IGN Review of Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis
One of the reasons I've always liked Rockstar is its unpredictability. Grand Theft Auto III's brilliance was a surprise to everyone. Manhunt appeared out of nowhere. Even Red Dead Revolver was an interesting wrinkle in the fabric of Rockstar's game annals. The Warriors? It's not likely any other publisher fought to get that license. The biggest surprise of the bunch, however, is Table Tennis. To this day, people are still talking about the notion of Rockstar making a ping pong game. Why?
The simple reason is that Rockstar wants to prove a point. We know they can create an enormous, wide open game. We know they're capable of great racing and action games (Midnight Club, The Warriors). Did we know they could create an engaging and addictive little ping pong game? No. Perhaps more importantly is this -- Do you care? Do the lack of guns, fast cars, and violence in a game make it un-cool? Table Tennis is certainly a big deal for Rockstar, but it's also a statement. As the polar opposite of GTA, Table Tennis is pure focused simplicity. That's its strength -- and weakness.
It's one hell of a table tennis game. The control is intuitive; the precision mechanics are impressive. The gameplay is tough, intense, and it's engaging in a subconscious way. It gets under your skin, the way that any good game does. But it's also not a full-feature game. There are lots of areas where we said to ourselves, "Why aren't there features X, Y, Z?" Table Tennis is a damn fine game, but it's bare bones. I guess there is a reason it's $39.99, not $59.99. Which brings us back to the real question again: Do you want to play a good table tennis game?
Table Tennis starts with the now infamous Rockstar Games typeface, the one that's almost exactly the same as the one used in Grand Theft Auto. A ping pong ball bounces on screen and settles, showing the Rockstar logo. You press start and groovy techno music filters through the speakers, and you're instantly looking at the menu and a top-down view of two athletes slugging it out. Right away, you'll notice the menu is slim with choices. You can pick from Tournament, Exhibition, Training mode, and Xbox Live. Seeing that logo on the screen usually gives me a feeling that something really heavy and hardcore is going to happen next. That I'm going to be given a wild, highly choreographed story set-up and experience. Here, it's just two people smashing a ping pong ball at one another. No story, no car chase, no guns. It's a dichotomy I'm still getting used to.
But that's the point. The game's design exemplifies efficiency over extravagance. Everything about the game is lean and quick. The training mode is helpful and easy to understand. Though we skipped it and learned how to play by doing, for review purposes we went through the whole training session. It teaches the basic and advanced techniques which are very valuable for higher level games. You'll learn how to handle long balls, counter spins, serve, aim, and more. It improved my game when I dipped into the hard difficulty mode. The two gameplay modes, Exhibition and Tournament, aren't layered with hidden extra modes or features. Exhibition is designed for quick, pick-up-and-play games. You can select a difficulty level (easy, medium, and hard), a character (11 in all), an outfit, and a venue. As you progress, you'll unlock better characters and more outfits.
Here's where things get a little rough. Given the level and sophistication of sports games today, there are some basic standards people have come to expect in their experience. Rockstar goes against the grain here. There is no career mode. None. You just have Exhibition and Tournament. There are no mini-games. There is no create-a-player mode. And finally, there is no doubles mode. Really. Rockstar tried it out but with such a small table and such an intense fast-paced game, the experience didn't translate well. While I feel the game is hurt by a distinct lack of depth in the overall feature set -- there is no career mode? -- I can understand the lack of doubles. If it's clumsy and unfun, there is no point.
To get into any game, there is a 10- to 12-second load time, a set-up page, and then another five second load before playing, and then you're in. There are two camera angles, far and close, and the close one is preferable. Both provide third-person perspectives and both offer an excellent way to see the game. I never once felt the camera got in my way, which is always a good sign. Once you're in, the fun begins. The game provides exceptional controls and mechanics. You can play two ways, using the left analog stick to aim the ball and the right stick to perform one of four kinds of shots, top spin, bottom spin, and left or right spin. Or instead of the right analog, you can use the face buttons to pull off spins. I preferred the face buttons, just because they felt more natural to me, but my associate Jon Miller prefers the right analog stick. After hitting the ball you can guide it to any section of the table. The controls require about one minute to learn, but many, many hours to master.
You can tell Rockstar learned a lot from SEGA's Virtua Tennis series on the subject of control and movement, but unlike a lot of people who think this is a mini-Virtua Tennis game, it's not. Rockstar Presents Table Tennis delivers the rhythm, pacing, and feel of table tennis so well, in a sense, it's a more pure and direct representation than any other videogame sport. There are some parallels to be made to tennis games, however, as the basic premise is similar. But while you move around the court in Virtua Tennis with quick runs, lunges and dives, you move your body around less in Table Tennis. You take fewer steps -- as the table is smaller -- but because the game is so compressed and fast, body positioning is more crucial, more intense.
There are occasions when you will feel your character doesn't move all that well, or that he or she isn't responding quickly enough. The paddle controls are super tight but foot movement is slow. One of the game's key skill techniques is to learn how to be at the right place at the right time; to remain in the optimum position. Step out of it, and you may pay the price.
While the game modes are sparse, which is regrettable, the actual gameplay is deep and addictive. In the several hours I played both online and off, each game was entirely different. The character you select is crucial in determining the kind of game you play. For instance, Jesper has a wickedly strong power shot, but his spin and serve are weak. Luc is more about spins, and he is far more balanced. Kumi is all about spins and defense. Each character is given four player fields, power, spin, serve, and accuracy, and each plays distinctly differently. As your skill increases, the complexity and strategy of the game grows as well. I played as Jesper through the easy and medium skill ranges, which took less than two hours and were surprisingly easy, and smoked everyone while only losing one single game. Nobody could regularly defend Jesper's topspin slams. But in the hard setting, AI opponents countered my slams with bottom spins and excellent defensive moves, forcing me to change my tactics, and eventually forcing me to lose my first full match. Luckily, you can save in the middle of a match, instead of giving up.
But other things come into play, such as momentum, knowledge of your opponent, timing, and skill. The games aren't necessarily short, either. I got into several insanely long rallies, ascending to 86-hit, 92-hit, and 102-hit sessions. You'd finish one of these rallies and realize just how fun and addictive Rockstar's game really is. The depth is there. The game is there. The skill is there. You'd think an 11-point game would be pretty quick -- but it's not. In a really good rally, each point is a major achievement or concession. In one of my finals, I was down 7-8, and we were split in the match, 1-1. I scored two points, lost one, and then won one, making it 10-9. It was my serve. The crowd cheered my name, the music grew louder. I felt the pressure, excitement, and intensity of the moment. Every single hit was a struggle to take the point. I worked the sides, made my opponent run in for short lobs, and then forced them back into a running game, chasing the ball at each corner. I slammed it three times and he returned it three times, until finally I hit a spin at an angle he simply couldn't reach. I literally jumped out of my seat and cheered. I was sweating with nervousness and excitement. It was one of those defining videogame moments. The rally seemed like minutes, but it probably took 30 seconds. Table Tennis is filled with these kinds of moments.
The online play is almost exactly like the offline play. There are two modes, Exhibition and Timed Tournament. Exhibition is self-explanatory, and Timed Tournament enables up to eight gamers to play. The tourney is round-robin based, and the whole thing is timed (seemingly randomly at 7, 8, 9 and 10 minutes, with no manual control to set it at any time). You progress regardless of whether you win or lose, though winners end up in a different bracket and have the chance to actually win the tournament, whereas losers end up playing each other. The online gameplay feels fine. The speed is retained, as is the control and pace of the game. The only thing that could really interfere with online play is a snag that affected several of our games. Sometimes the opposite player character gets stuck in an animation. But the ball is still hit and it's still in play. You stand there in awe watching the opposite character stuck in space, and the ball is hit by a ghost arm and you lose the point. This happened a few times while we played on the test servers, and it's likely to happen in the final boxed copy, too. With this exception (and it could be a big one), the gameplay is rocking good, and you'll definitely want to get friends around for tourneys and one-offs.
In general, there are a lot of subtle, likeable qualities that come as a surprise. The graphics and motion capture work are exceptional. You'll watch as the players shirts darken with sweat. The framerate is high and stable. The gameplay always feels quick, light, and fluid. The animation work is beautiful, flowing, and high quality. The characters move with a grace and natural motion that's extremely attractive. The sound is great, whether you're talking about the actual sounds of the ping pong ball, the wide range of crowd reactions (I rarely heard a repeat statement from the crowd), or the cool techno soundtrack that strangely yet perfectly blends with the kind of rhythmic, intense gameplay provided.
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