With the 2020 Australian Open and the tennis season now in full swing, Big Ant Studio returned for a second go at their licensed tennis tie-in. Despite this generation’s surfeit of power, there’s been nothing to come close to the tennis greats of yesteryear; Top Spin, Virtua Tennis, even Wii Sports are all games that tennis fans hold dear. Sadly Big Ant’s first attempt, AO International Tennis felt more like a service fault, so how’s their second serve going to hold up?
AO Tennis 2 immediately feels like a more fluid game of tennis than its predecessor, though the emphasis remains on this being more of a simulation than arcade thrill. A game of AO Tennis 2 is to become one with gauges and meters, all the while ensuring that your positioning is perfect, power just right, to fire that fuzzy yellow ball deep into the corner of the court while your opponent dives fruitlessly for it.
Where the first game failed was that its challenging raft of control systems made you feel a slave to their demands, but while AO Tennis 2 retains much of the first game’s methodology, it makes it feel less constrained, more imprecise even. In doing so, it plays a much more enjoyable game of tennis.
The face buttons each cover the core shot types; flat, slice, top-spin and lob. Holding the right trigger then opens up an extra set of modified shots such as drop shots or more aggressive swings, giving you a total of seven to choose from. Once you press and hold the button the game measures your timing via a colour-changing circle and a gauge, and if you have it selected, gives you an aiming marker to help you precisely find your opponent’s weak spot.
One of my main complaints with the first game was that using the aiming marker meant you played the game by watching your opponent’s half of the court rather than your own, but I found it more useful this time out as a training tool to help bed in the game’s sense of space and timing before turning it off. Without it, AO Tennis 2 is a much more engaging game.
Besides the act of ensuring ball meets racket and not net, AO Tennis 2 also throws in a stamina system, with players subject to their waning energy levels as rallies lengthen, or games stretch on for longer and longer. Your player will recover through shorter points, or during the banana break between games, and it adds an interesting little wrinkle into things.
It’s worth not pushing the ball out too wide the longer things go on, as your player’s accuracy and speed drop, though it’s also worth trying to tire your opponent by having them all over the court. Either way, it adds to the realism that Big Ant have obviously been striving for and it works well. If that doesn’t sound like your bag, you can turn it off, as well as tinker with various other settings to make the game as accessible as you like. Just want a leisurely game? AO Tennis 2 can cater for that too.
Though Rafa Nadal is once again the game’s cover star, the selection of twenty-five players that he heads up lacks a number of the pro circuit’s biggest names. It’s fortunate then that the stellar character creator from the first game returns, and AO Tennis 2 makes up for the lack of licensed players by giving you the opportunity to fill the rosters with your own. The level of detail that you can go into is exceptional, and it truly is a benchmark for sports game player creation.
Moving beyond that you can create logos to emblazon your clothing with, creating your own or *ahem* borrowing ideas from your own sock drawer. Impressively there’s also the Venue Creator, where you can build your own fantasy tennis shrine with ten Murray Mounts or recreate some of the best known venues from the ATP Tour. It’s a little rudimentary, but the creation tools and the assets are decent enough to allow you to create some pretty convincing replicas of any location, whether it’s the tennis club at the end of your road, or Wimbledon.
In fact, community content creation is at the heart of AO Tennis 2. Besides the ability to share your created characters with the world – there’s at least one brilliant Roger Federer in there, and plenty of less than brilliant Novak Djokovics – you can download everything the community is putting together from the trademark-breaking logos to an array of venues put together by other players. There’s already a raft of content, and it’s only going to get better as people put more time into generating the most accurate content they can.
It wouldn’t be much use creating everything if there weren’t a bunch of different modes where you can put them to use. There’s the obligatory Australian Open that takes you straight into the game’s headline tournament, as well as the option to play an exhibition, but I’d imagine that most people will spend their time in the Career mode, travelling the world in search of fame and fortune.
It’s a fully formed mode too, where you have to take into consideration how fatigued you’ll be by jet lag, plan your calendar and even talk to the press. You can vaguely break the system by maxing your character’s stats out at the beginning – who wouldn’t just automatically do this? – but on the second go through, with a more realistic starting point, you can work your way up through the tour which will be a good deal more satisfying.
Despite all of the positives, AO Tennis 2 isn’t quite perfect. After the successful completion of a point, the save icon appears in the bottom right hand corner. Every. Single. Time. I assume it’s saving the replay of the shot you just played, but I don’t understand why you’d need to know that, or why on earth it would want to distract you every few seconds.
Besides that the crowd sounds suffer from sounding like a jet engine trying to take off, or like they’ve been recorded in Big Ant Studio’s toilet. There’s some kind of compression issue I think, and it’s probably something that should be relatively easy to fix, but just as with the save icon it throws you out of the game you’re playing, ruining the otherwise well-crafted atmosphere.
It’s interesting how different that atmosphere is and the attitude that permeates the Australian Open compared with our own, increasingly po-faced, headline tennis events. From the funky game intros to the tuneful menu music featuring the likes of Bath’s favourite sons The Heavy, AO Tennis 2 feels as though it’s captured the event’s strengths while finding a sense of fun sorely missing in its predecessor.