It's been an eventful start to the tennis calendar year, with world number one Novak Djokovic exiled from the Australian Open due to his vaccination status. While there's no way Victoria-based developer Torus Games can match that level of surprise, it's making its own attempts to shock the racket-swinging world with upcoming sports sim Matchpoint Tennis Championships. Could this be the PS5 and Xbox Series X equivalent of yesteryear greats Virtua Tennis and Top Spin? The studio certainly hopes so.
Tabbed for a release date of spring 2022, Matchpoint is pinning its ambitions on three specific gameplay pillars: lifelike animations, intelligent positioning, and authentic ball physics. Matchpoint Tennis Championships has been in development since Autumn 2019, and while Torus has little sporting pedigree, the studio has unquestionably done its groundwork – going so far as to study tennis on an academic level, right down to the fundamentals of player movement.
"Professional tennis players never stop," says head of production David McIntosh. "They're in a constantly moving state regardless of what the ball is doing. We aimed to recreate those small movements, such as split-steps and shuffle-steps. Realistically this is an area of development that we could likely spend 10 years on, but we had to draw the line in the sand between the creation of realistic movement and the responsiveness of player interaction."
The physics system was even more studiously implemented. "Our ball is a ball, in that it contains physics factors such as air pressure, which affects how it bounces from different surfaces – hard, clay, grass – and the Magnus Effect, which uses the air density combined with the speed of rotation, to calculate curves and drag," says McIntosh. "One of the 'real vs game' friction points for ball physics was the coefficient of restitution, which applies the speed from one shot into the speed of the next shot. To ensure this effect felt correct, while also giving players the control to slow down or speed up the pace of a rally, took some tricky thinking."
"We went to great lengths to aim for 'correct' when it comes to ball physics because we anticipated that it would be the first thing that anyone who knows tennis would notice if it was incorrect."
The talk is impressive, but animations will indeed need to be lifelike if Matchpoint Tennis Championships is to emulate those vaunted past greats. I'm a huge fan of another Australian sports series – Big Ant's Cricket 22 – but that next-gen effort is hugely let down by bowler and fielder movement that feel PS3-calibre. In the hope of overcoming such concerns, Torus mo-capped French pro Axel Michon and Australian coach Marcel Pietrasik.
"While much of the motion was directed and scripted, we found that the most natural motions were the unscripted ones," says McIntosh. "Once we simply recorded players playing tennis, we captured many unconscious motions and moments that we hadn't even thought of." Another coach, Erwin Dannenberg, was also involved in development in order to influence player instinct and AI behaviour.
If Torus can succeed in areas such as AI and animation, the next step in appealing to fans is its roster. It's relatively meagre, with 16 players promised at launch, and no sign of Djokovic – which for a modest studio is hardly shocking. World number-two Danill Medvedev is the highest-ranked inclusion, with Aussie firebrand Nick Kyrgios on the game's cover, and British interest coming in the form of Heather Watson. Garbine Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka, and Amanda Anisimova are other notable names.
Also confirmed for the launch line-up are Andrey Rublev, Casper Ruud, Hubert Hurkaczs. Benoit Paire, Hugo Gaston, Madison Keys, Carlos Alcaraz, Pablo Carreno Busta, Taylor Fritz, and Kei Nishikori.
This collection of players forms a major part of Matchpoint's career mode, alongside a colossal number of fictional ones – Torus says there will be 500 in total. As tradition dictates, it's about climbing from relative unknown to world number one, with 65 tournaments across six continents to compete in, and masses of attribute upgrades and customisation. Coaches, rackets and shoes can all be unlocked, with Uniqlo, Nike, and Head supplying officially branded digital equipment.
Torus also promises a groundbreaking rivalry system to ensure that your ninth match against Medvedev doesn't feel the same as the first. "As you play, you'll discover [opponent] strengths and weaknesses by triggering certain conditions," says McIntosh. "Once discovered, players can then use this information to either exploit their opponent's weaknesses or avoid their strengths. Knowing when your opponent is likely to make mistakes or being able to mitigate their strengths changes the outcome of matches."
Career mode's similarities to a certain Sega forebear feel obvious, but McIntosh is keen to point out that this is very much a tennis simulation, along the lines of 2K's classic. "Given that Top Spin 4 was released 11 years ago, we are still in absolute awe of the achievement from the developers," he says. "Top Spin was definitely our go-to reference point when trying to determine what feels right or wrong at a fundamental level. While Virtua Tennis is also a fantastic tennis game, we felt it was geared too arcade for what we were aiming for. However, much inspiration was drawn from both of these legendary games, and we can only dream to be regarded in similar company."
As for the future of his upstart newcomer, McIntosh is keen to avoid being one-and-done. "The first instalment to Matchpoint lays the foundation of where we plan to go," he says. "We felt it was important to focus on the on-court gameplay, and online multiplayer first and foremost. There is a long list of awesome features that are already planned for the next iteration of Matchpoint and beyond. It's our hope that tennis fans, sports fans and games fans alike can come together and enjoy a great game of tennis."
Matchpoint Tennis Championships is set to release on PS5, Xbox Series X, PS4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch in Spring 2022.