From cricket to lacrosse to AFL, Big Ant Studios love making a big splash in small sporting ponds. This year they’re returning serve with a second crack at the “Happy Slam” in AO Tennis 2.

Since the release of the first edition of AO Tennis, it’s clear that the crew at Big Ant have listened to the fans and worked to add a number of new features to deepen the player experience.

At the core of this game is some incredibly satisfying gameplay. You’ll need to use every single available button in every match to stay on top of your opponents. It’s a fast and furious mix of reactionary response and structured tactics. Working your opponent around the court can be difficult, and you can immediately notice the difference in skill levels and attributes, especially playing a higher levelled player.

If a player has a weak backhand, putting pressure on that side of the court will buy time and space to move the ball more effectively. Jumping into the game immediately as Rafael Nadal feels like using a cheat code. Although that is an entirely fair representation, it won’t give you the full depth of experience available in the game.

There’s a new reputational system in the game that allows you to react to every decision made on the court. Don’t like the way that last shot went? You can spit the dummy and throw your racquet away. Think that your opponent got you good, you can congratulate them. It adds to the flavour of each match, and if you’re playing in career mode it can impact your reputation with sponsors and your ability to get selected for invitational tournaments. Mind you, such people don’t seem to care about the antics so long as you’re playing top-level tennis.

While the reaction system is a welcome addition, the repeated animations are a bit under-enthusiastic, like seeing your player give a positive thumbs up to the chair umpire after the 500th good call. If would be great to see new animations added over time to provide a more immersive experience.

The look and feel of the game aren’t a major uplift from the 2018 edition, rather it appears that the focus was on cleaning up the gameplay and adding new features. Some of the character models are a bit iffy in the cutscenes, although once you hit the court they look great. Character movement has been accurately modelled against the athletes themselves, so you get a real feel for what it would be like to play as some of the modern-day champs like Rafa or Ash Barty. If you dive into the character creation mode, you can even borrow parts of their action to customise your own likeness. Almost everything about your character can be customised, right down to specific grunting noises made during effort shots.

“…mishits or late release will turn you into a Stormtrooper at the firing range”

This game, if nothing else, is about timing. Button mashing your selected shot type will get you a simple shot straight down the middle of the court, which is fine if you were wanting to simulate the experience of playing tennis with your grandma. For anything beyond that, and if you are to stand any chance of winning a point, you’ll need to work out the correct power behind the stroke and release the button (or utilise the alternate thumb stick control method) in time with the animation. Get the timing right and your shot returns in the targeted spot with plenty of power, mishits or late release will turn you into a Stormtrooper at the firing range, spraying shots wildly in the general direction of your target. More often than not, this lands in a space outside the court.

AO Tennis 2

The career mode is where both the magic happens and the realisation kicks in that you are not the next Fed Express, you are actually the little engine that could – or, more accurately, could not (depending on your level of skill). You’ll get the opportunity to grow a career from the very beginning, which takes time and patience. Loading times can be a little exaggerated between events, and they will have you searching for other activities to occupy your time, as it can take up to a minute to transition from menus to gameplay. With no music or anything entertaining to do during the loading, it can feel like more of a chore than it should be.

While there has been an effort made to immerse players in the career mode aspects of the game, there is a distinct lack of commentary or character voices in the game, which feels a little empty. You’ll likely opt for shorter, more condensed matches, as a full blooded five-set game could literally take hours to get through. The gameplay is styled like TV coverage, so it would be nice to have a commentary team to go along with the matches – this was a major disappointment in the first AO Tennis release, so we’re surprised that it persists. It’s something that Big Ant have done well in the past and would be a welcome addition here.

There is a Hawk-Eye referral system here that seems mostly redundant. Unless you’re setting up the computer to fail every time, the decisions are almost never as close as you’d like them to be. Although we can imagine there will be a few friends challenging calls in multiplayer just to see how close it was. Of the several hundred referrals requested during our playing time, only one of them was successful, although that probably says more about our skill level than the system itself.

The scale of difficulty in this game is intense. It goes from the ‘Rookie’, bowling-with-bumper-bars entry level all the way up to a thumb-bleedingly difficult with ‘Grand Slam’. At the Rookie level, players will find it nigh on impossible to make the ball go out of bounds, the only thing separating you from scoring being your lack of imagination in shots or sheer exhaustion. There’s plenty of room in this game for players to adjust their individual experience to suit their increasing skill level. The jump from Rookie to Amateur is startling, and at the highest level you’ll be crying for mercy as your game console of choice ruthlessly tears you apart like a seagull on a hot chip.

Timing is everything In AO Tennis 2. From the gameplay to the release aligning with the start of the real life Australian Open event, everything seems to be lining up for a solid start to the year for fans of tennis and sporting games in general.

AO Tennis 2 is available now for PS4, Xbox One and Switch.

Buy now at JB Hi-Fi