Tennis Elbow 4 Early Access Review - Showing Promise
In recent years, there’s been no shortage of tennis video games on the market, which has certainly been nice if you’re a fan of the sport looking to take that enthusiasm to a virtual court yourself. For those who prefer to play their games on a console, there’s been an ongoing match between two different series in AO Tennis and Tennis World Tour 2, both of which released a sequel back in 2020. For people who would rather do their gaming on PC, there are even more opportunities to grab a racket thanks to titles like Full Ace Tennis Simulator and the more recent Tennis Manager 2021. This also brings us to my Tennis Elbow 4 Early Access review.
Tennis Elbow 4 Early Access Review
If you’ve poked around the tennis gaming community at all and perused any message boards, you’ll know that the game that gets higher praise than any other most of the time (besides perhaps Top Spin 4) is Tennis Elbow 2013. Even now nearly a decade after its initial release, it’s still a bar against which other tennis games are measured largely because how much it has been improved by mods in the interim.
You can understand then that expectations were high when the next installment of the series, Tennis Elbow 4, was finally released last summer. The caveat to its unveiling though is that the game remains even now in early access and the developers, Mana Games, are upfront about admitting once you load the game that there are certain aspects like players stretching for balls and high volleys at the net that remain a bit of a work in progress.
Regardless, the game shows lots of potential at this point and is remarkably easy to pick up for newcomers. It comes without the kind of frustration that sometimes comes with learning other tennis games. It also features a robust career mode that has you entering both singles and doubles events, and improving your player’s array of skills with every match that you play. Naturally, there are areas that are rough around the edges at this time, some clunky animations elsewhere, and a lack of online play. However, the hope has to be that at least some of these can be rectified either by developers or community mods.
Let’s serve up a breakdown of what components of Tennis Elbow 4 are already finding their mark, and where it’s sailing wide of the lines and needs some refinement if it wants to separate itself from the other tennis games out there.
What I Like
The game may not have a proper tutorial, but it does have a training mode where you can choose whatever players and location you like before practicing your skills by hitting the ball back and forth. It gives you an opportunity to learn all of the different ways to strike the ball, get a feel for moving around on the court, and how the ball bounces off all of the nine surfaces that you could find yourself playing on in events.
While it might be nice if the game actually walked you through how and when to use each kind of shot, it still serves its purpose without holding your hand through everything. You can also play a low stakes match pitting your dream competitors against each other within Training Club if you want to see what it might look like to have legends like Steffi Graf and Venus Williams square off against each other.
Of all of the recent tennis games released, Tennis Elbow 4 may just be the one that’s easiest to pick up and start hitting balls right away. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the game can be mastered quickly however, as there are subtleties to the controls that will take some time to grasp if you want to be able to rocket those winners down the lines. The most innovative aspect of the game’s controls when compared to other tennis games is a vitally important one when it comes to positioning your player in the ideal spot to be able to hit with any efficiency. An on-screen indicator that ranges in color from red to green is helpful in showing you on every ball that comes your way where you’ll want to navigate your player to on the court in order to have the best chance of maximizing power and accuracy in your return. Of course, this indicator is not present on higher difficulties or can be turned off in the settings.
Aside from that, there’s an assortment of the usual shot types you’ve come to expect from other games in your arsenal that you’ll want to learn so you’ll be able to unleash them when the time calls for them. This array of shots includes slices, top spins, drop shots, and lobs that can assist in situations where you need to change the pace to buy some time to get your player positioned back in the middle of the court. No matter what kind of shot type you might be hitting though, for the best results it’s always imperative that you hold down the corresponding button all the way through your shot and don’t try to aim too early.
The only disappointment with the controls relates to serves. The mechanic seems rather rudimentary, involving only a button press and holding a direction, and at least appears to involve some RNG in order to factor in your player’s service attributes. It’s not a terrible system and does succeed in the way it makes it harder to consistently land the hardest of serves safely on the other side of the court, but it doesn’t exactly make for the most challenging or fun of mini-games to represent a crucial part of the sport.
Gameplay & Customization Options
The good news is that without touching any of the game’s settings, Tennis Elbow 4 already does a commendable job of re-creating the cat-and-mouse game that naturally happens when trying to anticipate an opponent’s next move as the ball travels back and forth over the net. The game’s physics are also refreshingly realistic, as hitting a ball while in a bad position can result in some wild ricochets off your racket that don’t even get over the net.
The even better news is that the game presents you with plenty of options to adjust your experience, which helps in getting the game to play to your own preferences. Maybe the greatest example of this is with the difficulty of your computer opponents, as you can not only choose from six different difficulty levels but then also between 10 different levels within each of those difficulties. Another great option is the ability to manipulate the camera angle to set its height and how far zoomed in on the court you want it to be, which can really help when trying to find the best way to read the trajectory of the ball while it’s sailing towards you.
The career mode in Tennis Elbow 4 is easily the game’s crowning achievement and has clearly been lovingly crafted by fans of the sport to make your climb through the ranks be as rewarding as possible. With an absolutely overwhelming number of tournaments (400+) available to be entered on both the junior and pro tours, you’ll need to start out by playing your way into lesser tournaments as a relative unknown before working your way up to participating in any Grand Slam events (unless you’d rather take control of one of the game’s 3,500+ players that are largely based on real life ones but with their names slightly altered for legal reasons).
Your journey will begin with your player possessing a limited set of skills that you’ll be able to customize by selecting an archetype and then investing skill points in whatever areas you wish to make your strengths at the outset. As you play in tournament matches, you’ll start to accrue more points that you can use to build up your attributes and become a better player. It’s not as if there any fancy cutscenes or anything like you might expect from a AAA title’s career mode, but it’s the kind of game that encourages using imagination to craft your own narratives as you run up against the same players regularly in tournaments throughout your career.
Regular Updates & Mod Potential
The team behind the game is obviously pretty small, and from looking at the various update notes in the time since the game’s been in early access, it’s entirely possible to get the impression that it’s really just one person working on making the improvements. Fortunately, this developer does seem to be fairly diligent about getting to those updates. They are also extraordinarily responsive to the feedback of the community, responding to nearly every comment about the game on Steam. Assuming they don’t go on any sort of extended vacation or fall ill (which sadly has happened in the past based on update notes), this appears to be a labor of love that will see regular tweaks prior to its official release. There’s also the very real possibility that the game will eventually become as popular with the modding community as Tennis Elbow 2013, and that will only improve its chances of becoming a better game in the future.
What I Don’t Like
Graphics & Animations
Despite the fact that Tennis Elbow 4 is from a smaller company without the resources of other tennis series like AO Tennis and Tennis World Tour (so I’m cutting it some slack), it still needs to be said that the game’s graphics are decidedly stuck in the past. By being a gen or two behind in the visuals department, the player models can’t help but appear blocky and stiff, while the animations at times can be awkward or clunky. The appearance of the various courts across international events only really undergo superficial changes. They remain disappointingly static and lifeless throughout a match.
It’s also a little amusing to find a message prior to a match that explains to you that if you see any awkward animations in the game, it’s because your positioning was poor — in effect making it seem like there are no shortcomings with the animation system right now. The way the game uses a disclaimer regarding its own limitations like this to convince you that you’ve done something wrong verges on gaslighting. Whoever is truly at fault, there no doubt there can be some awkward moments that throw me for a loop in the heat of a long rally. Players in the game will automatically shift their body one way or another based on where they are situated on the court in relation to the ball, and this can result in some shuffling of the racket from one hand to the other and whiplash-inducing 360 spins at the last possible moment before making contact with the ball.
Sound & Music
You wouldn’t be missing a whole lot really if you decided to mute the entire game of Tennis Elbow 4 from the very moment that it started to load. The music in the menus is grating and incessant, virtually begging you to cue up some of your own favorite tunes or maybe a podcast instead. The sounds while playing a match fare only a little better, with the grunts, bounces, crowd noises, and even the foreign voices of the officials wherever appropriate not doing a whole lot to transport you to the event.
Yes, the player pool is obviously bound to be small (especially with the game still in early release), so it’s a bit unavoidable that finding match at any given time is going to present some challenges unless you’re able to coordinate ahead of time with a friend. As someone who plays more on consoles and has become used to straightforward matchmaking, the menu for online play in Tennis Elbow 4 is hard to find for starters, and then comes across as confusing once you do manage to locate it.
It’s not as easy as clicking a button to find playlists that match what you are seeking. Instead, it involves hunting for an opponent or starting your own match and waiting for someone to log on who also wants to play. Let’s hope this gets improved in the ongoing updates, and that online tournaments become easier to enter for those who play the game often and want to see how they measure up against others.
In some ways, it may be a little too early to tell whether Tennis Elbow 4 is the kind of game that gets lost in the shuffle with all of the other tennis titles, or if it will eventually attract a niche PC gaming crowd that loves tennis. It certainly shows plenty of potential here in early release and that, alongside with the reputation of its existing series, could eventually make this a contender for the Grand Slam of tennis video games. The foundation is already in place with its emphasis on positioning and precise timing in your various strokes, managing to replicate the fundamentals and strategy of the sport in a way that’s fun and rewarding. The career mode is deep enough that the gradual progression of your created player over the course of events will keep you invested and coming back for more.
There are some weaknesses to the game though, and the biggest one that hopefully get some updates relates to how the visuals are lagging behind other releases. There is no question Tennis Elbow 4 right now lacks in detail and fluid animations. Online play is hampered by an absence of decent menus and matchmaking, making it necessary to become an active member of the Tennis Elbow 4 community if you ever want to find a match most of the time.