Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis Xbox 360 Review

When you hear the name Rockstar lots of things spring to mind: gangsters, fast cars, serial killers. When Rockstar announced it was developing for Microsoft’s next generation console, speculation abounded. Were we getting a new Grand Theft Auto, maybe the next instalment in the Midnight Club franchise? But one sentiment was universal; it would be something that was dark and/or gritty. Everybody thought it was a joke when they announced Table Tennis, the very idea was laughable, but now the game is here and it’s time for everybody to stop laughing. Rockstar have placed their cards on the table, but do they have a winning hand, or a fistful of jokers?

Table Tennis isn’t your average sports game. There are no big name licences or real world players, no create a character mode, no career mode, in fact it’s lacking pretty much everything that is standard to a sports franchise these days. What you do get though is some nice simple gameplay that’s easy to pick up and play, but very difficult to master. Although the game’s single player is lacking the career mode that usually provides games’ long term appeal, you will still find Table Tennis‘ tournament mode to be pretty challenging and last you a while if you’re determined to win all the tournaments with all the players. The learning curve is a little steep on the difficulty levels with the final tournament’s ‘hard’ difficulty being just a bit of an understatement. But once you work out all the players’ strengths and weaknesses things get a little easier, but still finishing the ‘expert’ tournament even once will provide a decent challenge for even the best players.

As well as tournament mode you get a standard exhibition mode, where you just play one match with whatever characters you like in the venue of your choice. This can be played either on your own or with a friend, and this is where the game really shines. The game’s multiplayer makes the lack of a career mode completely forgivable, it would have been nice, but really you won’t miss it one little bit once you take the game on to Xbox Live. Local multiplayer is fine if you don’t have Live, but the online game is where it’s really at. Not only can you play exhibition matches and tournaments with players from all around the world with no loss of performance on the games part, but via the game’s Table Tennis Network you can spectate on any game currently being played. Just imagine Project Gotham Racing‘s Gotham TV, but without the limitation of only watching the highest ranked players.

The actual gameplay itself is a piece of cake to pick up, with all the controller face buttons giving you a spin shot where the direction corresponds to the position in the button layout. You can also use the controller’s right analogue stick to execute shots, but this is a little harder to get to grips with. On top of the game’s regular spin shots you also have focus and soft shots – performed by using the right and left shoulder buttons in conjunction with the face buttons. Focus shots put extra speed on the ball, soft shots slow it down and if you mix these in with spin shots you can get some incredible curve balls going. Your only other control is the left analogue stick, which not only moves your character, but also serves to aim your shots. Clever use of the controller’s rumble feature helps you with the aiming of your shots. If your aim is starting to go out of bounds, either missing the table or hitting the net, the rumble will kick in – just mildly when your shots are getting close to the edge of the table and will vibrate heavily when it’s over the edge. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a rumble feature used in a way like this – a way that actually enhances the gameplay rather than just being feedback on your actions. It’s a really clever idea and works very well. Altogether this makes for a very intuitive control system that makes the game a joy to play, combined with good opponent AI and a perfect physics engine make this a truly absorbing and addictive game.

You’d think a game with such strong gameplay and a budget price that they must have skimped in other departments whilst developing the game, and although it’s true to a certain extent with the single player lacking a career mode, other departments are just as polished as the gameplay. Presentation is as excellent as the gameplay it houses. Menu screens are simple and uncluttered and the whole game appearance follows that guideline. Match venues whilst not being overly impressive are well detailed and realistic looking and the character models are perfectly realized – not just graphically, but also in characterization. All eleven of the game’s characters not only look very realistic, but they act it too with each character having their own distinct personality: some of which conform to some pretty serious racial stereotypes. The Frenchman Luc is not only an arrogant bastard, but he’s a spoilt brat too throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t win a point. Chinaman Lui Ping seems almost emotionless, giving no more than a nod when he wins a point, and Jesper the Swede is not only the stereotypical blue eyed blond, but he’s as overbearingly teutonic as his appearance would suggest. As well as being almost perfectly defined in every sense, every character also has a very varied range of animations for every occasion – whether winning, losing or just entering the arena, you won’t see the same player reaction often enough for them to get boring quickly. These characters don’t just express themselves with actions either, in a departure from most sports games these guys also have voices – only a small thing, I know, but it helps bring the characters to life.

Sound, like the visuals, is sparse, but very atmospheric and varied. Along with the indignant outburst you get from the players when losing points and triumphant retorts when they win you get some exceptionally varied crowd responses. In most sports games the most you get is a round of applause, or some enthusiastic cheering, here you get that extra bit more that makes it seem all the more real. Crowd responses range from positive, with the usual cheering and clapping, but also the chanting of players’ names or country of origin and even the occasional shout of encouragement, to the negative with booing, cries of disgust and some very amusing heckling. Other sounds are as you’d expect an announcer who reads the scores and introduces the players, but like the crowd and player responses is quite varied, even if his voice is a little on the boring side. Music also isn’t too widespread: you get a few lightweight techno tunes to fit the appropriate situation, one kicks in when you get a good rally going, another when you win a point and so on. None of them are particularly impressive, but they do fit the mood of the game very well.

Overall what we have is one of the most realistic sports games made to date – one that is not just infuriatingly addictive, but also a hell of a lot of fun. As it’s a budget game you can forgive the lack of any real in depth single player game, but the online multiplayer is so compelling you’ll soon forget about that shortcoming anyway. Unlike most sports games this really does have universal appeal. I know the idea of a game of ping pong sounds pretty trivial in these days of immense open-ended games, but to write Table Tennis off purely on those grounds would be a mistake: a big one.

Unlike most sports games this really does have universal appeal.

9.0 out of 10
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