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Ping Pong Renaissance: Table Tennis Review
game: Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis
four star
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Take 2 Games
developer: Rockstar San Diego
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ESRB rating: E (Everyone)
date posted: 11:34 AM Wed Jun 7th, 2006
last revision: 11:34 AM Wed Jun 7th, 2006

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Click to read.Rockstar\'s San Diego studio is known mainly for making quality driving games. The Smuggler\'s Run series was an early fan fave on the PlayStation 2, bringing all-terrain driving and international \"contraband\" running to gamers everywhere. The Midnight Club series has been similarly popular, bringing a more fast, more furious attitude to street racing and earning generally positive reviews. These two franchises share qualities that must be seen as emblematic of the studio: Overall high production values, excellent driving controls, and an infusion of gritty realism tinged with an edgy sense of humor.

So it\'s no surprise that the gaming world at large was a bit surprised to discover Rockstar San Diego\'s latest title, Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis. Table Tennis received little fanfare and came out almost as soon as many gamers had heard about it. At first it seemed like a joke: Rockstar Games, creators of the infamous rebirth of the Grand Theft Auto Series, and from the studio famous for allowing us to play gun and drug smugglers, no less. Could Table Tennis be real?

Not only is Table Tennis real, it\'s really good. As the early previews and reviews have indicated, Rockstar San Diego managed to put together one of the most solid \"tennis-like\" engines ever created. For gamers who remember the early days of Dreamcast, Table Tennis feels much like getting into Virtua Tennis for the first time. And for the doubters in the crowd, no, this is not just another Pong ripoff.

Table Tennis doesn\'t pretend to be more complicated than it is. The game sells for $39.99, which is the lowest price allowed for \"budget\" Xbox 360 titles by Microsoft. This is an indication off the bat that Table Tennis is humble. And it may make it easier to assume the game is not worth your time. But it is.

Table Tennis features two major modes: offline and online play. Both modes only support one person per Xbox, so there\'s no chance of doubles action. In offline play, you choose a character and progress through a series of matches to win a tournament. Tournaments increase in difficulty from amateur to professional levels. By performing well in the tournaments, you can unlock new characters and outfits for your characters.

Online mode offers a few more options. Users can choose to play a match, or they can tune into the Table Tennis Network to watch other matches in-progress. This feature is a glimpse into the future of competitive online gaming, although Table Tennis is not necessarily the title that will popularize game spectatorship.

If choosing to play a match, you have two major options, Ranked or Unranked play, as on most Xbox 360 titles. The ranking system uses the Xbox 360\'s True Skill ranking system, which should be familiar to Xbox owners. Regardless of which mode you choose, you can then choose to play in an online tournament or an exhibition match. Most of the action happens in the exhibition matches. If creating a game, you can configure the basic rules options expected in Table Tennis: score limit, how often service changes, etc. Table Tennis aficionados should have no trouble configuring their house rules and luring newbies into their matches.

There are several characters available for play initially, and about as many available to unlock as you play the game. The characters are mostly male, with a couple of women, and range in nationality all over the world. Each character has different statistics to indicate their strengths, and these do not change throughout the game. Although you can unlock different colored shirts for each character, these don\'t change the statistics at all. For folks who love the dress-up/configuration aspects of most tennis games, this might be a drawback, but it keeps Table Tennis simple and focused. This is not a game about building the ultimate Table Tennis pro; this is a game about playing ping pong.

Everything in the game is focused and tight. The controls are excellent. Many have compared Table Tennis to a fighting game, which doesn\'t seem entirely accurate. There are no special moves or complex patterns to memorize in Table Tennis. Hits are returned with the four face buttons, A, B, X, Y. Each button corresponds to a type of spin. Tapping the button just hits the ball, but holding the button and releasing will put spin on the return in the direction corresponding to the button (i.e. The B button spins right, the X button spins left.). The left analog stick directs the return to hit a specific part of the table (left, right, long, short).

With the simple controls, Table Tennis becomes one of those games that is easy to learn and difficult to master. Holding the button too long or pushing the analog stick too hard in a direction will cause your return to veer off the table or hit the net. To indicate when the return is in danger of going awry, the controller vibrates to indicate the level of spin and direction. This vibration is sensitive and provides tangible feedback that makes Table Tennis incredibly responsive. It takes awhile to get the \"feel\" for the game, quite literally, but once you do, it is a blast.

As you volley the ball back and forth, your best returns charge your \"Focus\" meter. This meter can be used in two ways: You can press the \"focus\" button to make an extra sharp return, but doing so expends your focus. This maneuver is crucial when you find yourself on the wrong side of a fast return. But if you allow the meter to fill all the way up, then your character receives an overall speed boost. If both players fill their meters, the lighting on the table changes and the rest of the auditorium blurs. Each player moves at hyperspeed and makes exciting returns.

In its best moments, Table Tennis becomes a rhythmic game of action. In long exchanges the ball will speed up and slow down as each player makes her moves, and after 40 or 50 volleys, the intensity ramps up. Table Tennis is one of those games, like the Pro Skater series, good fighting games, and the best shooters, that helps players slip into a Zen-like play trance. When you hit that spot and feel at one with the game, it is a beautiful thing.

But if you\'re not in that spot, then Table Tennis can be immensely frustrating. The learning curve can be cruel at times, and the difficulty in the single-player mode is spotty. Online, many players are obviously very good at Table Tennis, so don\'t expect to feel better after taking on human opponents. Stick with the single-player tournaments and build your skills before going online, or accept defeat and learn from your losses.

Overall, Rockstar Presents Table Tennis is an excellent title. Well-made and well-received, it is sure to be a classic and should be seen as the first real successor to the Dreamcast\'s Virtua Tennis. Table Tennis is a strange and wonderful thing: It\'s a sly joke (the irony of Table Tennis being Rockstar\'s first next-gen title is not lost on us at GF!), but it\'s also a solid game. And that makes the joke even better.

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