Let’s get one thing straight: I love tennis. The Australian Open is no exception, grabbing me from the first round all the way to the final match. So it’s safe to say I was excited for AO Tennis, hoping it would bring tennis games back into the mainstream, a nod to the good old days of Virtua Tennis and Top Spin. What we got however, is disappointing to say the least.
AO Tennis aims to recreate the realism of the aptly named grand slam, from players, to courts, all the way to the feel of the racquet and the atmosphere that comes with big matches, and even bigger points. But on all fronts, AO Tennis seems to struggle. Australian developers Big Ant Studios have admittedly tried their best to bring us a triple A tennis title, and even though they’ve promised free upgrades for owners of the game in the coming months, it’s hard to deny the double fault here. As the upgrade may make the game better overall, unfortunately as they are not available yet, I must comment solely on what is given at this moment in time.
Firstly, AO Tennis is severely lacking in star power. As the game’s cover suggests, stars Raphael Nadal and Angelique Kerber are present, but that’s where the list starts to run annoyingly dry. While Australians have a fellow Aussies to choose from like Thanasi Kokkinakis and Daria Gavrilova, you won’t be seeing bigger stars like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or even the Williams sisters anywhere in sight. Big Ant Studios have stated that players will be added in forthcoming patches, so let’s hope we can see these stars added soon.
AO Tennis also lacks in overall variety, with only a handful of modes proving to be worth your time. As expected, you can play through the entire Australian Open tournament, taking your own customised player or current star right through the tournament, but the annoying issue here is that while you can reduce the number of sets played per match, you cannot alter the 6 games required to win a set, meaning you’ll be sitting through each match for a relatively long while, making the entire tournament feel like an overly difficult and repetitive slog. Causal matches are also present, and while they offer much more customisation in terms of court and time of day, I found that these were also lacking, as Margaret Court Arena is strangely absent. Thankfully you can play in the Rod Laver Arena, but the budget and unbranded Wimbledon and French Open courts do little to add any variety. Career mode offers the most variety here, as you can take a custom created character or established star through the ranks all while levelling up your player, but this too felt undercooked, as progression rewards were sparsely awarded, and like the Australian Open mode, games run way too long. If you were able to shorten matches, I honestly believe career mode would benefit greatly. Online matches are also available, but after finding a game, this felt no different to a casual match played solo, as it works in very much the same way.
In order to compensate for the roster, Big Ant Studios have added a player creator mode which is painfully conflicting. There’s some genuine variety here, enabling you to craft your player’s face with painstaking detail. Cheek and nose definition, brow depth, chin length, complexion, the combinations here are virtually endless. But then you want to choose a hairstyle, you only have 9 to choose from. This may sound petty, but this lack of choice where it counts makes your player feel like a template. However, you can create and upload players in order for them to be downloaded by others, and this is admittedly a nice touch.
The meat of AO Tennis is the gameplay, which is a tad more respectable than its flaws. The mechanics rely on a timing system in which you must charge your shot according to a power bar located next to your player. Despite a complete lack of any tutorials to guide you through this mechanic, you do get the hang of it, and it can feel quite fun and intuitive to pick your shots and fire them back accordingly. But yet again, AO Tennis rears its ugly head with flaws. Movement is a huge issue, as players feel like tanks on the court. Even when you get to a shot, there are moments where your player simply refuses to hit the ball, instead watching it sail past their very eyes. To top it off, players will randomly smash balls at the net and out of court, even when you time a shot to perfection. While there are only three types of shots at your disposal, I found the drop shot all too easy, leaving opponents scrambling for the ball time after time.
When it comes to presentation, AO Tennis is a mixed bag. Character models are detailed enough, but lack a sense of realism that we’ve come to associate with the next generation of consoles, leaving them to look like a stunning PS3/Xbox 360 game, but not a great current generation title. The lack of commentary doesn’t help when promising a realistic tennis experience, but didn’t detract too much in the way of realism. The biggest issues for me were the crowd and player reactions. Firstly the crowd always reacts in the same manner, whether it’s your first point of the game, or the last point to win the championship, the placid cheer of the crowd never changes. Players also celebrate after every single point with such enthusiasm that it’s honestly funny.
Overall, AO Tennis tries to be a legitimate entry into the tennis gaming world, but fails to match the heights of the Virtua Tennis or Top Spin series. A lack of variety keeps you from coming back, while inconsistent controls deter you from staying in the first place. There’s no doubt the gameplay is the meat of the package, and while it can be fun at times, it too falls into a repetitive, frustrating slog after an hour or so.
Score: 5.0 out of 10
Highlights: Engaging, intuitive gameplay (when it works), create a player mode offers some extra variety.
Lowlights: Sub-par presentation, lacking roster, inconsistent gameplay.
Developer: Big Ant Studios
Publisher: Big Ant Studios
Release date: Out now
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on Playstation 4 with retail code provided by the publisher.