Disclaimer: Review code provided by the publisher
AO Tennis released this January in Australia and New Zealand to an abysmal critical response. AO International Tennis was the game’s re-branding effort for its May 8th worldwide release. With roughly a dozen updates since its original incarnation, does this “international” iteration of Big Ant Studios’ tennis simulator deserve anyone’s attention?
Big Ant Studios’ Supposed Commitment
AO International Tennis‘ biggest claim to fame is its official recognition from the Australian Open. A perusal through developer diaries and interviews shows the developer’s apparent ambition to create the most “authentic” tennis experience to date. Yet, consumers have heard this spiel hundreds of times over the decades for every new sports game. Authentic this. Authentic that. It’s usually a load of shit and AO International Tennis is no different. It’s yet another Tennis game with very little to set itself apart aside from the fact that it is one of only two 3D Tennis games this console generation. Therefore, AO International Tennis rides on its lack of competition.
While the studio’s videos and interviews seem genuine enough, their handling of its release speaks volumes about their true intentions. Big Ant Studios began disabling ratings for their videos with the “AO International Tennis Developer Diary: Overview” video in April. Such a move after the original game’s critical reception signals a lack of confidence. Why else disable ratings? If your product has truly transformed as you claim it has, let it do the talking for you. Unfortunately, Big Ant Studios’ shady attitude is reflected in the actual gameplay experience.
Playing AO International Tennis
AO International Tennis controls like most Tennis games. Flat shots, slices, lobbies, and topspin shots are assigned to the four face buttons. On an Xbox One controller, drop shots are executed by holding the right trigger and pressing A. Meanwhile, power shots are assigned to the right trigger and B. In real life tennis, each shot type adversely affects a rally’s flow. In AO International Tennis, shot types rarely make a difference.
AI is stupid. Strategy rarely impacted my decision to use a slice over a topspin. I only ever pressed different buttons to switch it up for my own sake rather than because the game demanded intense strategies. 9/10 matches play out the same way even up to veteran, the second to last difficulty setting. After a brief rally, the AI tends to hang near the back of the court. If timed properly, a drop shot confuses the AI, freezing them in place as the ball lands near the net. If that doesn’t work, following up with any shot opposite to the opponent usually results in a point.
Because of the game’s unfinished AI, matches never elicit the intense back and forth that makes tennis exciting. AO International Tennis also features an alternative control scheme utilizing the right analog stick. According to the developers, “the control stick is an advanced alternative to the face buttons”. Though unnecessary, actual tennis players may find some joy in the tactility of swinging the stick like a racket.
Some Interesting Ideas
Regardless of the player’s preferred control method, the game is built on a solid foundation. Holding down the shot button charges up a meter. Undercharging or overcharging the meter decreases the shot’s accuracy while more significantly draining the player’s stamina. Micromanaging the stamina meter provides some fun. A shot’s timing depends on the ball’s speed as it flies toward you, meaning you can’t settle into a comfortable rhythm. You’re constantly adjusting with every shot. You’ll simultaneously aim a cursor indicating the ball’s desired point of impact while managing the shot’s power.
On paper, this sounds interesting, but in practice, it feels stiff and unrewarding. The issue isn’t with aiming the shot while eyeing the power meter. The game’s stiff controls and movement are the true points of contention. The player character sometimes freezes in place the moment you begin holding down a shot. This inhibits the amount of control you’d want from an “authentic” sports game. Sure, it makes sense that building up a shot’s power can slow down a player’s reaction time, but freezing them in place entirely ruins the experience.
Other times, building up shots automatically magnetizes the player to the ball. In both occasions, the player action feels too limited to make even the most intense matches entertaining. They can be nail biting for the simple fact that you don’t want to retry them, but the lack of agency over character movement ruins the game’s decent mechanical foundation.
While AO Intenrational Tennis‘ gameplay suffers from limited control, poor animations, and unintelligent AI, its various “Create a” modes save what could have been a disaster. Players can create a character, logo, and stadium to their heart’s content, each with enough options to satisfy artistic minds.
The create a logo mode, especially, is one of the most complex logo/emblem creators I’ve encountered in a video game. The degree of control makes it overwhelming for a person like me, but it has enough options to satiate true digital artists. It’s not as accessible as the other creation modes, but that’s okay. The people that know what they’re doing have the tools to create magnificent works of art with this mode.
Creating a character in AO International Tennis takes dedication. It contains few hair and dress options but makes it up for it with everything else. The amount of customization delegated to every facial characteristic from the individual lips to the indentation of the eyelids is staggering. It isn’t the most comprehensive character creator ever, but it’s in-depth enough that I lost nearly an hour and a half to creating my first character. You can even customize the design of your created character’s tennis bags.
Stadium Creation is the Star
The stadium creation tool is AO International Tennis‘ crowning jewel. Options are technically more limited than the other creation modes. It features only seven vehicles as vehicular props, for example, but it’s functional enough to provide a sense of ownership. The stadium seats, court’s surface, benches, etc… can all be replaced with limited options. Though, the sheer amount of things that can be changed or added is what makes the stadium creation tool stand out. While it’s true that only three stadium seat options exist, you can also customize such incidental details as the outfits and colors of the umpire as well as his chair.
Furthermore, AO International Tennis features several outer props made to fill out the stadium’s surroundings. Power lines, office buildings, citizens’ homes, roads, cars, buses, stop lights, other tennis courts, and more can be used to fill out the environment. This stadium creation feature should become commonplace in the genre. The game’s community-focused nature also means you’ll be able to share and download other players’ logos and stadiums. Downloaded stadiums can be edited further. The communal focus makes AO International Tennis feel like the grand effort it pretends to be. It’s a shame that creating and sharing stuff is more fulfilling than the act of playing tennis itself.
AO International Tennis is a mixed bag of emotions. I don’t want to recommend it to anyone, but the most staunch tennis aficionados because of how poorly it plays. Only real tennis fans can overlook some of the game’s issues because of the real-life tennis stars and courts. By the same token, the creation tools are astoundingly addictive and time sinking games in themselves. They’re more engaging and work more properly than the core Tennis gameplay. Even players with a passing interest in Tennis can lose hours to creating characters, logos, and stadiums. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to carry AO International Tennis.
It’s a mediocre game that still feels unpolished despite the developer’s promises that AO International Tennis is radically different from launch. With such a lazy career mode, slow loading times, and sluggish menus, I’d hate to have been the poor sap that played the original AO Tennis back in January.