Without a major new tennis game since the last console generation, there is a lot riding on AO Tennis, an officially licensed game themed around the Australian tournament of the same name. Unfortunately, the final product feels half-baked and rushed, because AO Tennis is a game brought down by a frustrating lack of polish and poor presentation.
The game's controls and subpar shotmaking mechanics leave much to be desired, especially for a title that shares its name with such a prestigious tournament. In addition to the typical face-button setup for the various types of shots that can be played (such as slices and spins), AO Tennis adds an option where players can use the right joystick to serve and play shots. While a good idea in theory, the result is far too simplistic and feels clunky. The game automatically selects one type of shot for you every time with this method, which, although suitable for newcomers, will make you want to revert to the face buttons anyway due to its lack of depth.
Even with such basic shotmaking controls, AO Tennis does a poor job implementing them. The game aims for a tried-and-true system of holding an appropriate shot button in order to increase power before letting the shot fly. But the system is inconsistent, and far too often you will miss, use the wrong shot, use too much power for no discernable reason, or simply not react to the oncoming ball at all. And that's if you've managed to arrive at the shot in the first place.
Movement in AO Tennis is unresponsive and clumsy. Sprinting from side to side to chase down shots feels like an impossibly vain attempt every time, and to make things even more futile, there's no diving mechanic either. There are also random occasions where you might find yourself automatically pulled towards the ball, regardless of what buttons you may or may not be pushing. This troublesome movement system makes AO Tennis a frustrating game of wild guessing; it's a gamble between actual responsiveness, or losing a rally because your player does nothing at all.
Should you anticipate correctly and time a shot properly, don't expect it to land where you want it to either. Each shot type is wildly unpredictable in regards to where it will land and how much power is behind it, regardless of how perfectly you timed the power gauge. This throws normal tennis strategies out the window in favour of unrealistic ways to win points, such as hitting drop shots off 200km/h serves. Past the novelty factor of hitting error-free drop shots at will, the rallies in AO Tennis are simply jarring and unsatisfying to play.
All the aforementioned mechanical problems are amplified even further in AO Tennis' lackluster doubles mode. The expanded court margins and the near-lifelessness of players on screen exasperates the game's shotmaking problems and render doubles to a barely playable feature.
Each match is also noticeably lacking in atmosphere and gloss, which can be attributed to AO Tennis' bare-bones presentation. There are no commentaries, no crowd interactions, no entrance music, no pre-match greetings or handshakes, no post-match congratulations, and no trophy presentations, even if you've won the whole Australian Open tournament. The venues themselves are also rendered in a mediocre fashion; there is practically no detail to the different kinds of court surfaces, and you wouldn't know the difference between Rod Laver Arena or Wimbledon's famous Centre Court if it weren't for the change in colour scheme.
There are also some glaring omissions and extremely odd decisions that feel like straight-up mistakes at best and corner-cutting at worst. There are no in-game tutorials to properly explain how everything works; Rafael Nadal's distinctive on-court grunts are weirdly reused for random computer opponents; every single player (including iconic, real-life pros) has almost the exact same shotmaking motions; and the in-game referees occasionally get line calls incorrect, such as calling "let" in the middle of a rally.
Unfortunately, AO Tennis' poor presentation extends beyond the match court. There are a number of game modes available from the onset, but each one is sorely lacking in polish or even mildly interesting features. Career mode allows you to create your own player and take them on a journey from rookie to Grand Slam champion. But aside from playing tournaments and earning money in order to improve your player's skills, there is absolutely nothing to do besides match play. There are no training mini-games, practice courts, or even a rudimentary simulation of a tennis career off the court, such as press conferences or building up an entourage of coaches and physiotherapists. There is a special Australian Open tournament mode, but it's as bland as the matches in Career mode. You simply slog through the 128 male or female player draw and then do it all over again once the finals are played.
Should you not want to create your own character, AO Tennis has a roster of real-life pros for you to choose. A total of 18 pro players are currently available to play, including Rafael Nadal, Angelique Kerber, and a contingent of Australian players such as Sam Stosur and Ash Barty. But the lack of more recognisable superstars such as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, or Serena Williams does diminish the star wattage of AO Tennis a bit, especially for casual players.
AO Tennis' custom player creation tool does have enough features to let you create other real-life pros, and these creations can be shared online with other players. Having said that, the number of available individual options are quite limited, so crafting some of tennis' most unique looks (such as a long-haired Andre Agassi) won't be possible.
But the small roster of licensed pros available are given an unfortunate spotlight in AO Tennis because of terrible visuals and facial animations. Each real-life pro looks wooden, and they barely meet the standard set by the Top Spin and Virtua Tennis franchises years ago.
The developer, Big Ant Studios, has promised to continually improve AO Tennis throughout the year, promising an ambitious slate of content that includes new players, events, and game modes. But with its poor presentation, lack of content, and frustrating controls, AO Tennis in its current state is subpar at best, and requires much more refinement to even meet the standard of last generation's tennis titles. Rather than a Roger Federer-esque ace, AO Tennis is more akin to a double fault whose shots don't even make the net.