I’ve been waiting to write this review for over six years now. That's how long its been since the last licensed tennis video game was released on consoles in the form of Grand Slam Tennis 2 from Electronic Arts. We’ve seen a couple of small indie PC tennis titles during those years, but nothing licensed. Now in 2018 there’s not one but two different licensed tennis games coming to consoles. The first (which was originally released exclusively in Australia in early 2018) is AO International Tennis, the first worldwide tennis release in six years. And I’m sad to report it wasn’t worth the wait.
AO Tennis was not a well-regarded video game. From what I can gather, the development team has re-tooled a lot of its problems for the worldwide release, titled AO International Tennis. Right away you’re going to realize, though, that the game lacks many of the top players in both the ATP and the WTA. AO International Tennis does have Rafael Nadal and Angelique Kerber (who are featured on the cover) but after those two the roster fades quickly. Unless you’re a hardcore tennis fan like myself, the likes of Huang, Goffin and Isner probably won’t excite many. There is a player creator where I assume you can create all of the missing stars in the game. One small funny note is that some of the players' first and last names are available to select. So, if you want to make Roger Federer, you can, and the stadium announcers will say his name. With that being said, the roster in AO International Tennis is paltry and even worse, the visual recreations of the included players are downright bad.
AO International Tennis is not a pretty game. Player models lack detail and any refinement that we’ve come to expect in a modern sports titles. Even Nadal and Kerber, the game's cover stars, lack detail and only somewhat mimic their play style. Much of the animation and visuals have been pared down to a couple varieties. The big serve of Isner or the amazing forehand of Nadal feel bland. The stadiums don’t fare much better. Outside of the titular stadium (Rod Laver Arena) at the Australian Open, there aren’t any other licensed venues. The rest of the stadiums are incredibly uninspired. To make matters worse, I couldn't tell the difference in the way that clay, hard court or grass effected the game at all. As a student of the game, I can’t help but look at this and scoff.
AO International Tennis seems to have all the right modes with an exhibition, career, Australian Open mode, as well as online play, but all of them are bare-bones. For example, the career mode is just a string of tournaments with a stamina meter measuring your fatigue from tournaments and traveling. There’s very little else to it. You go week after week playing tournaments and upgrading your player. Sadly, though, the upgrades to your player's XP seems pointless, and the impacts of attributes seem muted. I didn’t notice anything different when my player moved from 60 to 75 overall. I breezed through most of my career on the hard difficulty only finding a small challenge. There was no enjoyment in mindlessly pushing forward.
A lot of my problems with AO International Tennis comes down to the gameplay. If I was to compare it to the 2012 Grand Slam Tennis 2 or the 2011 Top Spin 4, it feels like a step backwards. Tennis is beautiful in its simplicity. It’s a game where you hit the ball back and forth over a net. And yet nothing about the gameplay in AO International Tennis feels fluid or simple. Serving is done by holding down one of the face buttons which brings up a meter. During the time the meter comes up, you can move another on-screen meter to place the serve. Once the serve is in the play, the groundstrokes are done in a similar fashion. It can be a lot because there are two meters at once. One that handles the power of the shot and the other its direction. It’s not a bad system, but the ground strokes feel stilted. The developers needed to give you enough time to place the shot and worry about the placement and as such it makes groundstrokes at times feel turn-based.
The other major problems with AO International Tennis are confounding. Far and away the most effective shot in the game is the drop shot (something rarely used in real tennis). Because movement is slow, it makes getting to drop shots difficult. To make matters worse, the net play in AO International Tennis is a crapshoot. And forget about it if you ever need to run backwards for a lob. You have like a 10% chance of making it to the ball to even attempt a return.
It’s a shame because I think with more refinement there’s potential in the systems of AO International Tennis. Sadly, though, what was released is basically half of a tennis game. The basics are there but the actual tennis isn’t compelling. It’s hurt by the fact that there’s no commentary, crowd noise is muted, and the gameplay is slow. Not to mention load times that are up to a minute before loading into a match. Even when the game is firing on all cylinders, there’s still a lot missing in it, making it hard to recommend it to anyone, even if you’ve been waiting for a new tennis game for years, like me.
AO International Tennis is sadly not a great game of tennis. It can still be buggy (I’ve had it hard crash a couple of times), has really long load times, and just isn’t all that compelling. I put a ton of time into AO International Tennis and I can say that I never once found myself fully invested. I so desperately wanted to play a new tennis game so I tried as hard as I could to find joy out of it. Sadly there’s just so little to invest in that you soon realize it’s a shallow game that would have needed more time in the development before the release. Hopefully before the next Australian Open, the guys and gals over at Big Ant Studios can make a new, more fully fleshed out version of the game, because what we got here isn’t ready for the prime time.
I'm the Owner & Editor in Chief of Darkstation.com. After spending seven years as the reviews editor I took over the site in 2010. The rest is history. Now I work with our amazing staff to bring you the best possible video game coverage. Oh and I really like sports games.