Despite being one of the most popular sports on the planet, there has been a real dearth of tennis games over the last few years. Those wanting to try out their cross-court backhand in a virtual world were left with very few options. Thankfully, Big Ant Studios, a specialist in sports games, has stepped up to fill that void. AO Tennis was the developer’s first foray into the world of tennis and by all accounts was something of a mess when it first released.
While it had plenty of positive qualities, critics reported issues with everything from controlling player movement to a bland and featureless career mode. A series of updates post-launch fixed a lot of these issues and it seems like the studio has had a lot of opportunity to learn from its past mistakes. This sequel comes almost exactly two years later and the real question is whether it is a significant improvement.
In many respects, AO Tennis 2 plays exactly as expected. Different types of shots are assigned to the four main face buttons. These include the basics such as flat, topspin, slice, and lob. Holding down the triggers slows you to perform more complex plays such as a drop shot. Where this game differs is with timing your hits and aiming where you want the ball to go. Getting both of these elements right is essential to being successful.
Every time you face a shot you have to hold down your chosen button and release it while an on-screen indicator is coloured green. Too early or late and you’ll end up mishitting the ball so that there will be less power and direction on the ball. It could go out of bounds or set up an easy return for your opponent. Aiming the ball involves moving a small target on the court. If you get the timing correct and hit a good shot, the ball will hit the marker but a bad shot will likely cause it to go awry.
This means that AO Tennis 2 is a more complex tennis game than you might be used to. While previous series have concentrated on a more arcade-style of play, this franchise is more of a simulator that forces you to multitask. It can easily become overwhelming when you first start playing. Having to concentrate on moving your player, timing your shots, and aiming all at once is tricky.
I found myself struggling to nail all three aspects consistently in my first few matches, even with my experience in tennis titles. However, as you spend a little bit of time with the game, the flow becomes more natural and you don’t have to focus so much on your timing. This allows you to concentrate instead on shot selection and targeting areas of the court.
My only real gripe with this system is that because you aim and move with the same thumbstick, the controls can feel clunky at times. You only have a few moments to get into position before having to choose what shot to play and when to aim. An accidental press of a button could also mean your character stands still, stuck in position so that the ball easily passes you by.
Of course, the upside of this system is that it makes matches feel tenser. Because it is so challenging to stay on top of everything, each match quickly becomes tactical. You have to think a few shots ahead to manoeuvre yourself and your opponent into a position where you can hit a winner. Opposing players will almost certainly pounce on any mistake so whenever you do win a point or game, it is much more satisfying.
Thankfully, AO Tennis 2 contains quite an extensive array of difficulty options. Switching to lower settings affects practically every aspect of gameplay. The AI of opponents becomes less aggressive so that you can more consistently stay in rallies. Lower difficulty levels also mean that the aiming and timing mechanics are less harsh. At the lowest setting, you cannot even hit a bad ball so you can focus fully on aiming. Along with a comprehensive tutorial, this gives you a chance to learn the different systems and become confident with them.
You’ll likely spend the vast majority of your time in the career mode. Although there are a few options for exhibition matches and the ability to jump straight into the Australian Open, the career mode is where the developers seem to have focused most of their efforts. You start off at the bottom of the ladder and have to make your way up the rankings. One of the main factors you have to consider here is striking a good balance in how you spend your time. You can choose whether to compete in tournaments, train, or have a rest week. Each type of event has its own benefits, such as giving you more stamina or improving your stats, so you have to carefully decide how to tailor your schedule.
Like in the F1 games by Codemasters, you can also answer journalist’s questions in interviews and press conferences. This helps you to manage your reputation, giving you the option to be the bad boy of tennis or a more likable player like Roger Federer. Your actions on the court also affect your reputation, as you can react negatively or positively to every point. Unfortunately, AO Tennis 2 doesn’t do anything interesting with your reputation. It simply stands there as a rating to max out that does not serve any purpose.
A better addition is the sheer amount of customisation options. AO Tennis 2 has a comprehensive system that allows you to create your own players, tournaments, and venues. You can change practically every single element of your character so you should be able to get a good likeness of yourself. In truth, the character creation suite is one of the most complete I’ve seen, not just in sports games, but across all genres. If you have the patience, you can essentially set up your own tennis experience, including your favourite players and locations.
In terms of presentation, AO Tennis 2 looks a lot better than many of the studio’s other work. Big Ant’s previous titles, in particular the rugby and cricket games, have had subpar visuals and some very wonky animations. It still cannot compete in this department with the blockbuster sports sims from the likes of EA and 2K. However, it’s hard to complain about the presentation too much, as there are few complaints to be had. The animations are smooth with players moving and acting in a realistic manner and the amount of detail in character models is also impressive.
You’ll only recognise a few players and venues though. The developers managed to get the rights to a very limited number of likenesses so this department is a bit lacking. If you wanted to play as Andy Murray or Roger Federer, you are going to have to make do with fan-made models from the community section.
Commentary during the action would have been a nice inclusion as well. As it stands, the only sounds during the actual action are grunts from the players and the noise of the ball hitting the racquet or surface. This leaves a lot of empty space that is just begging to be filled with some extra commentary banter; anything to add some spice to the bland audio.
AO Tennis 2 also suffers from quite a bit of slow down, along with some performance issues. Frames will suddenly drop for no reason, a huge problem in a game that requires perfect timing as it will cause you to miss shots. Player models can also get stuck and their clothing often pops in and out in a distracting manner.
Despite these problems, AO Tennis 2 is probably the most authentic tennis experience you can get on current consoles. It is far from perfect and might not have the mass appeal of the more arcade-like games such as Mario Tennis, but does manage to remain engaging for the most part.
The game is also Big Ant’s most competent release yet. While many of their other titles have been very rough around the edges, this game has more polish and fewer problems to contend with. With some post-launch love to improve some of the more lacking areas, AO Tennis 2 could be a real winner. For now, though, it is likely a game that only dedicated tennis fans will truly enjoy.
A copy of AO Tennis 2 was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Although it still stutters occasionally, AO Tennis 2 is the best available simulation of the sport and won’t have you smashing your racquet in frustration anywhere near as much as its predecessor.
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