The very foundation of console gaming is built upon the legacy of tennis games. Pong was the progenitor, but the beautiful game – well, this particular beautiful game – has been recreated many times since then. From Super Tennis to Pete Sampras Tennis, through the Smash Court Tennis era to the Top Spin games, it’s a real world sport that works incredibly well being translated to a digital arena. It’s been a few years though since we last had any serious contenders, but now, like those atypical buses, AO International Tennis is the first of 2018’s two potential challengers to that “best tennis game” crown (which is currently, inarguably, held by the original Virtua Tennis if you were wondering).
AO International Tennis is the official game of the Australian Open and boasts Rafael Nadal and Angelique Kerber on the cover, who are then joined in-game by some twenty odd licensed pros. It’s not a surprising limitation for a small developer, but for those of you hoping to jump in and take Andy Murray or Roger Federer onto the court, you may have to spend some time creating your own version of them first, or turning to the community to see if their efforts fit the bill.
The character creation tool is actually stunning in terms of its ability to churn out a detailed and realistic player. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any other games where two whole menu sections are dedicated to a character’s nose, so AO Tennis sets an immediate precedent for everyone else – at least in terms of nostrils. The menus are a bit clunky though, and a pain to navigate and select through, but since you won’t be spending too much time here once you’ve started the game it’s just about liveable.
Big Ant Studios have also created a companion app that lets you take pictures of yourself and your friends and integrate them into your game character for even more realism. The downside is that it’s currently PC only, meaning console players are flat out of luck. Hopefully we could see the app being brought to smartphones in the future, but as it stands you’ll need a PC to get the most of the feature right now.
When you’re happy with your realistic (or hideous) appearance, you’re able to spend in-game money on your character’s abilities, letting you focus on the key areas of your game that you think you’ll make the most of. Obviously as you move the slider further the cost of each improvement jumps, and you won’t come out of it with some supernatural star player by any stretch. It means that to begin with you’re going to be playing to your character’s strengths, which may well mean you deliberately avoid using extraneous shots – who needs slices right? In some way it’s a frustrating way to begin the career mode, likely limiting your options before you’ve even begun.
The tutorial mode will run you through the different shots, with very few bells and whistles. It’s just you against a recalcitrant ball machine, which will at various points sit and wait for the previous ball to come completely to rest, no matter whether or not your previous shot met the required criteria. It’s a little frustrating, but it does at least explain the controls and the timing for your shots that the game is looking for, with helpful gauges and colour-coded markers.
Controlling the direction of your shots is also helped by a visible marker, but you’re able to manipulate it in a way that just seems a little odd. Choosing the direction of your shot overall works as you’d expect, but that visual marker remains throughout, meaning that at times you’re paying far more attention to the marker than you are the ball or where your player is. At no point does it feel natural, and it creates a barrier to enjoyment that feels like a genuine shame when there could be the underpinnings of a solid tennis game here.
Besides the shot marker, your player has a timing gauge which represents how long you should be holding down the button for a perfect shot. In career mode this gauge is shortened by your player’s ineptitude, making it even tougher, while playing with someone like Nadal improves things a little, but not enough. Get it wrong and a shot that should just be in will go out, but getting it right feels more like luck than judgement. It’s just too imprecise and unwieldy, and between trying to watch this gauge and the shot marker it all begins to feel like an resolute mess, and worse, no fun at all.
What’s weird is that your player movement seems to be semi-automatic, a little like Wii Sports. Whether that’s a response to already having too much to do without moving your player, or Big Ant Studios just thinking it made for easier rallies I don’t know, but your player won’t dive for anything, or run if the game has decided it’s not worth it, instead wearily slowing to a crawl. You may well be hanging your head in much the same way within a couple of hours.
While it’s not much fun to play, AO International Tennis does at least boast a good range of different modes, and besides the headline Australian Open tournament, the Career mode will let you start at the very bottom and work your way up through a host of events. Alongside that you’ve got access to one-off matches and events, tutorials and even more ways to customise your game in the Academy, including creating, sharing or downloading stadiums, players and logos. It’s here that the game’s lacklustre gameplay is most upsetting, as there’s a clear commitment to fully catering for the tennis community, while providing the tools to do so.
Besides that there’s those all-important multiplayer modes, with both quick and custom matches letting you take on players from around the world – if they work. While I was able to see a custom match-up in the lobby, the game immediately crashed when trying to jump in, and the same happened when selecting quick match as well. It’s a deeply worrying problem that still hasn’t been remedied on the eve of the game’s launch. Hopefully it will be soon.
Update: A day one update has now been released which does rectify the pre-launch online issues.
The tactics and tactility of a good tennis game remain amongst the purest of gaming experiences, but AO International Tennis is not a good tennis game. Overly complicated and bereft of any emotional resonance, the positive elements, including the detailed character creator, will likely be as swiftly forgotten as the game itself will.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro – Also available for Xbox One & PC