Game, set, match
There's not a single cup of hot coffee in sight, not a single baseball bat or random passer-by to be shot in this new game from Rockstar. Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis is the latest from the much maligned developer and there's no violence or brutality in this game, unless you want to sue the company for being cruel to small helpless white ping-pong balls.
It's table tennis on the Xbox 360 and Rockstar have done a very good job at recreating the sport on the console. There's an excellent tutorial that allows novice and veteran alike to learn the controls and undergo several drills that give you a good sample of what's to come. You are often timed or given a number of shots to complete, your grade is based on how you perform in these tasks.
Simple tasks give way to the more complex game play elements such as Focus shots and the various kinds of spin. All in all the tutorial is something I recommend you try right away as it will save you from randomly pushing buttons in the vague hope that you're going to land a shot.
The left analogue stick moves your player, the right analogue stick delivers a shot (or you can use the buttons). My preference is for the buttons since this ties in nicely with the way the game deals with the various kinds of shots and spins. There are four kinds of spin arranged on the four buttons, top, left side, right side and backspin on Y, X, B and A respectively.
You may aim the ball using the left stick as you can hold down the buttons to power up your shot. The game uses context sensitive movements to work out whether or not you're going to deliver a shot as a simple tap or smash it right back at your opponent and combines this with the length of time you hold down the button. A lot of what it does goes on behind the scenes and you're never left fumbling.
Serves are accomplished by holding down the button, using the left stick to position where you want to place the ball and then pressing the button to set power and spin. It can be a little confusing at first to read the meter, but once you get the hang of it you'll find that you have no problems at all.
There are also counter shots, with spin and so on. These are tied in to the coloured control buttons which can be used to return the correct spin on the ball. The ball is surrounded in a dim or bright colour that corresponds to the chosen spin, red for right side spin, green for backspin and so on. Hitting the button that matches the colour sends the ball back in a counter.
You can also perform soft shots with the left bumper and power shots with the right bumper.
As you play against the AI or an opponent you'll notice your Focus meter fills up or depletes, depending on your performance. Once the meter is full (it has 3 stages) you can execute a Focus shot. This is a bullet time style move that allows you to take your time and precisely aim the ball or get to a hard to reach return quickly.
If you get enough Focus you can deplete your meter constantly and enter a Zen-like state where time is slowed down. The Max Payne or Matrix style table tennis game in essence.
The control system is extremely user friendly and takes only a short time to get into, once you're into how things work then you can develop your skills and begin to master a wide variety of tactics.
Adding to the life of the game are achievements and of course the plethora of unlockable stadiums, players (each with different statistics in terms of power and so on), apparel and other features.
You can play Exhibition matches, Tournaments and set the AI to several levels of difficulty, upon the lowest level they are still formidable opponents and do not use their Focus meter at all. On the higher levels they become wily adversaries and make good use of Focus shots and other tactics.
There's no create a player and no story, it's just a table tennis game, but it's a belter of a title and worthy of the score it's going to get.
The game has a good solid graphics engine behind it with some gorgeous lighting and shadows. It has one of the best camera systems I've seen in a sports title yet and the way the camera cuts to show a dangerous or especially excellent shot really adds to the overall atmosphere of this title. The subtle cuts and shifts of the camera do not interfere with the game's play at all and the in-game camera (which can be altered) is never intrusive and doesn't glitch once.
The special effects for the focus shots are subtle and the lighting that surrounds the ball to indicate the shot's type of spin, again, is subtle and not garish. I can see people that have colour blindness having a problem with the title in regards to dealing with counter shots.
The game to me looks suitably next generation enough and certainly delivers in the eye candy department.
These are beautifully tied in to the graphics engine and these models have a unique personality, both in terms of style and looks over the various players. Jesper the Swedish player is suitably imposing whilst Luc the French player is a little kinder of face but has a kind of arrogant look to him. The other players have been given a great level of detail and they are superbly modelled.
The various surroundings are well done; the table is simple and effective with a good level of detail to the net and area around it.
It is here that the game really shines and the animations of the players are full of life, motion and true character. Their personality and reactions are all animated as well as their likes and dislikes, you can see from their face if they are a reasonable competitor and Jesper it seems is not fond of losing especially if he's defeated in a stylish manner. He can get downright miserable and at least once threw a tantrum when he lost a shot.
Every animation in the game, from serves to reactions and various shots are captured with a loving feel for the character at hand. Each player has their own distinctive player animation style as well as characteristics (power and so on) that define them. You often watch the excellent jump-cut in-game replays just to see these wonderful animations replayed.
As if the gorgeous graphics weren't enough and the animation, the AI in the game which has been tuned to three settings is a true landmark for these kinds of titles. At times we felt as though they were a little too human and it's interesting to see them actually make mistakes, fluffing serves and even miscalculating their returns. One shot actually saw Jesper hesitate for a moment before he tried to go for it anyways and the ball landed on the outside of the table, he was gutted and the AI put him into a very aggressive stance for the next shot.
It seems as though the opponents actually watch and learn from your playing style, they seem to study your moves and react with a variety of tactics. If they have worked out that you like to favour one side for your returns, be sure to note that they will exploit that weakness and turn it to an advantage even on the lower difficulty levels. When you turn them up to Hard then they use all the tricks of the trade, become increasingly harder to return and save up their Focus to devastating effect.
One word here: atmosphere. That's how I would sum up the use of sound in the game, from the various player sounds and growls/grunts/groans and shouts as they dance back and forth delivering rubber-clad smack-downs to the little white ball to the ambience of the stadiums themselves, replete with the whistles and encouragement from the crowd, it's all here and it's all rendered in gloriously done audio.
During one match we were playing against Jesper (poor Jesper) we heard the crowd chanting out our player's name, this really drove us to try and win as they continued to provide support. It's little touches like these that really make the game shine for me and make it rise above the others of its type.
The music is fairly decent and minimal so it has been placed here under sound.
The voice work in the game is well done, it's low key and subtle with the exception being the shouts from the crowd. The commentary is excellent and provides just the right level of detail without sounding stilted or overdone.
Matches are two players only, both off and online. There's no four player doubles because Rockstar have rightly said, it would be insane and tricky to implement. While we can cry and moan about it all we like what we do have is robust and solid game play experience that delivers what it says on the tin.
Over LIVE there's much heckling and trash-talking over the headsets and the game is usually fairly stable, even if some of the animations can go a little awry due to server problems the actual game isn't affected and you can still play a very good match. These are minor niggles and they are sure to be solved as time passes, Rockstar being a company that like to fix their issues as soon as possible.
Offline matches are best described as tense affairs between friends, some of these can turn into rivalries as even the best buddies transform into trash-talking table tennis aficionados at the tap of a button.
Over the net
This game is a solid contender for best sports title ever, it's probably the single most addictive game of its kind on any console and the sheer level of AI sophistication makes you think there's a human behind that player at times. It's great fun offline and even more fun online with a plethora of tactics to master and only a few core buttons to learn. If you like your table tennis in a slickly presented, fun to play and easy to learn package that comes at the right price loaded with crisp graphics and excellent, devious AI then you're mad if you miss out on this game.