Despite its global popularity, we've seen very little in the way of representation for tennis in gaming during the entirety of this console generation (at least in a true to life simulated fashion). Alongside Tennis World Tour (Breakpoint Studio), Big Ant Studios served up its own take on the Australian Open series back in 2018 but, due to its overall clunkiness, it struggled to provide the tennis experience that sports fans desperately desired. Now that more than a year has passed, the studio has followed up AO International Tennis with a sequel that looks to address the flaws of its predecessor as well as including a fully-fledged career mode.
In the aforementioned career mode you can choose between a whole roster of sporting legends including the likes of Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios, and Karen Khachanov, or there's the option to create your own up-and-coming star using the robust character creation tools. The career sees you working to set the tennis world on fire by competing in a series of competitions and there's at least some attempt to inject a narrative here in the way of cutscenes, although sadly these felt poorly executed and as if they were just crammed in there to help break things up.
It may not offer anything too compelling in the way of a narrative but the career mode does give players a lot of flexibility in terms of how they can shape their path to the top. It features a work planner where you can select tournaments around the world to take part in as well as training sessions where you can bolster the skill caps of different shots and serves. On top of this, you can enhance player attributes such as speed, stamina, and power in an RPG-like fashion by spending skill points that you'll unlock from your time out on the court. You can even spend your earnings to enlist staff to further aid your development. A trainer, for example, can reduce fatigue from training and a doctor can majorly cut down injury time.
The controls, we are pleased to report, feel tight and responsive, however, we struggled to grow accustomed to the alternative method of using the right analogue stick to land shots. When preparing to hit the ball you use the left analogue stick to aim your shot and the X, Square, Circle, and Triangle buttons (on PS4) are used to land different shots. How long you hold a button down will change the force that you hit the ball with and a white marker shown on your opponent's side of the court will dictate where the ball is predicted to land. You can rotate the right analogue stick to hit the ball as an alternative method but this for us always felt imprecise and lacked the reliability we noted from the simpler button press.
Outside of the career mode players can create their own venues, logos, and scenarios as well explore a whole library of user-created content that stems back to the first game. Making your very own venue is simple and you can customise details such as the roof, the seating, and smaller more nuanced touches such as the appearance of the game clock. The character creator that we briefly touched upon earlier is similarly deep, giving us more flexibility to shape our character then even some RPGs are able to offer. We appreciated the smaller but not completely necessary touches like being able to add scars and wrinkles, and the fact that we can change the sound we made when slinging our racket at the ball.
"Janky" is perhaps the best word to describe AO Tennis 2 from a visual standpoint. The character models look dated and when playing matches the crowd and crew on the side of the court just sit around awkwardly not even moving their heads to catch the unfolding action. Loading screens presented a persistent pain as well as all they did was slow down the already lengthy tournaments, reducing them to a crawl at times. Where the presentation does get our praise though is with the excellent soundtrack, which suited the sport well with its fitting blend of electronic and alternative rock tracks.
AO Tennis 2 is one of the finest tennis sims that we have seen this generation and it delivers a sizable improvement over its predecessor. It offers an in-depth career mode complete with RPG elements, the controls feel tight and responsive (for the most part), and the Academy mode is filled with a wealth of user-created content spanning all the way back to its predecessor. The presentation does lack polish, however, and we found the career mode's story a little slapdash but we still thoroughly enjoyed what Big Ant has delivered in this second entry.
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