Big Ant Studios initially released AO Tennis around the same time of the Australian Open back in January, however, the release was limited to Australia and New Zealand. Many viewed the game as incomplete and being rushed to the market to time it with the event. Several months later and the game has been reworked and rebranded as AO International Tennis, promising a much smoother gameplay experience, as well as doubling the number of modes that were in the first release.
The current generation of consoles have been on the market for almost five years, and this marks the first time that a retail tennis game is hitting the market, in fact, there is two being released in May. AO International Tennis may be clunky in areas but provides an authentic and highly enjoyable tennis simulation. With that said, the game is mainly missing some of the most popular current or past tennis stars. In fact, there are only twenty licensed up and coming and top players, however, the creation tools are quite detailed, and the community most likely has a realistic version of your favorite player. It didn’t take long before I had Roger Federer (community creation) take on Rafael Nadal (included in the game), along with reliving the Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras (both user creations) rivalry from my childhood.
This carries over to the game's stadiums, which only features the license for the courts within Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open takes place. The first stop of the Grand Slam tennis culminates at the Rod Laver Arena which is faithfully recreated. The remaining court locations in the game are based on remaining stops; the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. However, without the proper licenses, they loosely resemble the famous real-life stadiums, but a quick trip to the community creations solves all problems. Within minutes, I downloaded the most popular versions of each arena, complete with user-created logos, product placements, and layouts.
Since release Big Ant Studios has been updating AO International Tennis, fixing bugs and making necessary improvements. One of the criticisms from the original release focused on the varying court types not having any discernible differences. While it seems subtle at first, there are clear and defined variations depending on if you are playing on a hard court, clay or grass. Everything from ball speed, how high the ball will bounce, and the maneuverability of players is altered. Players slide into their swings when running crosscourt on clay surfaces, and drop shots become dangerous. Grass courts, on the other hand, provide the fastest ball speed and take full advantage of topspin shots, while hard surfaces are ideal for ball bounces.
The Australian Open is the game’s core game mode, featuring a full 128 player bracket for either men’s or women’s singles or doubles. You have complete control over how long matches last, letting you alter the number of sets in a match, games per set, and more. If you want to create your own tournament, the competition mode utilizes the same setup but isn’t limited to the Rod Laver Arena. You even get the option of picking the prize for the event. Exhibition matches can be played locally or against the computer, and the game does feature online matches. The career mode is quite impressive, as you take a no stat nobody from the bottom to the top (hopefully). By participating in lower tier tournaments and casual matches, you’ll gain stats to improve your player. While you can pick from any of the included players in the game, I think the mode is best played with your own created character.
As previously mentioned, the creation tools for player and stadiums are very detailed. There are pages upon pages of tweaks that can be made on the face along. You’ve never seen this many options for altering a nose in any other sports game before. After you are satisfied with your appearance and outfits (which you can create alternates), there are a handful of different types of forehand and background swings as well as serves and idle stances. The developers included some of the top player's names in the prerecorded voice over samples so that officials will announce players like Federer and Djokovic proper. Unless your last name is matching one of these players, you are out of luck, as the amount of surnames doesn’t hold a candle to EA’s massive sports games.
Regardless if you are playing on a console or PC, all community creations are shared among all players. This truly helps to bring the community together instead of splintering them depending upon their platform choice. This is something that 2K should look into for their yearly WWE 2K series. I should also mention there is the option to bring your face into the game, or anyone else. This is how some of the best-created players look so lifelike, but I found the tool to be highly glitchy and unwieldy. PlayFace isn’t even available on the console versions, and instead, you must download the game’s demo on Steam. Looking past the fact that I couldn’t click my mouse button when in the program as it would instantly minimize the program, the entire process was needlessly frustrating. Upon import, you aren’t able to adjust the placement or scale of your photo. After doing some research, I came across a template on the official forums that should be used to correctly set up your picture ahead of time in an editing program, such as Photoshop.
The core gameplay of AO International Tennis is thoroughly enjoyable, albeit a bit clunky at times. You have the option of using the face buttons or the right stick to utilize various shot types; topspin, slices, flats, or lobs. If using the face buttons, you can hold down the modifier button to produce an aggressive topspin shot or a devastating drop shot. I found the right stick a bit more involved to perfectly time your swings, as you alternate between multiple directions for the perfect shot type selection. Timing is critical in AO Tennis, as you hold your selected button down and release it precisely at the right amount. A little circle indicates this to the side of your player that changes colors, offering a window into when to release. Time it correctly, and you can earn yourself a stamina boost, but release too soon or too late and your shots accuracy takes a nosedive. However, the inaccuracy doesn’t appear to be random, but preset. For example, if I am aiming for the right sideline and miss my timing, the ball will 100% go wide right so it would be out of the playing surface (sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot). This feels too predictable and instead should have the chance to go in any direction, such as going in the opposite direction nor even lengthening or shortening your shot.
The newly included tutorial teaches players the basic mechanics, taking them through each shot type and shot placement. While optional, I think it really should be something that everyone should play when first booting the game, sort of like how you are forced to play the pivotal moments in the opening minutes of EA’s sports titles. Once the ball makes it over the net and onto your side, you are given a very short window to position your player before he or she begins a swinging animation. This stops you from moving, but then gives you a small indicator on the other side of the court, showing you where you are currently aiming. During the windup for your swing you can move it around the court in a fraction of a second. The inclusion of these core systems, almost work perfectly together. While I have my misgivings with the timing system, I do enjoy the stamina swinging mechanics, which utilize a stamina meter depending on how powerful your swing is. The motion-captured animations look stunning, but at the same time, the transitions look unnatural. By this, I am referring to how your player transitions from running to swinging. Most of the time you will find your player merely shuffling sluggishly around the court.
AO International Tennis has all the makings of a definitive tennis title, with enjoyable core mechanics. However, the movement system is clunky and feels like you don’t have total control over your player. I’ve had the hard game lock on me a couple of times, and I’ve had moments where my player simply refused to swing for no apparent reason. With that said, I felt more comfortable placing precision shots and increasing the difficulty the longer I played the game. The game’s creation suite is outstanding, and each day I find someone new to download.
Note: AO International Tennis was reviewed based on a digital Xbox One copy of the game, provided by the publisher.