It's no coincidence that Pong came to be the first successful sports-based video game in the world. Even though it's technically based on table tennis, there's something brilliantly simple when two people face each other, pushing the paddles as quickly and accurately as possible so they can reach the ball and send it back in an attempt to beat their opponent. It's a concept that works extremely well as a video game and, consequently, several of the world's best sports games are based on tennis.
That's why it's been so strange that in recent years there has been something of a tennis drought; no games with serious aspirations to dominate the sport have been released in a long time. Neither EA (who made an early attempt) or 2K Sports have been interested in trying their luck with the sport either, and Top Spin and Virtua Tennis appear to have been dropped off the map completely. Suddenly, however, it seems like several game developers collectively realised that there was a gap in the market and decided that they'd be the ones to overcome the problem. Therefore, after years of drought, three fairly big tennis games are coming to market within a few weeks of one another.
First was AO International Tennis that offers a more realistic interpretation of the sport, and on the other end of the spectrum we've got Mario Tennis Aces, which has a slightly less authentic approach, albeit with a greater focus on family-friendly entertainment. And then, of course, we have Tennis World Tour, which of the three is probably the one that has had the most hype. That's not so strange when you consider how the team that developed it, Breakpoint Studios, is largely made up of the people who developed Top Spin 4, which is considered by many to be a masterpiece in the genre.
Since it was revealed the studio has slowly but surely rolled out trailers. We've had previews and news drops, and the game has looked good, the level of ambition has seemed high and... all of these factors make it hard to understand exactly why the game has been launched in such an unfinished state. There is so much here that could be good - really good even - however, the game is simply incomplete. Just take one example such as the online multiplayer not being finished and included, in a sports game that is at its best against real people. In 2018. And then there are the doubles matches, which are also missing at launch but are set to be offered up at a later date.
It's a very barebones tennis experience that has been served up, then, and we're almost suffering when we hit that first smash and it sinks in just how solid the foundations of Tennis World Tour actually are. There's a satisfying weight to the game and an intuitive feel that clearly lets us deliver the balls we intend, and it doesn't take long for us to start getting better and get to grips with how to best use the analog sticks and challenge our opponent with some nasty returns. It also strikes us how well the surfaces are simulated and we really enjoyed playing on grass in particular, something that subtly tweaks the conditions to make things slightly more random. Or as Ivan Lendl said in the early 1980s: "Grass is for cows".
Since online isn't available, we were forced to play the career mode, as playing exhibition matches isn't particularly meaningful in the long run. The career mode is very basic, reminiscent of older sports games where you create your own athlete and go out as an amateur to slowly but surely get better as you fight your way to the top. Even though it's extremely traditional, it still works, and it was quite fun watching our tennis pro coming of age on the court.
Despite the fact that we were never bored, the problem remains that it's so incredibly sparse in terms of content. Tennis World Tour desperately needs to be expanded so much more. After EA Sports introduced The Journey, it's not just possible to get away with producing something that's on the same level as the sports games from ten years ago. There's a lot of work to do here and we hope that the lack of content is going to be addressed, as there's simply too little there for someone who is planning to play this alone and who doesn't want to go online.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only thing that feels old in the game, and the purely technical aspects also feel outdated. The visual assets look like semi-finished remasters from last generation titles and it's not a huge step up from what we saw in Top Spin 4. We're talking poor and compressed textures, jumpy animations, and a crowd that feels like it was borrowed from the last generation of sports games.
Alas, this lack of polish extends to the game audio, which also feels strangely unfinished. Some commentary can't be heard, the bounce of the tennis ball sounds too mechanical, and the commentator - John McEnroe himself - repeats a handful of comments over and over again. It sounds like he's having the most boring day at work.
With online support and doubles among the features still to be added, Tennis World Tour definitely has the potential to become an interesting title. At the present time, however, it feels like we're being asked to pay for an early beta. It's really not okay to do it this way, and it feels like we've been forced to review an incomplete game, even though it's a full-priced product available on the market.
If the reason is that the developers wanted to get their game out before Mario Tennis Aces or maybe in time the Wimbledon, we can only speculate, but regardless of the reason, we're still left with a game that may have a stable foundation but that also has a very uncertain future. It's hard not to think that Breakpoint Studios should have waited for the autumn to come and release a polished game with a lot more content instead of a mediocre product that could have been so much more. What a waste.