AO Tennis was only confirmed on 5 December, but we don’t have long to wait to play – it heads to Xbox One and PS4 on 16 January 2018 here in Australia and New Zealand. Stevivor was granted an hour of hands-on time at the Melbourne-based Big Ant Studios to see how the title is shaping up ahead of release.
Tennis fans have been waiting, impatiently, for a new tennis game for quite some time; the last big-name title was 2012’s Grand Slam Tennis 2. I mirrored that same sense of irritation as I stood near AO Tennis – so close yet so far away — unable to play as a mock game of Nadal versus Goffin was staged on Rod Laver Arena’s iconic blue court as its menus sat idle for too long.
It was already a first-world problem, but even more so as I was unable to play because I was being 3D scanned for inclusion as a no-named player in the game. I promise there’ll be more on that later – including creepy-as-hell photos – but not right now. Let’s get into the actual tennis, shall we?
As we journos were finally released into the game proper, pitted against one another in 1v1 play, our nearby minder let us freely navigate through the game’s menus. In addition to a community player, tournament and stadium creator (where we expect fans to make lifelike versions of McEnroe, Hewitt and Borg alongside a Wimbledon tournament so we can download them ourselves, Ashes Academy-style), we perused an extensive list of available players and stadiums. While there were notable omissions in said lists – including players like Roger Federer, Milos Raonic, Venus and Serena Williams, Kei Nishikori and Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena – Big Ant was hopeful some of these licensing issues would be sorted ahead of the game’s release.
As I settled into serve, I heard Development Director Mike Merren ask another journo, “You’ve played Top Spin, right?” I certainly have, and found the control comparison an accurate one. When serving, holding a different face button will launch into a top spin, flat or slice serve; tapping it again when your lobbed ball is at its apex will be the most effective and, of course, you can use the left stick to aim your shot. The right stick will move you left and right across the baseline, as will it too move the player who is receiving.
When receiving, face buttons will offer lob, top spin, flat and slice returns, while holding the right trigger will offer variations like drop shots when different face buttons are used. As is standard in tennis titles, timing is all-important; holding a shot button down will power it up, but if you hold it for too long, you’ll likely to send a shot sailing outside the court. Unlike previous tennis games, you’re able to challenge shots if the ump – Big Ant CEO Ross Symons, mirroring his appearance in Rugby League Live 4 – makes a call you disagree with. I like the idea of the challenge, but question it at the same time; surely a video game should be as accurate as the technology that drives real-life Hawk-Eye functionality. As I decide whether I agree with the feature, I must admit that it’s super neat to make a challenge and emerge victorious.
Despite a relatively short window between the game’s announcement and its release, we were told the version we were playing was still quite rough around the edges. Some of that was noticeable, with certain shots from the bottom left of court crazily defying the laws of physics and players occasionally teleporting across the baseline to make impossible shots. Still, AO Tennis seems to have a solid core. A lot of attention has been paid to the game of tennis itself alongside the likes of Nadal (including the expensive watches he wears) and Melbourne’s much-loved Rod Laver Arena.
That said, I didn’t experience any in-game commentary, nor test AI powered by a decade of Tennis Australia’s shot statistics. Doubles went untested, as did the game’s career mode, in which you’ll take part in a full Grand Slam experience — though without the actual term “Grand Slam” due to further licensing issues. Despite these unknowns, I emerged from the hour quite hopeful.
The real question is whether or not AO Tennis can live up to the high expectations that thirsty tennis have after such a long virtual drought. We’ll soon find out, as AO Tennis heads to Australian and New Zealand current-gen consoles next month, just in time for the Open itself. Eventual availability worldwide, including on Windows PC, is expected later in March 2018.