Rockstar Table Tennis
The videogame industry is no longer a place for simplicity. Long gone are the days when games delivered their payload of thrills without showering the player with pointlessly shallow extra content and special features in an attempt to bolster consumer attraction and justify inflated retail pricing. The appearance of Microsoft's next-generation Xbox 360 platform has seen a marked jump in both hardware and software quality, but it's also seen yet another jump in pricing - to the point where the products are now reaching beyond the financial range of many, many gamers. However, not every game publisher is keen on bleeding consumers for a gaming experience that's obviously not worth the standard retail price, which brings things neatly to Rockstar Games and Table Tennis.
It's two bats and a ball for £24.99 / $39.99 - (Amazon). It's two bats being held by beautifully rendered characters, and a ball that's being hit across a sharply defined table in an atmospheric arena - and that's it, there's very little else to entice player interest. Those amongst you presently struggling to recognise the attraction of Table Tennis in both a sporting and gaming sense, should duly seek solace in the likes of Football Manager 2006, NHL 2K6, FIFA 06, NBA 2K6, or Madden NFL 2006, because all of the prerequisite 'modes' necessary to ignite the fires of modern content appeasement lie within all of the above. Have fun. For everyone else - especially those who can remember wasting massive chunks of life playing Atari's Pong - grab a bat and let's start smashing that ball.
The biggest notes of success in Table Tennis exist within its gameplay and its control system. Both flow effortlessly from the outset and bring the game's instant immediacy to the fore without ever requiring masses of hard-fought training or the honing of specific moves and considered strategy. Rockstar instead thrust the rubber-coated bat into your hand, show you how to apply spin and pace to the ball in a blissfully brief tutorial, and then let you get straight to the action.
The control system works in a dual capacity where spin, angle, and shot strength are all issued through representative face buttons (Y, B, A, X) or by leaning the right analogue stick. For example, 'A' or 'down' on the analogue stick applies standard topspin to the ball, whereas 'Y' or 'up' on the analogue stick applies backspin, the same is true for 'X' and 'B' and 'left' and 'right'. While holding down a spin selection and aiming with the left analogue stick, your character then 'Charges' their upcoming shot depending upon the length of time the spin is applied for, which then determines the resulting power delivery. Charging shots slowly fills an on-screen 'Focus' meter, which, when full, grants access to temporary 'Full Focus' shots that are much harder to return. In order to better execute various standard shots successfully - and stand a chance in frantic rallies - the 360's controller vibrates at the point where too much spin and power are being charged. The vibration grows depending on risk factor, at which point the player can either deliver the shot - which will be heavily spun and perhaps miss the table - or they can quickly select another type of spin. In order to slow the pacing of rallies and break your opponent's rhythm, the controller's left and right 'bumpers' can be combined with spin selection to deliver misleading 'Soft Shots' that land short on the table and cause opponents to misjudge their next return. Of course, all of this must be decided and implemented in the time it takes your opponent to strike the ball back across the table, which is no time at all, but none of the controls are hard to grasp and, more importantly from a gameplay standpoint, none of them are hard to master.
The resulting gameplay in Table Tennis is fast-paced and relentlessly addictive as gradually stronger opponents face your chosen player throughout various Tournament circuit environments - there are 19 in all. Winning these tournaments sees new players unlocked (11 in total) and individual game wins with different players also grants access to other items including fresh outfits. The single-player gaming options, though undeniably enjoyable, are somewhat short lived in terms of in-depth challenge and longevity, and it soon falls to the multiplayer component of Table Tennis to provide the game's real impact. Indeed, not since Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64 has a game's multiplayer aspect combined so successfully with its single-player mode that it eventually transcends it. A friend can grab a bat (controller) and jump into the action during Exhibition mode, or players can take their skills to the masses in Xbox Live and compete in Exhibition or Timed Tournament game modes - where spectators can even gather and watch the action in the Table Tennis Network.
Aesthetically, Table Tennis is certainly not a fair representation of its reduced pricing. The game is filled with superbly rendered characters and environments, atmospheric and emotional crowd effects, believable weight of movement and fluid animation, and cleverly implemented up-tempo musical accompaniment that builds during long rallies and injects invaluable urgency into the gameplay. Individual characters (a selection of 7 guys and 4 gals) all have their own emotive reactions and idiosyncrasies during matches, everything from glaring scowls after missing a return and heaving chests after lengthy and exhaustive rallies, to pumping the air in victory or verbally chastising themselves for poor play. What's more, the characters also visibly sweat during matches and their clothes gradually become two-tone colours as the hard-fought effort begins to distinctly take its toll around the armpits and neck. There's no commentary on show in Table Tennis, but the speed of play and brevity of points certainly renders its inclusion close to impossible, so the off-screen umpire who announces the ongoing game scores and the active server is certainly enough when combined with the noise of the attending crowd.
The only notable criticism to level at Table Tennis arises through slightly twitchy directional movement that's delivered via the left analogue stick. Pushing your character into position and chasing the ball behind the table is fine for the most part, but occasional jerky jumps can leave the table wide open as you lumber back into position after retrieving a shot that really shouldn't have drawn you so far wide. However, apart from that minor graphical-gameplay quibble, Rockstar's Table Tennis is a fantastically addictive sports title that concentrates its development efforts on a single point of excellence - pure gameplay - and polishes it until the gleam is almost blinding.
Rockstar presents Table Tennis is a bare bones, reduced price videogame that offers players exactly what it says on the packaging. It's Table Tennis, nothing more, nothing less. Some may say that Rockstar's latest game is merely an attempt to reproduce Pong in 3D - and it certainly echoes Pong in terms of fevered immediacy and dazzling addiction - but Table Tennis feels very much like a labour of love and a genuine attempt to distil some of that oft-overlooked 'fun factor' that's sadly lacking in most modern videogames. Moreover, that element of instantly accessible fun ably replaces the lack of a 20-year career mode, stat-heavy managerial element, or ridiculously complex character creation tools, all of which are nowhere to be seen in Table Tennis. Pong's fabulously simple gameplay may have been used as a blueprint during Rockstar's development of Table Tennis, but that's certainly a positive attribute and only further enforces the notion of aspiring to create a comparably addictive experience that's completely free of unnecessary padding.