Tennis is one of the most popular sports on the planet, but publishers are having a nightmare capitalizing on its potential. French outfit Nacon has already had a couple of attempts with the two Tennis World Tour titles – and the two Australian Open endorsed entries, AO Tennis – but now it’s the turn of Kalypso Media to serve up its own take on the historical sport. Having had our Hawkeye on Matchpoint: Tennis Championships for quite some time, does it hit a perfect forehand winner – or double-fault like so many before it?
The biggest challenge for developers when it comes to tennis titles is building a large enough library of animations to accommodate a multitude of gameplay scenarios. If you think about a real tennis match on television, there are an enormous amount of possibilities that can occur, all pertaining to the player’s body position in relation to the ball. Whether it’s Novak Djokovic contorting himself for impossible sliced serve returns or Polish superstar Iga Świątek playing top-spin passing shots down the line, there’s a lot that a game needs to account for in order to make rallies look realistic.
Australian developer Torus Games worked tirelessly in the motion capture studio to make its effort feel as fluid as possible, and it does take a small step forward from Nacon’s aforementioned attempts. There’s a lot less of the warping that’s common in other tennis titles, because the developer’s been able to assemble a library of animations large enough to cater to a wider variety of scenarios. That doesn’t mean awkward animations don’t occur, they’re just less common, and the game ultimately feels more fulfilling on the pad as a result.
Rather than attempt to ape genre flag-bearer Top Spin 4, the studio’s instead gone for a simpler shot system. You use the face buttons to vary between slice, top-spin, flat shots, and lobs – with a couple of modifiers on the shoulder buttons allowing you to prioritize volleys and drop shots. There’s much less focus on timing, however, enabling you to concentrate much more on placement and positioning. This means you can ultimately turn the tables on servers by slowing the pace of the ball with slice shots, bringing them into the net, and then hitting those all-important passing shots like in real-life.
It actually feels very satisfying when you architect a winning point like a professional player. While you can have some success just hitting the buttons and running around, you’re rewarded for understanding shot selections, and knowing when to use a top spin volley or slug it out on the baseline. In fact, it’s actually quite fun paying attention to your opponent’s movement – as in real tennis – and picking your spot at the last possible second to put the ball out of their reach.
The problem is that the enthusiasm you’ll feel on the sticks is not replicated on the screen. Tennis is an energetic sport that’s as much about emotion as it is action, and yet you’ll never see a single fist-pump or gesture to the crowd when you hit an all-important winner down the line. In fact, the game is bizarrely stagnant overall: the crowd will politely applaud after each point, but there are no gasps or moments of tension as rallies develop – and even the limited commentary often fails to point out when you’ve got match point, instead settling for more reusable lines focused on set points.
The lack of overall atmosphere really kills the thunderous enthusiasm that you traditionally see on a professional tennis court, and with Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios on the cover, it’s even more pronounced: you can’t challenge calls with Hawkeye, there are no celebratory transitions as players walk back to their seats, and that aforementioned animation library does begin to lose its luster the more you play. Seeing all players stretch in exactly the same way for an out-of-reach passing shot every single time just kills the illusion a little bit, and none of the professional players included have their characteristic serves or receiving sways.
While these criticisms can almost certainly be attributed to a lack of budget, other issues are just unforced errors. The campaign, for instance, which sees you working your way up the world rankings just feels glacial in terms of progression. You’ll be playing at a variety of tournaments all around the globe, competing against some real-world players like Garbine Muguruza and Kei Nishikori, but there’s no way to truncate matches meaning you’ll predominantly be playing full best of three set matches depending on the tournament. There are a few Super Tiebreaker events to break up the pace, but expect to be sitting down for well over an hour in order to see out a single competition.
This wouldn’t be so bad if you leveled up quicker, but your stats are affected by gear unlocks, coaches, and training sessions – and it’s going to take you dozens of hours to bump up your attributes. While this perhaps reflects the grueling nature of being a real-world tennis player on tour, the reality is that the sluggish progression paired with the lack of excitement on court means you’ll burn out on the game fast. We love tennis and actually quite like the gameplay here, but we could only endure Matchpoint in short bursts; fortunately, you can Save & Quit even mid-match and pick up proceedings later.
The other downside is that there’s really not much to do outside of the campaign. There is online multiplayer with full crossplay support, and although we’ve been unable to find an opponent to test it in the title’s pre-release environment, we expect it will add some longevity to the package. However, outside of the career mode, multiplayer, standalone exhibition matches, and some training minigames, that’s basically your lot. Even double matches are inexplicably absent.
At least the visuals are good from the standard broadcast camera. Player models – particularly those of professionals – are ugly across the board, but the courts and arenas look great, even though fans may lament the lack of licensed locations like Wimbledon and Roland-Garros. The replays would also look nice if there wasn’t a bug causing tearing in the review build, although the studio has told us that this will be fixed with a patch promptly.
Matchpoint: Tennis Championships gives you the tools to play realistic tennis rallies, and it feels pretty good on the pad overall. The problem is that a real lack of enthusiasm on court pairs with a stodgy career mode to sap your enthusiasm. There’s fun to be had here, and a large animation library allows the gameplay to look relatively realistic from afar, but tennis fans will still have to wait for a real winner to topple the legendary Top Spin 4.