had to make,” Creative Director Etienne Jacquemain explained. “There’s a pretty heavy assistance to the movement, because we wanted the player to be able to hit the ball and not make foolish choices that would make them unable to pick up the ball.
“We have very precise physics and accurate animations, and also the speed of the ball is realistic, so if you push the stick in the wrong direction for even a few frames, then it would make you unable to hit back any ball in the game. We decided that if you’re aiming in the right direction, then we do the right movement to get you into the right position to hit.”
All of this is built on a much more comprehensive use of motion capture than was available five years ago. Breakpoint have basically hired a pair of pro tennis players – Maxime Teixera and Guillaume Rufin – to play some fairly full blooded tennis matches while wearing those silly mo cap suits with the bobbles on. From that, they’ve sampled thousands of animations to use in every conceivable situation. Not only that, but Maxime and Guillaume were even tasked with emulating the style and shots that top 10 players like Federer and Monfils will play, to lend those players in game an air of authenticity.
“Federer is a very busy man!” Etienne exclaimed. “Having him just for a quick mo-cap session to do his serve and a couple of moves is something practically impossible to achieve. If we’d done that for all the top players, and even the top tier, it would have been a huge effort and cost a lot.
“We preferred to go that route, which is pretty convincing and put the effort on the gameplay, the strategy, the richness of all the new stuff we’re providing to the game, and not so much on having the guy do his moves. It’s something we’ll still be working on, to add more polish after the game is released, but it’s a good trade off.”
One thing that’s something of an unknown is the skill cards system and the real impact that they have. These sound like a terrible idea, but actually serve a good purpose in trying to recreate the sport. Play other games and once you’ve mastered the controls, you can ping balls around with ease, taking control of the match throughout. Real players can’t do that. They all have unique strengths and weaknesses that their opponents are trying to take advantage of, they come in with a game plan of how to react at certain moments, and then have to adapt as fatigue sets in and their opponent’s own plan comes to the fore.
Skill cards are a way to emulate that ebb and flow, with up to five slots to fill. These aren’t cards that you play during the match, triumphantly saying “Aha! Now face my Ultra Smash Mega Serve!” Instead they’re more like passive buffs to your player.
Etienne said, “That’s it. It’s something you can plan in advance, it’s not some magical trick that you can pull out when you want it or when you need it, it’s not some random stuff that can happen in the game. At one point we considered having a little bit of randomisation, but even a little bit is too much, because it feels like a cheat. So we came up with this solution of having cards that will trigger in very understandable conditions. […] It’s really your gameplan, it’s your strategy for the match.
“If you’ve built a player that has a particular balance, you may want to rebalance him with skill cards that will add what is lacking. If he’s not so powerful, you can add more power, if he’s very powerful then he’ll use a lot of stamina, so you may want to raise his stamina at different points. It can be a way of rebalancing your player or a way of overpower them in certain fields and become crazy about precision, for instance, or become completely relentless. There’s a lot of different things you can do with your player.”
It’s a really interesting system, and one that will tie into the game’s broader career mode. Previous tennis games have let you jump from one tournament to the next, globetrotting without a care in the world, but Tennis World Tour wants to be more than just a series of matches and character levelling mini-games.
As Etienne explained, “It’s not just a succession of tournaments and matches, we wanted to give the player the opportunity to really manage their career in a lot of different fields. You’ve got to master their form during the season, so if they play too many tournaments they might reach the most important one and be exhausted. You can choose to continue and they’ve got a light injury, but then there’s some minuses such as being slower on the court. […] If you continue and are still playing with a light injury, it could become a bad injury and you have to rest for a longer time.”
In addition to just your form, there’s also the support staff around you, like the trainer that can unlock new skill cards or the agent that can get you into certain tournaments. Your choice or racquet is another thing that can tie into your on court performance, while the money that sponsorship brings in won’t go amiss.
As it stands, those big tournaments won’t be called Wimbledon or the French Open, but something else, and there’s plenty more players that Breakpoint would like to include as well. Unlike going to pick up the FIFA license, these are all handled individually. There’s quite a few players in the game that I can’t talk about yet, including a number of up and coming stars that have really been performing well over the last year.
This is a game that’s hopefully going to grow over time, with more players, more official stadiums and licenses, and even something like doubles matches. On the one hand, it might feel odd to have a tennis game ship without doubles matches, but it makes sense given the need for rather different behaviours and styles of play. It’s more than just adding extra players and letting you use the tramlines.
“We’re still discussing with people to be added to the roster,” Etienne said, “and we’re discussing with real pro tournaments to be included, so you may hear news about that pretty soon. Also, we will continue to polish and add more content to the game. Most of this will be through free updates, and there will be some paid DLC with specific content that will be revealed soon.”
It’s really polish that is what the game wants right now, from rounding off the edges of the animations, to toning down the player assists a bit and amping up the crowd noise and atmosphere to the matches. Playing against another person was a lot of fun though, as you pit your wits against one another. You do try to push each other around the court, work to set up a move to the net, force each other into risking more and hitting into the net.
Perhaps the surprise package was really the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which has already been optimised for 60fps gameplay. Something clicked for me on the console’s smaller screen, with the graphics looking good and crisp, and the game feeling tight and responsive to play. I can see this easily being a match for the game on other consoles.
If you’re anything like me, then at the back of your mind, you’ve been wanting a good new tennis game for quite some time, and I’m hoping that Tennis World Tour can be it. There’s a way to go, but I like how Breakpoint have sought to forge their own path and not simply replicate the successes of the past. There’s the potential here for a good, fun tennis game that can appeal to players of all skill levels.