Previous released in the Australia and New Zealand territory only, AO Tennis just got a European and North American release on PS4 and Xbox One. As the first tennis game on this generation of consoles, how does it play?
Being a big fan of tennis games, I kept a keen eye on the release of AO Tennis back in January – hopeful that I’d finally be playing some videogame tennis again. It was released alongside the Australian Open tennis tournament, which is what the AO in the title stands for as well. Sadly, the review that came in back then hinted at a rushed and incomplete game – with low review scores to match. When developer Big Ant Studios announced their May 8th release in Europe and the US, some of my initial hope was rekindled. Not only would I finally be able to get some hands on time with the game, I also noticed that between January and May there had been more than a handful of patch and update releases to improve the game.
One thing that didn’t change much was the lack of licences attached to the game. Only the Australian Open tournament is officially attached to the game, so don’t expect to play at Wimbledon or Roland Garros in career mode – although their cities and surfaces are represented, the stadiums themselves are generic. The player roster also doesn’t exactly overwhelm you with choice – Rafael Nadal is the only male superstar here, with players like David Goffin and Kevin Anderson not quite having the same appeal. There’s a little more choice on the women’s side of the bracket with players like Pliskova, Konta, Kerber and Australia’s own Sam Stosur, but there’s no one from the current top 5 and the Williams sisters aren’t here either. Since one of the claims for the game is that players “play like they do in real life”, it’s a shame there aren’t more of them here.
Besides the tournament endorsement, AO Tennis also features a pretty good representation of the Rod Laver arena in which the Australian Open games are player. If you’ve seen the tournament on television, you’ll realize how well this has been done. I did notice some serious glitches (or rather, sloppy oversights) while playing the Australian Open mode though… playing a women’s tournament saw all the matches being played in a “best of five” format (women play “best of three”), and when I played a tournament with Nadal (the number 1 seed) I encountered number 4 seeded Johnson in the quarter finals. While a matchup between the number 1 and 4 seeds can definitely happen, it shouldn’t happen until the semi finals. Silly mistakes that shouldn’t have made it into the game in the first place, let alone after a good amount of patches and updates.
Now I didn’t play the original release in January, but things definitely don’t feel as awkward as the reviews led me to believe when I look at the actual gameplay portion of AO Tennis. I pretty much dove right in (thinking my Virtua Tennis experience would carry me), and for the most part it did. I lost the first two games, but picked up the pace soon after and was ready to play at a higher difficulty level when the match was won. There’s an interactive tutorial that was included post-release as well, but it’s very barebones and won’t teach you much that looking at the button mappings and playing a single game won’t tell you.
Although I also played a lot of Top Spin (its creators are coming out with Tennis World Tour soon), my main frame of reference for gameplay is Virtua Tennis 2 (or Sega Sports Tennis). There isn’t a PS2 game I played more than that one, and with its impressive roster of players and minigames it’s the most fun I’ve had with a tennis game. AO Tennis falls a little short when it comes to its roster and minigames, but the gameplay – after the recent patches, no doubt – is surprisingly solid considering the early reviews I saw. You’ll have to ramp up the difficulty to make sure that timing actually matters and to make sure not every drop shot is a success, but there’s a decent selection of shots and it plays quite well.
Achievements start rolling in early (for winning a point with a certain stroke), but some of the achievements are insanely difficult to achieve – there’s one that asks you to hit 1000 aces. Consider that winning three full sets and serving an ace every single time only gets you 36 aces (excluding tie breaks) and you know what you’re up against – especially when you think about how likely it is that you’ll even manage that many. I think I’ve served two aces so far… yikes. There’s also an achievement where you successfully have to challenge a call by the linesmen, but my guess is that the patches made them amazingly accurate – the hawkeye system hasn’t once ruled on my favor.
All the patches between January and May didn’t suddenly make AO Tennis a game that can rival Virtua Tennis and Top Spin, but it’s definitely a competent and fun tennis game now. It misses a good amount of shine when it comes to its licenses and audiovisual presentation (just look at the player models in NBA 2K and FIFA), but it looks like the developer has managed to iron out a lot of the gameplay issues that were reported earlier. Let’s hope they keep updatng the game so we can at least see the tournament logic fixed alongside further refinements to the core gameplay. It’s a shame about the false start, because AO Tennis has finally turned into something playable. I definitely had some fun with it, but Tennis World Tour is on the horizon as well….