Reviewed: June 2, 2006
Released: May 23, 2006
The jokes and speculation hit the airwaves within minutes after Rockstar Games announced their first title for the Xbox 360. When I first heard about Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis I had to check the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1st. It’s a good thing it wasn’t or nobody would have believed this game was real.
After all, this is a “ping-pong” game being created by one of the most controversial game developers in the history of video games. Some mused that this must be punishment; some sort of ESRB community service for the “hot coffee” debacle, while shows like The Cobert Report cracked jokes like, “…and if you enter the secret code you won’t believe where the ping pong balls shoot from”.
But the ultimate truth is that Table Tennis is a real game…a really good game, and while it might not be the crime spree we are used to, you have to give props to Rockstar for creating controversy when none really exists. For what is arguably one of the first “budget titles” for the 360, this game has gotten more press than most AAA games.
I’ve been playing ping-pong for more than 30 years and I’m pretty darn good. I can usually get 5-8 points before people figure out how to even return my wicked serve, so I was eager to see how well Rockstar was going to translate something that is virtually second nature to me into a video game.
The core principles are not that far removed from most regular tennis games, at least as far as physics are concerned. Granted the rules are different and there is much more direct control over spin and ball placement, but chances are if you can play tennis you can play table tennis within 3-5 minutes after picking up the controller.
The physical art of wielding a ping-pong paddle has been intuitively morphed into the 360 controller. You position your player with the left stick, which also serves as your ball-aiming device once you start your swing. Striking the ball begins almost immediately after the other player serves or returns your previous shot.
As soon as the ball is coming across the net you push the right analog stick in any of the four cardinal directions to put the appropriate spin on the ball. This direction is relative to which side of the table you are on, meaning topspin can either be up or down on the stick.
The face buttons can also serve as your spin input, and in an interesting twist, the current spin on the ball is indicated with colors that match the face buttons. This enables you to observe the current spin on the ball and counteract it by matching the color. So if the ball coming at you has a green halo you know it has topspin and can counter it appropriately.
Spin is only half the strategy though. You’ll also want to aim your shots left, right, deep or shallow with the left stick. This is pretty much an intuitive process, although the controller will rumble when your intended shot is going to go off the table giving you a few milliseconds to counteract the direction and save the shot.
The left bumper is reserved for a soft shot, almost like a bunt in baseball, that will drop the ball just on the other side of the net. This can really throw your opponent off if you mix this in with a series of powerful shots. If you hit hard and deep you can drive your opponent to play back from the table and then drop it just past the net to send him diving forward.
Focus shots are probably the only game gimmick in table tennis, but at least it’s not as outrageous as some sports enhancements. Basically, as you play and do well you slowly build up your focus meter. You can then use this power to enhance individual shots or enter Full Focus for a short duration. It’s a pretty cool effect as the lights dim and there is a glow around the table and you start shredding radical shots across the net.
There is a very short and informative tutorial that is invaluable to learning the ropes and earning you five precious points toward your gamer score. The game is so simple (yet elegant) that anyone from five to eighty-five can pick this game up and be playing proficiently within minutes.
Despite the totally fun and addictive nature of Table Tennis Rockstar seems to have forgotten one very important thing…a reason to play. Unlike most games, you cannot create your own player. This means you play as one of the few they give you, which makes it very hard to get invested in the game for the long haul.
Stats are fixed for each player, so you have “the guy who hits hard” and “the girl who spins the ball”, but you can never improves these core abilities. The lack of any career mode is also disappointing. You can play in a series of increasingly difficulty tournaments, but once you have mastered those ladders the only thing left is multiplayer.
Computer AI is really great and depending on who you play and what part of the tournament, it can be almost as challenging as playing a real person. Once you get into the Pro and All-Star Circuits you will be fighting for each of the 11 points needed to win. Some matches had me keeping a towel nearby to dab my forehead and wipe my hands. While I appreciate the complementary Rockstar wristband that came with my game, I think a headband would have been more appropriate.
When you do start playing other humans, either sitting next to you or on Xbox Live, you will revel in the same challenging gameplay that the single-player offers. There are Exhibition and Tournament modes. Exhibition is straightforward stuff, while the tournaments are timed round-robin events that can include up to eight players in structured ladders. There is a double-elimination so if you lose you end up playing in the losers bracket with another chance to come back and win.
With something as simple as table tennis there isn’t a lot you can do to dazzle the world with graphics, but Rockstar manages to pull off some of the best human motion this side of Fight Night Round 3. You’ll see insanely accurate physical animation, muscles, skin, facial expressions, and even real-time sweat stains.
The venues are fairly simple and reminded me of those ESPN pool tournaments where the floor is populated with dozens of billiard tables, only in this game yours is the only table in use. The crowd is relatively unseen (but not unheard), confined to the balcony above the tables. You might catch a glimpse of them during the post-shot animations, but mostly you only see the players and the judges.
There are some ultra-slick camera effects and the game will replay the last few volleys of the more exciting shots. These are shot from a variety of extreme camera angles that show the micro-fine detail on the players, paddles, and even the spinning ball.
There are only a handful of stereotypical male and female characters that look pretty plain, even when you start dressing them in the new shirts you can unlock during the tournaments. You’ll pick them for their stats more than their appearance.
The soundtrack for Table Tennis is outstanding with plenty of up-tempo and trance-like music to accompany the Zen-like nature of this title. It gets really exciting when the music starts to speed up with the volleys. The game actually detects these extended exchanges and puts on the pressure with intense music.
The rest of the sound package is the whack…whack…whack of the ball as it bounces from paddle to table and back to paddle, the occasional cheers from the crowd (who call you or your opponent by name), and some post-shot commentary by the players. The Dolby Digital doesn’t do much for gameplay but it does create a cool environment with hollow reverbs and distance crowd noise.
As a single-player game Table Tennis is quite lacking and most people can probably get their fill in a standard rental period. The true staying power is obviously in the multiplayer. Some of my best social memories were around a ping-pong table and being able to have people over and play this game on the Xbox 360 is almost as much fun.
The Xbox Live content is also limited, but you’ll still enjoy the quick challenge or the more serious tournament trees. There are thousands of people playing this game online, so there is no shortage of quality competition.
Those looking to bolster their gamer score can earn 1000 points spread across 29 achievements. Some are as easy as merely winning a circuit while others want you to win a tournament with every character in the game. Points are awarded for unlocking characters, shirts, and other items and there are 11 awards for online gaming including winning at least 50 ranked tournaments. That should keep you busy for a few months.
Rockstar either realized the limited scope of their title or possibly the limited appeal, or maybe they just wanted to give us a bargain, but at $40 this is the most affordable new release on the 360 shelf.
If you are looking for extensive character development, careers, and complex gameplay in your sports title, then you might want to check out Top Spin 2 or some other game, but if you want to immerse yourself in the best version of pong since…well…pong, then this might just become your new favorite addiction.
It’s almost ironic that the video game world has come full circle. It all started with one blip and two bars of light in a game called Pong, and nearly 30 years later on the most powerful game console on the planet, we revisit this classic in a way that defies imagination. Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis is simple and elegant perfection, light on substance, but endless in gameplay.