Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Release Date: May 22, 2006
Consider Table Tennis a little palette cleanser of a game. After all, if any company needs one, it's Rockstar – its entries to market in the last year have been put through the wringer, both culturally and politically. Surely such a fresh start must be welcome to the embattled developer, and to be sure, this one is light years away from their typical game creation philosophy. It's also rather bland and unexciting. Still, it does its job admirably.
Rockstar's most famous titles are known for being huge sweeping smorgasbords of activity. They're also known for being rather buggy because there's so much possibility there, and for being less graphically proficient than contemporary games, again because they give the hardware so much to do. In presenting Table Tennis however, Rockstar has taken a nearly opposite stance. The gameplay has been focused like a laser, perhaps more so than any retail game in recent memory – this is about ping-pong, and nothing but ping-pong. Yes, it is given a façade of international tournament sport, with nation competing against nation in a variety of venues, but it's not like there is even a semblance of a story – when it all comes down to it, this is a game about one player, another player, a table and a ball. As a result, there isn't any sign of roughshod implementation.
The controls are great – the left thumbstick controls both the player's character and where on (or off) the table their next shot will place the ball, and the buttons or right thumbstick control the strength and spin of said shot. The shoulder buttons provide additional control over soft taps or powerful meter-draining focus shots. The whole combination is very intuitive, and after the quick-and-easy tutorial, every tool will be available for your ping-pong victory. Once in the game proper, the experience is seamless; Table Tennis is completely free of strange glitching or wonky physics interactions, meaning the player will always know what is going on and why.
That isn't to say they'll always be in control of the situation. In single-player, the AI can be cold and relentless, as if the years of player-coddling games leading up to this console generation had been blithely ignored. This title gets old-school, original Nintendo hard, but never in a way that feels like the computer is cheating. There may be some expletives loudly expounded, but you'll also find yourself picking apart the personality of the computer opponents until you understand their play styles and how to cut off their game plans. Rest assured, every point you earn will be hard-won, and you'll deserve them all.
You'll need every ounce of this experience in the Xbox Live-enabled multiplayer, which barring the inevitable lag events, works as flawlessly as the rest of the game. So the clarity of intent in Table Tennis has allowed for a very nearly flawless programming of a very good game design – it's also allowed for very strong high-definition graphics. The characters are the highlight; they're well detailed, and a lot of attention has clearly been poured into each one. They're also surprisingly realistically designed – none of them have perfect figures or particularly attractive faces, and their adequate looks help to further humanize the game. The levels also look fine, though the nature of the title never allows for a very close look at anything other than the table. The table looks great. The rest of it does the job, though each venue comes off feeling rather empty, almost barren. It works for the purpose of the game, though. The audio is there and mainly consists of the click of the ball against a paddle, but there is also some rather out-of-place-electronic filler music and some rather disturbingly disembodied cheering. It's all fine; the effort was solid from every angle for Table Tennis.
However, for all this hard work, one must keep the end result in mind: a game of ping-pong, no more and no less. Let's clarify this completely: In Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis, the player's only goal at any given time is to hit a ping pong ball in such a way so that the opponent cannot return it, thus scoring a point in a standard game of table tennis, where the first player to a certain point total wins the game. That is it. There aren't any mini-games, no plays on the core gameplay of Table Tennis. There aren't really any "game types," either; you can play a standard exhibition match, a single elimination tournament (itself a collection of exhibition matches), or a timed tournament. You can share this singular game with other players in the same room or online through matching or lobby systems, all of which work splendidly. There is no questioning the fidelity of the experience because it's all put together so very well. The only question is that there is that the experience itself is so narrow.
It certainly doesn't help that the game retails for $39.99, the Microsoft-sanctioned floor below which retail Xbox 360 games are not allowed to tread. Under these circumstances, Table Tennis might have done better as an Xbox Live Arcade title, which costs significantly less but, in some cases, provides just as much gameplay as this entry. Forty bones can, after all, get you a rich and fully-realized current-generation console experience as well, so why bother with a rather unexciting little game of paddles and balls? At the same time, the game is so well put together that to discount it completely because of its unfortunately high price also seems wrong. After all, with a little bit of imagination and effort on the part of the player, Table Tennis becomes an incredibly intense, deeply competitive game of mastering seemingly simplistic mechanics – an effort that could hypothetically take as much time as one is willing to put into it. It also would probably do fine as a family night event or the centerpiece of a frat basement, much like the real-world table game it emulates so well. Most Xbox Live Arcade games can't really lay claim to situations like that, so under certain circumstances, such a price becomes easier to swallow.
At the same time, it's difficult to really get excited about Table Tennis. That seems to suit Table Tennis just fine, as it doesn't seem to want to put a lot of effort in to excite you. It's issue-free ping-pong, and it gets the job done. Anyone could have some fun with it, but it is a rather bland, unsurprising work that will get a rather bland, unsurprising score, with a recommendation that you probably should try it, though very much preferably after a price drop.
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