Review by Eric43

Reviewed: 10/09/07 | Updated: 07/09/09

The Ultimate Table Tennis Experience

Despite Rockstar North’s notorious lineup of violent games such as the Grand Theft Auto series and Manhunt, it turns out that its brother studio, Rockstar San Diego, meticulously created a clean, family-friendly sports game for the whole family to enjoy. With a slick presentation and intriguing gameplay, it completely destroys and preconceived notions of what can come out of Rockstar these days.

This game is purely about table tennis; nothing more, nothing less. From starting up the game, you’re greeted with a wave of synthesized beats and a visual demonstration of two players trading volleys, back and forth. Several games modes are available from the start, those being the basic exhibition match, a couple of CPU tournaments, practice modes, and online play. Choose from a handful of fictional, though vicariously life-like, table tennis players, ranging from the taut Swedish blonde man, the Frenchman with a ponytail, and the quintessential bald Chinese guy with a visage that of a professional poker player. Each player has their own statistics in accuracy, power, serving, and spin, but overall the gameplay remains the same.

Table Tennis redefines the concept of “Simple to learn, difficult to master.” The point of the game, like regular tennis, is to whack the ball on the opponent’s side of the table and force him to either not hit the ball or to hit it out of bounds. Gameplay involves moving the joystick to adjust the player’s position to the table and pressing the buttons to swing the paddle. Like similar games such as Mario Tennis, hitting the ball is very forgiving as you can usually stand in front of the ball, press the A button, and autonomously place the ball in-bounds most of the time. By holding down the swing button, you can put more power or spin in your swing. Shots can be placed by moving the joystick in the location on the table you want to move the shot. Be careful, because you may misfire and place the ball out of bounds, as represented by a controller rumble that gets stronger the closer to the edge you push it. A litany of strategy comes into play that makes the game much more deep than it appears.

Putting spin on the ball is another layer of icing on the cake. The four different direction of spin are configured to the four colored buttons on the controller. You can “read” which direction the ball is spinning by the color it emits, and respond with the right (or wrong) type of spin in order to gain a strategic advantage. Sometimes, these moves can set you up with big plays such as throwing your opponent's feet off-balance or setting up a nice spike. Landing plenty of big hits will charge your boost meter, which when activated, sends your player into full-fledged “swing your whole body into the volley” mode which gives your accuracy and power a boost and just plain looks cool. If you recall viewing any crazy Asian ping-pong matches off of Youtube (the ones with the players standing 10-20 feet from the table), you may see the same lunacy going on here.

Like the real-life sport, this game manages to do one thing well—to be unbearably tense. When players slug away at the ball, volleys become lightning-fast and require split-second decisions to stay in the game. For fast-paced games with plenty of back-to-back hits, the lights go out save for the one above the table and high-tempo music fades in. For something incredibly simple as table tennis, it becomes engrossing, almost painful (in a good way) to play. The producers got the feel down perfectly.

There’s a few things in the game to unlock, such as new characters, venues, and shirts/pants. You have to play through the tournaments, which is as simple as beating a few AI opponents and moving on to the next. While the AI at first is fairly easy to beat at first, the difficultly curve skyrockets around the middle of the third tournament, which is ridiculous to all but the most tempered gamers. In other words, unlocking stuff is pretty annoying unless you are really good or use AI exploits repeatedly.

Despite the fact that the gameplay is so enticing, the multiplayer is an acquired taste. You can play against another opponent on the same console or over Xbox Live. While the thrill is definitely there, it’s discouraging because, despite the strategy involved, you ten to realize you’re doing the same thing over and over again. It’s not necessarily the game’s fault since you can only make a table tennis game so deep, but as a warning, the game’s replay value can either be very long or very short (though more likely the latter). There's also a few single player and online achievements meant to increase the game's length, but they are very time-consuming and not worth it if you're just in it for the points.

Even if you do not enjoy the game, you cannot deny that the game’s visuals are top-notch. Players are incredibly realistic and demonstrate some graceful animations during the match. Even between rounds, players look grisly down to the sweat on their faces and the visages of victory and defeat. The venues are packed with detail but are generally small. They especially look great due to the lighting effects that shine only on the playing field, really setting the mood of the match. The only real flaw in the graphics is that a few animations look choppy—for instance, a spiked shot can bounce off your opponent and remain in play despite the fact he appeared not to swing at the volley. Also, the ball, when moving at a brisk pace, tends to be pulled down by gravity a little too much in order to keep it from flying off the table. However, the few negatives are moot and Rockstar did an outstanding job with the looks.

The sound is less exquisite, but it is used well to recreate the mood that much more. The little clacks of the ball are dead on perfect. Players don’t speak but usually grunt when reaching over for big shots. A tepid announcer gives the score after each set and he does a pretty good job with it. The high-tempo sythensized music is really discrete but it never feels out of place.

Games that manage to recreate a sport with such fervor are hard to come by. But Rockstar did an excellent job of making table tennis cool again by recreating the game’s visuals, sound, and gameplay. However, it is just a ping-pong game, and you may or may not like it depending on your tastes. Either way, this game is a real delight and deserves a rental, at least.

Presentation: 9/10 – Outstanding visual representation of the sport.
Gameplay: 7/10 – Simple but tense gameplay with a fair amount of strategy is marred by the repetition that some may experience over long sessions.
Graphics: 9/10 – Great animations and some small, but well-detailed venues, does ping-pong justice.
Sound: 9/10 – Sounds like a real table tennis game with little ball sounds abound. Music is discrete but it’s used appropritately.
Replay Value: 6/10 – The game rides the line of being grossly engaging or inanely repetitive. Some people may love it to play it for a long time, but for others it gets old quickly.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis (US, 05/22/06)

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