No, it isn’t Adults Only tennis – although AO International Tennis probably wouldn’t be quite so dry if it had followed in BMX XXX’s footsteps and allowed you to play as Rafa Nadal in his pants. The name instead stands for the Australian Open, and some of you will recall it launching alongside the Grand Slam in Oceanic territories earlier in the year. This is essentially the “finished” version of that release, which was clearly rushed to market in order to be ready in time for the tournament itself. But with a criminal dearth of tennis games on the PlayStation 4, does this sporting debut fault on its second service?
Unfortunately, it does. Anyone who’s watched tennis will know that it’s a highly active sport; players in both the men and women's game are extremely talented athletes, able to burst around the court in mini-sprints in order to reach the ball and find the right angles. Matches do occasionally devolve into baseline slug-fests, but AO International Tennis sets up every point this way, as it restricts your movement when the ball is on your side of the court. It ends up being an unrealistic, slow-paced simulation that simply doesn’t do the sport justice at all.
The reason that the game locks you to the ground is because the left analogue stick is used to both move your player and position your shots. What this means is that you can sprint about freely when the ball is on the other side of the court, but when it crosses the net the game will almost lock you into position so that you can move a reticule around for your return. While it sounds passable on paper, the reality is that it makes for some turgid matches, where the players are scarily static. You may see Rafa Nadal on screen, but the type of dreary tennis you’ll have him playing would be better suited to a local park.
The animations don’t help either. Everything seems built around the aforementioned Spaniard, and while developer Big Ant seems to have nailed his almost lackadaisical forehand, it’s a bit odd when you see practically every player in the game play with the same style. To be fair, the player models are decent, and the developer can’t resist showing them off on the title screen, where you can use the analogue stick to make them nod their heads like creepy puppets. The Rod Laver Arena has also been meticulously recreated as part of the title’s licensing agreement, although no other Grand Slam venues are included. Fortunately, you can still play on grass or clay if you like.
The title gets around its licensing restrictions in a similar way to Pro Evolution Soccer, including a bunch of customisation tools that allow you to create players and stadiums which can then be shared with the world. These are quite powerful tools, and existing recreations of Novak Djokovic et al mean that you can already expand the limited roster of professionals included in the game. You can also, of course, create yourself for use in the title’s safe but solid Career mode, which sees you rising through the ranks from rookie to World Number One.
But it all comes back to the on-court action, which just isn’t very good. Long loading times mean you’ll be waiting an eternity for matches to get underway, and while the title gives you a variety of different techniques, from slice shots to top spin, it's rarely fun to play. Worse still, you can really cheese the AI with drop shots. Yes, there’s a timing element involved as you’re required to open up your swing at the optimal moment for both power and accuracy, but matches feel sluggish and unrealistic. The title’s summed up by its implementation of Hawk Eye, which allows you to challenge out calls despite line umpires never making a mistake.
AO International Tennis went wide with its first service, and double faults at second attempt. Turgid, unrealistic gameplay is emphasised by the title’s shot targeting mechanic, which largely restricts you to the spot and relieves you of the freedom that you’d have on a real court. The few official player models are of a good quality and the customisation options are a welcome touch, but the PS4’s first tennis title is a disappointment – it wouldn’t even make the qualifiers let alone win a Grand Slam.