Over the years, gamers have had the privilege of being able to play sport games featuring the truly great athletes of our times. Box with Ali, shoot with Gretzky, go one on one against Shaq, wrestle Hogan, kick it to Beckham, lob it to Agassi, make the perfect break for it with Vick up the middle - the whole nine yards. As well, sport titles have been around since the first consoles and with each generation we see reality and the digital age begin to blur as titles get graphically better and better. But with all the eye candy being thrown our way, many jaded gamers are asking what new concepts are also being tried. Well, Rockstar (of course) tries something new - a throwback of sorts to the days of Pong - and gives us something new and fresh. Table Tennis no less. Yes, the company behind State of Emergency, Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne and Manhunt gives us a table tennis game! And you know what? It's works! Not because of graphics or bullet-time or choice four-letter words being thrown around for no reason; it works because just like Tetris, Lumines and the aforementioned Pong, the gameplay is the key. Isn't that a nice hot cup of coffee in the pants?
Table Tennis is very much like regular tennis, but is instead played on a 2.7 meter by 1.5 meter table divided in the centre by the net. A typical match consists of one of the players winning 2 out of 3 games, where each game is won by being the first to reach 11 points. Basically the next generation Pong. Unlike regular tennis, which can be played in pairs, this game is only playable one on one. This is a slightly disappointing factor that takes away the possible fun that could be had with a group of friends, but is completely understandable once you see how fast the games go by. Each player is able to pick from a core of available characters, which have a range of abilities. Some characters are extremely powerful, while others are able to put ridiculous amounts of spin on the ball. As you play through the game, additional characters and costumes can be unlocked, allowing for additional challenges and replay value.
There are three different modes of play available in the game; Exhibition mode is a single match against either a computer-controlled opponent or against another human player. Tournament mode has three different tournaments, plus a bonus fourth tournament that can be unlocked. Each tournament is of different length and will pit you against other characters in the game. As you progress onto harder tournaments, the matches will become harder and harder to win. The third mode is the online multiplayer mode, which allows you to challenge other gamers around the world to a one on one match.
One of the very nice additions to the game is the inclusion of an in-depth tutorial on the control scheme. The tutorial will teach you the finer points of playing the game, ranging from serving the ball, to performing focused power shots. When hitting the ball, there are four different kinds of spins that you can put on the ball, topspin, backspin, leftward spin, and rightward spin. All of the spins are appropriately mapped to the buttons (or right thumbstick) and returning the ball is easy to perform.
Table Tennis features some of the nicer graphics that can be seen in most 360 games to date. The characters are really nicely rendered, and when the camera zooms in for close-ups, the characters truly look amazing. An option to create your own player would have been nice, not only for the pleasure of seeing a rendition of oneself in the game, but also because most of the characters in the game, while each having distinct but stereotypical personalities, are kind of boring. The table surface as well as the surrounding area that the two opponents play in, area very nice looking, but also lacking in content. There are never any camera actions on the crowd and only occasionally will we get a glance at the referee on the sidelines. One final touch that really makes the game a little bit more detailed is the quality of the ball. Depending on the type of spin that is applied, the ball is visible enough to identify the colour associated to it (each spin-type has its own colour).
As can be expected in any ping-pong equivalent game, the most important sound besides the grunting of each player as they furiously whack at a 40mm diameter wide white ball, is the need to have an extremely well sounding ball-hitting-table and ball-hitting-racket noise. After playing game after game, the sounds of the ball going back and worth over the net never really loses its appeal. The characters lack in the voiceover department in both quality and quantity. While the action in and of itself is fun, the repetitiveness of the characters after each successful, or failed, volley can make the game rather annoying.
Let's face it, Rockstar could announce their new pancake flipping game and gamers would go nuts over the prospect of adding various fruits to their culinary creation. The reality of the matter though is that the company has set a precedence for making quality titles that gamers relate to that many trust them blindly. Luckily, while this table tennis game may seem like a stab at the industry for the whole Hot Coffee fiasco, the quality of the title tends to say otherwise.
Rockstar's Table Tennis is a solid game that is mindless and fun to play for hours on end, especially against friends, wives (NOTE: only one at a time), girlfriends (NOTE: see previous comment) or countless opponents on Live. The game is fun and can get any room smiling, but much like cotton candy, while it's nice to eat, you eventually feel like there should be something more substantial to it.
The tournament mode is the closest thing to a career mode and it can be completed in less than half an hour. The players included are graphically nice, but utterly boring. The "women" could all double as pageboys on Broadway productions and the males are simply caricatures. Create-a-player never makes or breaks a game, but when the new Tiger Woods drops, I'll be playing it (like I do every year without fail) until my created character's stats get maxed out. It's a small addition, but one that adds dozens of hours of gameplay, not to mention a sense of ownership. A shop-zone would have been nice, doubles or partners would have been cool, a real career mode would have been expected, statistics that could've been changed (and earned) would have been almost essential.
As it stands, Table Tennis feels a little bit like a Live Arcade game as opposed to a full fledged/full featured game. For the lowered price however, it's a game that can be easily recommended to any gamers library as it can easily be played by absolutely anyone and for any amount of time. It's definitely not the title anyone expected from Rockstar on this next generation hardware, but since when has Rockstar done anything we've expected? Still, a fun distraction that's easy to pick up and play, but that won't really detract from the more feature-packed games on the 360.