Every year there’s a new FIFA release and a new NBA 2K launch; we always know what to expect – fully licensed teams with a complete roster and an in-depth career mode, perhaps with a great storyline to challenge us morally, whilst providing great progression. We also expect new and exciting game modes to keep it fresh and make us want to buy the next version a year later. To name just a few, these are reasons why these games are so popular, because the pacing is there and there’s so much depth to these sports; transfers, ultimate teams… the list goes on.
Sadly, this sort of thing has never really happened with tennis games. Of course titles like Top Spin had a long and healthy run and produced some fun, but that’s about it. And who could forget Virtua Tennis? These games never really had the hype or the money poured into them like FIFA or 2K, which is surprising as tennis is such a popular game all over the world. So has AO Tennis 2 come along to finally give us the exciting, engaging tennis game we deserve? Sadly, no.
AO Tennis’ first installment in early 2018 was a bit of a sorry affair. The animations were stiff, there was a lack of in-game commentary and the amount of licensed players and courts was abysmal. Unfortunately, AO Tennis 2 isn’t much better as all of the above points are still very relevant – it’s definitely not a tennis game for the ages.
AO Tennis has always taken inspiration from Top Spin in how the general game is played; A, B ,X and Y buttons determine how you hit the ball, whether it be a slice, lob, top spin etc., and it’s a formula that works so there was never much need to fix it. AO Tennis 2’s gameplay however tries to be too much of a simulation and has somehow managed to suck all the fun out of the fast paced real-world game. The presentation is generally okay and each game has some relatively fun slow-motion montages of the stadium you’re playing in. It pans and zooms through the court and over the crowd as you walk in and this is marginally enjoyable the first time; but when this happens at the beginning of every game it becomes really old, really fast.
None of this is helped by the awful sound quality in the majority of the game. You’d think that with the lack of commentary, the other sound would have been focused on more. Not the case. The crowds at some of the games I played sounded like they came straight from an N64 game; horrendously tinny and shallow, so much so that winning a point felt underwhelming without the crowd behind me, egging things on with their enveloping cheers.
With regards to the actual gameplay itself, every movement feels laboured, stiff and unresponsive. If a sports game is released in 2020, I want it to feel beautifully fluid and look stellar. In a day and age where we have almost photo-realistic character models, AO Tennis definitely does not. It’s not sharp, hair and clothes don’t seem to move correctly and the sheer amount of shots my character didn’t swing at because it’s so unresponsive simply isn’t acceptable.
One way in which the game tries to save itself is through a newly worked career mode. You’re able to make a player and take them through their career, travelling all over the world to become the number 1. As mentioned a few times before, the standard of competition is very high, both FIFA and NBA 2K games have been finely tuning their immersive career modes and pushing out better and better stories and additions every year. Unfortunately, this tennis title doesn’t even begin to be on the same level of those two. There are bland, monotonal cutscenes and boring press conferences, although we do get to pick sponsors, which is a plus, and the sheer amount of customisation able to be placed on a player and their attributes is impressive. But at no point did I ever really feel engaged with my player as there isn’t the broad character arc like other games’ career modes. There are some decision making elements to the career mode which do involve some thought process; you can pick between a closer (distance wise) and smaller competition but get less prize money, or take a bigger, harder and further away competition that will immediately deliver fatigue due to travel etc., but with the prize being way better. This can be aided by the physio and medical team who can help ensure that recovery is faster. You also gain money and experience points after winning games which you can spend on gradually increasing your player’s stats.
Another small element which is a bit of fun is the option to show emotions after points that are won or lost; done by pressing up on the d-pad for a positive response or down for a negative. These responses are not only fun to watch but can change the type of companies that want to offer sponsorships, and the kind of questions being asked in press conferences. This is a fun addition as emotions really do have a big effect on the sport in a wide array of ways, but adding this makes it hard to see the light above when the game has already dug itself so far into the ground.
When a game is titled AO (Australian Open) Tennis you’d hope that the main competition mode is a huge draw as it’s a competition the whole game is named after. Sadly, once again, this isn’t really the case. You can choose to specify certain elements such as game duration, how many sets, opponents etc., but it’s just like any other mode in the game, except this time you are in an actual licensed court (Melbourne Park). There are an incredibly low amount of licenced players – no Federer, no Murray, no Serena – just Nadal and a few other, much lower ranked players, so you can’t even enjoy the simulation of a classic Nadal/Federer final. When playing Play Now, or any other mode for that matter, I didn’t feel like they differed at all either; the same slow-mo intro and another game of stiff and slow tennis.
Sports games have set such a high bar for themselves over the years and we have come to expect so much of them. This means that when a game comes along and doesn’t reach our expectations we are disappointed. This is exactly the case for AO Tennis 2. It’s not got the deep career mode that I would have liked, there isn’t the pace or believability required, and I failed to gain a real feeling of progression or be able to play with my favourite players in my favourite court. There are issues with AO Tennis 2 on Xbox One, from the very simple things such as movement and responsiveness all the way through to the sound and story. I love watching tennis on TV, and after playing AO Tennis 2 I think I’ll stick to just doing that.