Computer gaming has come a long way since Pong, the table-tennis-inspired title that ushered in the era of home-video game consoles. To see just how far, gamers need look no further than Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis, from Take-Two Interactive's (TTWO) Rockstar San Diego studio. This title, for play on Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360, presents what's commonly regarded as a parlor-room game for all it can be: an extreme sport.
Pong, introduced three decades ago, was certainly groundbreaking. But its simple back-and-forth game play did little justice to the real thing. There's been an official table tennis association in the U.S. since 1933, and the sport was added to the Olympics in 1988. Yet no big game publisher has made any serious attempts to do a better job representing the sport—until now. Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis is worth the wait.
As Take-Two's bread-and-butter developers, the Rockstar teams have consistently managed to deliver quality titles. Table Tennis is no exception. That's good news for a company that's facing financial and legal woes. In June, the company said it was under investigation by the New York County District Attorney for allegedly including a hidden sex scene in an earlier best-seller—just weeks after reaching a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over the matter. The officials are also scrutinizing recent acquisitions and other issues (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/28/06, "Take-Two Takes More Lumps").
ADVANCED PLAY OPTIONS.
Getting back to the game, I don't think any title on a console before the Xbox 360 could as accurately depict the sport of table tennis. The on-screen players are at least on par with those of Electronic Arts' (ERTS) nearly photo-realistic boxing game, Fight Night: Round 3. The fictitious athletes' loose clothing hangs realistically off their frames as they play. Even my hands, gripping the controller tightly during matches, became nearly as sweaty as the players' faces on-screen. Still, facial expressions in the game can fail to convey the intensity of the match at times, as some players manage to keep a calm composure in the most physically demanding situations.
Game play is simple enough for beginners, but gets truly fun for those who become experienced enough for advanced play. You can basically just hit the "A" button to return every shot with topspin, but this won't do if you want to play online or at a harder level. To be truly effective, you have to return shots using the same spin—be it topspin, backspin or sidespin—as your opponent. You can tell the ball's spin by a colored indicator that surrounds the ball and corresponds with colors on the face of the controller. It's tricky to get the hang of it, but it adds complexity to game play.
The game includes features that let players give shots extra speed and power. In a lot of matches, being in "full focus mode" as often as possible can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Another feature I liked is the way Rockstar's in-game athletes move around the table. Unlike the digital athletes in other sports titles, these competitors don't appear to be hovering above an imaginary axis, turning and pivoting unrealistically in response to the player's commands. Rather, a nudge on the control stick makes the character shift his body in a realistic manner on-screen—maybe a quick hop to the side or a few smooth back-steps. This makes player movement always seem fluid and natural.
The spectators in Table Tennis are some of the most responsive I've encountered in a game. If the fans in Rockstar's game are any indication of real-life table-tennis audiences, the sport surely has some of the best fans in all of professional athletics. It helps the overall feel of the title to hear the audience chant your character's name before a match-point serve, rising from a few murmurs at first to a tumultuous rallying din. Though they are seldom seen in the darkened outskirts of the arena, the onlookers give both cheers for great shots and boos for poor ones.
When you get into a serious volley, the developers at Rockstar thought it would be good to signify the intensity of the match by playing techno/trance music. I found it a bit cheesy myself.
SPARSE OFFLINE PLAY.
Table Tennis lets you play against computer-controlled characters of varying difficulty in tournament or exhibition mode, or with a single friend for a quick exhibition match. By playing through the tournaments with different characters, you can unlock different courts and outfits for your athletes, which is fun, but not terribly compelling. There's also not any option for doubles play, limiting your options to one-on-one matches.
I found online play via Xbox Live more fun than the relatively sparse offline play. Playing the game with friends and, of course, strangers online is more exciting and less predictable than playing solo, although doubles matches are non-existent in this mode as well. Online matches also manage to bring out the most extreme circumstances: firing the ball back across the table for the twentieth time or so against a tough competitor, you literally cannot blink as you struggle to score that last desperate point.In addition to being great to look at, Rockstar's newest addition to its library has the substance to back it up, and is a safe bet for pretty much any kind of gamer. And its budget price at around $40 is a welcome among other games debuting for the 360 at $60 or more.