Fans have had to wait a long time for a good tennis game this console generation. Unfortunately that wait just got longer.
[Note: as of the time this review was published, two days after AO Tennis went on sale in Australia and New Zealand, the Xbox One version of the game is yet to receive a critical day one patch that adds the career mode and a number of substantial gameplay tweaks. As such, the following review refers strictly to the PlayStation 4 version. We will update the review with Xbox One impressions if and when the patch is released.]
AO Tennis claims to be ‘the most advanced tennis game ever produced,’ but it’s clear that its lofty ambition far exceeds its ability to execute. Certainly AO Tennis is not even up to the standard of the Top Spin or Virtua Tennis games released an entire console generation ago, and is about as absent-minded, half-hearted, and personality free as a birthday card from Bernard Tomic.
AO Tennis has a handful of fresh ideas but they’re far from fully formed and never really adequately explained thanks to the complete absence of any in-game tutorials. For example, you’re given the option of using the right thumbstick to both serve and play your shots with, but I soon discovered that the former is limited only to flat serves and the latter automatically decides the shot type for you. If you want to deliberately impart slice on a serve or put topspin on a forehand you’re forced to revert to the classic face button setup anyway, which meant that I soon ditched the half-baked thumbstick controls and never went back.
Yet even with buttons, AO Tennis can’t quite get it right. Successful shotmaking requires you to hold the appropriate shot button to power it up, indicated by a gauge hovering next to the player, and aim with a white reticle in your opponent’s half of the court to place your stroke. It’s a system that works relatively well… Until it doesn’t. Too often you’ll move into position to return the ball, charge up your shot, release it at the optimal time, and your player will just stand there slack-jawed as if gripped by a sudden case of stage fright as the ball bounces past their feet. This problem is exacerbated to an even more aggravating degree in the doubles mode, in which you and your partner frequently stop and jitter nervously as a perfectly gettable ball bisects you both.
Player movement in general is more wooden than the racquets your grandparents used.
Player movement in general is more wooden than the racquets your grandparents used. There are jarring seams in the animation system, and a weirdly semi-automatic pull towards the ball that seems to suggest that each shot is predetermined. Indeed there’s no such thing as a swing and a miss in AO Tennis, you can’t dive for a volley or sprint sideways to vainly swat at a passing shot that’s inches out of reach; either you play a shot and connect with it, or your player does nothing at all, lending the overall experience a feel that is overtly unresponsive.
The shots themselves are also wildly erratic in terms of both velocity and angle. Serve and volleying, a staple of the real sport, simply isn’t a reliable strategy in AO Tennis since even when a shot at the net is well timed (indicated by a green circle beside your player) they have a regular tendency to ping off your racquet like a tracer bullet to land metres beyond the baseline. On the other hand, drop shots are far too easy to pull off. You can receive a 198km/h serve and calmly take all the pace off it, skimming it over the net to drop a foot inside your opponent’s court like a wadded pair of wet socks with robot-like precision. I’d love to know how many points I’ve won using the drop shot alone.
No really, I would love to know, but unfortunately AO Tennis doesn’t really feature much in the way of statistical analysis or broadcast style overlays beyond a basic list of first serve percentages and unforced error counts in the pause menu. In fact the absence of any form of presentational gloss is galling, particularly in the centrepiece Australian Open mode. There’s no commentary, no toss of the coin, no interest from the crowd during extended rallies, no national anthems, and no shake of the hands at the end of a match nor trophy presentation after the final. The only evidence that you’re even playing in the first grand slam on the tennis calendar is the in-game recreation of Rod Laver Arena’s centre court, which is admittedly fairly well realised, and the animated AO logo that obnoxiously punctuates every point or camera angle change to irritating effect. That’s about it.
AO Tennis’ career mode is similarly lacking. You have the option to choose either a real licensed pro (there are six males and 12 females in the game at the time of launch, with apparently more to come via future patches) or create your own player from scratch, and take them through multiple seasons of a world tennis tour, leveling them up and tweaking their skill sliders as you progress from satellite tournaments to the more cashed up cups.
The competitions themselves are each as poorly presented as the aforementioned Australian Open mode, and there’s absolutely nothing to do in between them. There’s no practice court nor training mini-games to hone your skills with, you just slog your way from one generic knockout competition to the next. AO Tennis positions itself as more of a simulation than an arcade experience, so I wasn’t exactly expecting to be knocking down cartoon ten pins a la Virtua Tennis, but even the option to serve at traffic cones or practice volleys against a ball machine would have provided a more convincing and interesting portrayal of life as a tennis professional, as would have sponsorship deals, coaching tips or even a simple trophy cabinet, none of which have been included here.
As with developer Big Ant’s cricket games, created players can be shared online meaning you can theoretically have access to user generated recreations of the licensed names not officially included, and indeed the game goes some way towards facilitating the inclusion of big name absentees by featuring famous surnames like Djokovic and Wozniacki in the stadium announcer’s vocabulary. Yet the player creation tool itself is limited, there are only nine hairstyle options so don’t expect to be able to craft anything as distinctive as the luscious locks of early nineties Agassi or the mullet of an eighties Pat Cash, and there’s no option to customise the animation of your player’s serving motion or shot style (aside from choosing between a one or two-handed backhand), which gives a drab uniformity to the movement of all non-licensed players.
A stadium editor and custom tournament mode are both promised by the developer to be patched into AO Tennis in the weeks following the game’s Australian release, which should add a welcome splash of variety to the package at no additional cost. But the truth is that AO Tennis requires much, much more polish across the board to bring it up to an acceptable standard, polish that really should have been applied prior to the game’s launch.