Two thoughts went through my mind when I heard about Rockstars Table Tennis. First off, I was shocked they were making a Ping Pong game on the Xbox 360. The most powerful gaming console seemed like an odd choice for a game like this. Even more curious, this rather tame sounding game was being developed by Rockstar the bad boys of the video game industry. But, the biggest surprise was what I found out after I played the game. Its good real good.
This game could not have come at a better time. After nearly 30 years of Pong/Tennis video games, I was thinking there wasnt much left to do with the game type, and that it might be growing a little stale. Rockstars Table Tennis puts a whole new spin on it, and breathes some new life into the oldest video game genre.
The game works so well largely because of fast paced frantic action on a relatively small playing field. The physics behind the lightweight ping pong ball is another thing that makes it stand apart from your standard tennis game. The spin on the ball is a lot more exaggerated, and there are a wider variety of hits. The gameplay tweaks go a long way to creating a gaming experience that is just pure frantic fun.
While most games in this genre make you build up a character through monotonous training exercises, Rockstar gives you a cast of characters from around the globe that require no training. Its a welcome change and adds to the pick up and play fun nature to the game. Much like a fighting game, the characters each have their strengths and weaknesses, and a unique style. Unfortunately, there is a downside here. The players are fairly uninspired stereotypical representations of whatever region they hail from. Worse yet, there is no player create mode, and with a very limited number of given characters this would have been a very useful feature.
While the characters may need a little work, the star of this show is the gameplay. The controls are tight, very satisfying, and easy to pick up after just a couple games. There are four basic shots mapped to each of the main buttons on the 360s controller top spin (A), back spin (Y), left spin (X), and right spin (B). Not only can you visually see the spin on the ball just by the trajectory, but the ball will also glow the color of which button was used to hit the ball. So, if you hit a right spin (B button) shot, the ball will have a slight red glow. If you can react quick enough and hit the same type of shot back at the player, you can make the spin even more effective. Aiming of a shot is done with the left thumbstick. The rumble feature of the controller is put to very good use by rumbling slightly to let you know your shot will be near the edge of the table. If you hold the direction too long it will start to rumble even harder, letting you know your shot may be off the table, unless you quickly change direction.
As you connect with solid, fully charged shots, a focus meter will fill up. The focus meter has three stages (red, yellow, and green), and can be rather confusing at first. In the first stage it is red, and upon filling it up it will automatically kick in to focus mode for a short time, in which your shots are much more effective. Upon depletion, the meter will turn to yellow, and eventually will build up to the green, which is the most powerful, longest lasting of the three. If both players meter fill up in the green, the surrounding area around the table will go dark and both players can hit some fast and wild shots back and forth.
While the gameplay is nearly flawless, if this game has one problem it is that it has very few frills. It has the standard tournament and exhibition modes. It also has a very nice Xbox Live component, complete with a Tennis Network in which you can watch others play. While all those are well done, that is pretty much it for the game. There are only a few unlockables, such as characters and clothing, but what is there is fairly boring. The unlockable costumes are essentially just a different colored T-Shirt of the one that was already unlocked. There is a lack of any customization (no player create, player edit, etc). There are no mini games and no story mode. Some of this can be expected, as it is not a full priced title, but it was a little more stripped down than I had anticipated.
You wont be buying this game because it shows off the power of your Xbox 360. While the visuals are serviceable, I couldnt help but to think it was not a game that really needed a next generation platform. It probably would have been just as fun on the original Xbox.
The character models are light years ahead of anything weve seen before from Rockstar, but then again theyve never been known for having spectacular character models. However, these were on par with what weve seen on the 360 in other games, and it gives hope to what we may see in Grand Theft Auto IV.
In the audio department everything is simple, but effective. The basic ping pong sounds are captured faithfully, and there are some added sound effects for when you are hitting focus powered shots. The sound changes nicely to fit the arena you are in such as there being more of an echo in the barren warehouse venue. As for the voice work, there is not a lot of dialogue, but all of the characters speak in their native tongue, and the PA announcer is non-intrusive and fits in nicely. There is some subtle use of background music - such as it starting to play during a longer volley but overall the music is very sparse and unnoticeable. Youll likely be using the custom soundtrack feature with this title.
The bottom line is that while there are not a lot of extra bells and whistles to this title, Rockstars Table Tennis is a tremendously fun, fast paced game thats tough to put down once you get started.