• When Rockstar Games announced back in March that they would be releasing an exclusive Xbox 360 table tennis game, forums began filling up with skeptical, sarcastic and bitter posts regarding the game. Understandably, a large number of gamers were hoping for the next installment of the Grand Theft Auto series instead of a “basement” sport such as ping-pong. But, as the screenshots and trailers began to appear in various places around the web, opinions started changing. The game looked too good to dismiss and gamers interest in it started to pique. What follows is my take on how Rockstar was able to take the not-so-athletic sport of table tennis and, with the aid of some fantastic HD graphics, create a fun, addictive game that rivals some of the more “popular sports” titles out there.

    I want to preface this review by making it known that about ten years ago, I did actually belong to a table tennis league. That’s right! They do exist and, even though ping-pong will probably never be able to secure a large television contract, it is a fun sport to play amongst friends. Of course it also gave me an excuse to put down a few beers on a work night! So with that in mind, I felt as though my expertise in the sport qualified me better than most to actually evaluate this title. (You do realize that I’m having a tough time keeping a straight face while I write this). I wish I had some beer.

    Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis

    Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis is a mirror opposite from the games that put Rockstar on the map, and not just because of it’s subject. With the GTA series, the company became famous for it’s immense explorable environments and it’s not-so-stellar graphics. With Table Tennis, your environment is significantly reduced to just a 9 foot by 5 foot ping-pong table, and the graphics are absolutely amazing. The character models that Rockstar created for this game may be the best the gaming world has ever seen in any console or PC game to date. But they didn’t stop there. The environments themselves are incredibly well rendered with great shadowing and attention to detail from the parquet style floors to the tables and nets. You name it and I guarantee you it looks phenomenal. There’s also a great effect that occurs when players get a long volley going. As it grows in length, the music volume begins to rise and all of the off court lights fade leaving the players in a focused spotlight in the center of the floor. Very cool! For the record, everything you have seen or heard about the visual superiority of this game is true…and then some!

    The sound crew excelled as well, capturing the true sound a ping-pong ball makes as it is bashed back and forth in a heated exchange, as well as the distinct “rub” noise that occurs when one drives it into the net. Yes, I’ve heard this sound many times before during my league days, and I will attest to it’s accurate depiction in this game. (I feel like such a geek for even knowing that). Crowd noise swells as they react to good shots and long volleys, and the background music,while not of the same caliber as a GTA or Midnight Club soundtrack, fits the environment well.

    While the physics of the game aren’t perfect, they are really darn close! The reaction the ball has to spin effects placement very near to exact. In a real life game, players try to identify spin by watching their opponents paddle motions, (at least that’s how I did it). In the game, spin is identified by a colored “halo” around the ball after your opponent makes contact with it. If your strategy includes using counterspin (applying the identical spin to the ball that is hit to you) then watching these colors is important. While using a counterspin move increases your chance of a safe shot, your timing must be very good since you have little time to identify what’s coming. If you notice your opponent playing a little to far off the table, press and hold the L bumper while choosing your spin and you will drop a Soft Shot over the net, hopefully preventing any chance for a return. You also have a Focus meter that will fill up as you make consecutive return shots. A Focus Shot is a powerful shot designed to help execute a difficult return. The action is accomplished by pressing and holding the R bumper while selecting your spin, providing of course that you have enough Focus stored in your meter.

    Table Tennis features eleven different characters to chose from, some of whom are only available after unlocking them, but no option to create your own. Since gamers have become so used to building their own likeness into sporting games, some may list this as a fault. Personally, I consider it to be a minor omission rather than a downside. While the character models definitely look stunning, Rockstar was clever in making sure that the “athletes” in the game resemble more of the “everyman” style rather than going for an over-the-top Greek god sort of character. While face blemishes, bad haircuts and beanpole arms are the male characters primary characteristics, their demeanor and attitude during the heat of battle reflect a competitive nature usually exhibited on NFL and European football fields. But let’s face it, watching the character Luc call out his opponent after a good shot, the whole time wearing a sweatband around his head is more than just a little funny. Credit to Rockstar for the humor that lays behind it’s characters. While the game certainly exhibits a bit of tongue-in-cheek, it in no way takes away from the love of the game that the folks at Rockstar obviously hold for the sport.

    Table Tennis offers the always important Training mode which not only gives players a good feel for the controls, but completing all of it’s drills with a perfect score nets you an Achievement. Tournament mode, which replaces the traditional career mode, is where players will find themselves spending the majority of their time when playing single player. Tournaments are sorted by difficulty, each with it’s own number of rounds required to reach champion status. With each championship you earn, a new Achievement is gained. One fact to note in Tournament mode; If you lose a round during your climb to the top, you are offered a chance at a rematch instead of being forced to restart the tournament. Now before you chastise this feature for taking away the sense of accomplishment felt by breezing through a tough lineup of opponents, imagine how you might feel if you were six rounds deep and on the verge of fame and fortune only to lose the whole basket of crackers when your computer opponent grazes the top of the net with their return making for an impossible shot on your part. Being able to rematch these players will remove the need for gamers to go out in their backyards and heave their wireless controllers as far as their upper body strength will allow.

    Got a friend over the house who needs a good ping-pong butt whoopin’? Then grab a pair of controllers and head on over to Exhibition mode. Here, two players can face off against one another on the same machine in a battle for true table tennis dominance. This is also a great spot to fire off a quick single player game when you don’t have the time to commit to a tournament. I should also mention that playing both Exhibition and Tournament modes allows you to unlock a variety of items within the game including outfits, characters and venues.

    While the single player modes are fun and help to build your skills, Table Tennis was ultimately designed for Xbox Live play. I certainly give credit to the skills and AI that Rockstar designed for the computer opponents, but nothing really beats the challenge of a flesh and blood opponent on Live. Both Player and Ranked matches are available and the two modes of play, Exhibition and Timed Tournament, offer a great deal of customization to fine tune exactly the type of game you’re looking for. In Exhibition, a player can choose how many games per set, points per game, and even points between exchange of serve. Timed Tournament works quite a bit differently then the Tournament mode in single player. Tournaments begin with either four or eight players that are broken down into groups of two and face off against one another for a preset period of time between seven and ten minutes. At the end of that time, the player with the most amount of game wins is deemed the winner. All of the players are then regrouped to begin the next round. This continues until all matches are done at which time, players are placed according to their overall record throughout the tournament. Sounds confusing? Then I won’t mention the customization available within the tournaments themselves. Suffice it to say, this mode is a lot of fun. Especially since you get to face a number of different players within the tournament. Now, if voyeurism is your thing, enter the Table Tennis Network. This mode allows you to sit back and watch matches taking place between your fellow gamers. While not as exciting as participating yourself, everyone is bound to do it once since you do gain an Achievement for the act.

    The only downside to the online play is some occasional lag. The most common symptom is seeing your opponent freeze up, yet they still somehow make contact with the ball. While it appears that they aren’t making a play they in fact are, resulting in the ball blowing by you when you aren’t expecting it. Again, this seems to happen occasionally and only once so far has the lag been so bad for me that the game was unplayable.

    Credit should be given to Rockstar for the price point they chose for the game. While they may not generate the per unit money of the average next-gen game, this lower price coupled with the inevitable word of mouth popularity of the game, should all but guarantee a generous amount of units sold, surely covering the costs associated with the development and production of the game.

    While originally being described by Rockstar as a pet-project for the number of the ping-pong fans within their staff, there is a part of me that thinks this game may have been created as a test for them to see just how far they could go with their graphic development. The positive results that came from the finished product may influence the way they go about designing the next round of GTA as well as other future titles they produce. However, this is only my opinion and we all know what they say about opinions.

    Score: 9/10

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