Review: Next-gen pong proves to be quite entertaining.
It's quite likely that most were surprised when they heard Rockstar was going to make a table tennis game. Everyone knows what brought them to the dance as a developer, but hey, good on them for trying something so different. Of course, it's one thing to try something different, but to actually create a very compelling game experience that is nuanced and interesting in almost all facets of its gameplay (and that doesn't cost the usual sticker price) is definitely to be applauded. Well, Rockstar has certainly done that, as Table Tennis proves to be a very challenging and deep game of table tennis that has just a dash of arcade flair thrown in for good measure.
From the opening cinematic to the main menu, Table Tennis is presented in a minimalist style that really focuses the experience towards gameplay. The only play options presented from the main menu are exhibition, tournament, training, and Xbox Live ? that's it. There's no career mode to speak of in Table Tennis, although the tournaments prove as somewhat of a surrogate for one. The game doesn't allow for much globetrotting, coaches, rivalries or anything like that, but the tournaments do take you through regional, national and world levels. Of course, the only thing to really change during the tournaments is the venues, but at least the arenas do convey a small sense of variety to the tourney experience.
As for who you can chose to take into a match, Table Tennis doesn't allow you to actually create a player, but opts to just provide a several pre-made characters that have fixed strengths and weaknesses. Initially, there are only four players to use, but unlockables will provide another seven pong combatants. All of the players represent different countries, but as said, each of them does have specific skills. Luc, for instance, hails from France and is quite adept at powering shots past his opponents, whereas someone like Haley (from U.S.A.) has more of a balanced, defensive game. The lack of player-creation is a bit annoying, but Rockstar obviously wanted players to pick out of a basic list and not have to worry about some maxed-out created character that would unbalance the game. Regardless, if another Table Tennis game were made, the feature would be added, without a doubt.
Before brining someone like Luc into the tournament circuit, it would be a good idea to venture into the game's training mode. This feature is quite comprehensive and gives some very pointed instructions on how to perform Table Tennis' various shots and actions. Essentially, the action in Table Tennis is quite similar to tennis games like Top Spin and requires you to use the four face buttons (or the right thumbstick) to execute shots. The A button handles the top spin (read: powerful), whereas the Y button provides a backspin shot that slightly lobs the ping-pong ball and slows up the pace. X and Y buttons provide left spin and right spin shots, respectively, and these are helpful for angling an opponent to the outside of the table. All of these shots actually place a small blip of color on the ball (like the Hitter's Eye in MVP Baseball), and this is quite useful for countering an opponent's shot with the opposite spin or just generally knowing what's coming at you. As said, the right thumbstick can also perform these shots, but using that input certainly takes some getting used to, especially since all of these shots can also be ?charged up.?
Essentially, the longer you hold down a button (or press a direction), the more velocity and spin that particular shot will have. Besides the obvious benefits, charging up shots will also fill up a ?focus? meter above your player that allows you to press the right bumper in conjunction with a shot in order to add some serious velocity; the ?focus? shots are very useful for putting an opponent out of position or just for straight-up burying a shot. The focus meter can also be built up so that you can go into a full focus mode in which your name flashes and the next several shots from your player are dangerous. The cool thing is that both players can actually get into this mode simultaneously, causing the table to be spotlighted (no crowd visible) and the resulting action to be insanely fast and intense.
The other actions in the game are performed quite easily, as well. Serving the ball requires the use of a basic meter that dictates degree of spin and power, but you can also choose which spin you want to put on the serve before you initiate the shot. Another nuance of the game is body position, and the left thumbstick allows your character to move around the table. In fact, you can even move your character quite far back to create some truly memorable ping-pong duels, and playing far back is actually strategic since you can charge up your shots more, but you will be out of place for heavily angled shots.
What is underscored when playing a game of Rockstar Table Tennis is how finely tuned all of these elements of gameplay are. The ball is served and then you and your opponent proceed to have a crazy rally where both of you are working angles and attempting power shots, but are also wary of what trick the other person might have up their sleeve. Body position is key in all matches of Table Tennis, and you'll usually know when you've been exposed for playing one side too much or attempting too many power shots. Rallies will often be broken by one player being forced out of position and then barely returning the shot, but it will be popped up in the air, allowing for an easy smash and point. Other subtleties like placing counterspin the ball or combining two spins (say, left spin and top spin) can really add some drama and excitement to rallies, and they also make the game that much more engaging.
Of course, the long rallies wouldn't be as engrossing if the game moved very slowly ? this is certainly not the case. While Rockstar Table Tennis doesn't quite move at the insane clip that some Olympic ping-pong matches might move at, the game certainly comes damn close. There's much less reaction time in Table Tennis than in a game like Top Spin, and you'll really have to have your player in the right position to counter some quick shots from the opposition ? much of this will become instinctual during some rallies. That the game manages to pull of this sense of speed and still have the gameplay reach a great level of depth is certainly to its credit, and it's obvious that Rockstar San Diego really focused on nailing the gameplay, both in terms of speed and depth.
Playing against the AI proves to be a bit Jekyll and Hyde in nature, as the easy settings are pretty pathetic, but the harder levels are quite challenging. You will certainly see the variance in character ability as you go up against each player, and some of the unlockable characters are downright mean when you play them in some of the harder tournaments. Still, the gameplay forces you to pay attention to what you're doing and mix up your strategy if a certain character is exploiting you in some fashion, and you might have to play several different ways to win a given tournament ? once again, a testament to the game's surprising depth.
This depth of gameplay is brought to the forefront when going online. Besides the basic slew of one-on-one matches achieved through Quick Match and Create-A-Match features, there are also timed tournaments that allow four or eight players to play in a round robin format where each player gets a chance to play the other in timed matches that are decided when the time expires. A lack of doubles is noteworthy, but whether the mode would've worked, practically or technically, is certainly debatable. Lag isn't too much of a problem online, but there will be a slight delay or omission of certain animations when serving and shooting, occasionally. In general, the action online is totally playable and a great deal of fun, especially since human competition is always so much more unpredictable. Also of note is the ability to be a spectator for a match, and this is pretty cool because not only can four people watch a specific contest, but they can also talk to each other, view the match from any angle, and get an achievement for doing so ? good on Rockstar for encouraging people to use the feature.
Like many recent Xbox 360 games, Rockstar Table Tennis is aided by the clarity and sharpness of its graphics. On a high-definition television, the game's razor-sharp looks come to life, and character animations stand out as particularly good. In fact, when watching a match online (or watching a replay), the side camera angle could almost be mistaken for real life when not looking with too discriminating of an eye. The players themselves all look extremely detailed, and they only suffer from ?waxy person syndrome? a tiny bit. As said, their animations are meticulously accurate, right down to the way in which they react to a point or the posturing of their hand on the paddle. The way their clothes move is also strikingly real, with shirts and shorts rippling and bouncing with each successive shot. The stadiums aren't totally flawless, but the scale and lighting used in each seems quite accurate, and is certainly distinctive. As a side detail, it's nice to see the collision detection on the ball and paddle being accurate as well, and this is very evident during the game's controllable replay mode.
Audio wise, Table Tennis does its job quite well. The sounds of ping-pong are all captured during a match, and the detail of each bounce and bop of the ball is all realized surprisingly well. You will also hear the voices of each player as they grunt, yell, taunt, and laugh, and touches like these really add to the atmosphere of a match (even if they are sometimes a bit cheesy). As always, you can throw in your own custom soundtrack if you wish, but the game features some typical Rockstar beats during the menus, and it even swells into the matches, occasionally, when the action heats up. There isn't a great deal of audio in the game, but what is present is done well.
The mileage may vary on a game like Rockstar Table Tennis, but there are a good deal of unlockables and extras to go after. As said earlier, there are seven unlockable characters to acquire (by playing through the various tournaments and difficulty levels), plus several different outfits for each person. Achievement fiends should be moderately happy with the selection of Gamerscore points to be had, with some achievements being easy to unlock (play a game, spectate a match, complete training) and others being quite challenging (going through the hardest tournament modes, beating tournaments with all characters).
Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis is a compelling game experience that is quite affordable at $39.99 USD. The game is presented and constructed in a totally simple and unobtrusive way, and it delivers compelling gameplay in both online and offline formats. The omission of some creation or career features might bother some, but this game nails the most important areas of a game experience right on the button.