Pong reloaded

Rockstar gives good Table
Rating: 3.5 stars
June 14, 2006 11:31:47 AM

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If you’ve ever hallucinated falling Tetris pieces or been unable to sleep because you kept hearing the “Hadoken!” soundbite in your head, you may want to steer clear of Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis. Like those addictive classics, it draws you in with a simple hook and then spits you back out, reeling, hours later. And for the rest of the day, your head reverberates with the residual pock-pock-pock of ping-pong balls.

You’re not interpreting the title incorrectly — this really is a table tennis simulation from the makers of Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt. It’s not extreme ping-pong or mutant-league ping-pong. You can’t pull out a firearm for a last-second victory over your opponent. In fact, Rockstar’s Table Tennis is more focused upon the essence of its subject than any sports title in recent memory. In an era of game design that values quantity over quality, and half-finished “bonus” features over balanced, fine-tuned gameplay, it’s something of a miracle.

Mercifully lacking a career mode or a create-a-player feature, Table Tennis makes you dive right in by choosing from 11 international characters and starting a tournament. (It’s only in the character selection that Rockstar’s more regrettable instincts appear — the snooty, ponytailed Frenchman, for example, or the scowling Chinese guy.) A comprehensive tutorial teaches the basics, but the best way to learn is simply to start playing.

The learning curve is a bit steep, despite the simple framework. There are only a few controls: aim your shot with the left stick, put spin on it with the right stick, hold down the left bumper for a soft shot. That’s it, and yet there’s a nearly infinite number of gameplay possibilities. You need to keep switching up your moves, and getting it right takes practice. Little mistakes grow exponentially, becoming catastrophic errors against a skillful opponent.

Finding a skillful opponent is what makes Table Tennis worth playing. Single-player mode is good enough, but taking your game to Xbox Live is the draw here. The Street Fighter comparison I made earlier doesn’t apply only to the game’s addictiveness — this resembles nothing so much as a head-to-head fighting game. The field of play is limited to a few steps back and either side of the table. You are facing your opponent at all times. It’s welcome minimalism from a company — and an industry — known for excess.

BACK TO BASICS: The focus is on gameplay, not half-finished “bonus” features.
That’s not to say that Table Tennis doesn’t feel very much like a product of the current era. It’s an Xbox 360 exclusive, and because it was developed from the ground up for the new system, it ends up outshining the majority of the 360’s warmed-over ports in the technical areas. The character models are a sight to behold, for the five seconds you notice them before focusing, trance-like, on the glowing ping-pong ball. Occasionally the camera angle cuts from the three-quarter overhead view to a more cinematic, slow-motion take. It never interrupts gameplay, though, as it happens only after you’ve inputted your shot selection. (And even then, it’s often a sure sign that you’ve missed.)

At $40, Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis is the closest thing the Xbox 360 has to a budget title, but it delivers more bang for your buck than anything else on the system — okay, maybe not more than Oblivion. It’s a little sad that one of the best 360 games so far is a glorified version of Pong, but that barely matters when it’s this much fun.

And that pock-pock-pock will haunt your dreams.


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