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Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis


Who would have thought the inventors of the Grand Theft Auto series would make a ping pong game? I happened to preview this game at E3 in its final build, but it didn't impress me at a cursory glance. After spending some time with the title, I can see the amount of polish that went into such an odd sporting event and it's definitely evident in the final product.

Gameplay:
Rockstar put little effort into creating a stylistic presentation, rather went with a barebones approach to the menu. Although, the simplistic nature of the menu is contributed to the few options available to the player. Light on the number of game modes, there are only four to choose from: Training, Exhibition, Tournament, and Xbox Live play. Training will take the gamer through a series of exercises to familiarize you with the finer aspect of play, especially the different types of shots. I recommend running through the training if you haven't played a tennis game before. Those who have played Top Spin will figure it out easily.

Exhibition and Tournament are single player modes that can be slightly tweaked. Exhibition can be setup for a 1 game match or 2 games out of 3. Also, you can set the number of points required for winning (7, 11, or 21) and the number of serves before play changes hands. Tournament play is more structured with matches preordained by the 360. There are 4 levels of tournament play (Amateur, Rookie, Pro, and All-Star). The first three levels have to be unlocked before proceeding to All-Star level. Tournaments can last an hour or more on default settings depending on the difficulty level.

Xbox Live play has the standard ranges of choices: Player, Ranked, Spectator, and Leaderboards. Either player or ranked modes can be setup with an exhibition match or a tournament. Spectator allows you to watch any ongoing match and the leaderboards track overall leaders or friend comparisons. I found the online play to be laggy at times, even when connecting to someone with 3 green bars. Sadly, lag in this type of fast paced game can stifle the fun of a match quickly. Also, I ran into several players using a cheap tactic to serve the ball at an extreme angle. As always, the Live experience is wholly dependent on the type of players out there.

The single player A.I. in the game is nothing sort of phenomenal on the higher difficulty levels. The A.I. takes advantage of the strengths of the various characters and exploits them to the fullest. For instance, Jergen, the Swedish player, has an insane amount of power which usually means slamming the ball incredibly hard until you break. On the other hand, a player like Jung Soo will use extreme, breaking spins to finesse his way to a victory. Learning all of the player's intricate tactics will help you succeed in the tournaments.

Of course, winning those tournaments requires controlling your own character effectively. The control setup is really ingenious. The four colored buttons allow for four different types of shots: Front Spin, Back Spin, Left Spin, and Right Spin. Additionally, the left analog stick will effect the amount of power and extra direction given to the shot. When combing those two control aspects, the rumble feature is utilized when taking a risky shot. Too much rumble means your shot will be veering off the table. Also, the game uses color trails that follow the ball after any shot. This extra visual indication can cut your reaction time in half when attempting to counter a shot.

Once you've mastered the basic shots, the coolest aspect to the control scheme is the combination of multiple shot styles. By mashing down two shot buttons, you can combine the effects of spin and really throw your opponent for a loop. Also, a meter at the top of the screen under your name will build for special focus shots. By holding down one of the bumpers on the controller, the game kicks into slow motion and allows for an extremely powerful shot. Combining this with a double button spin is next to impossible to beat.

The achievements are broken up over 29 tasks worth a total of 1000 gamerscore points. The points are roughly split about 45% / 55% between single player and Xbox Live multiplayer. Earning all of these points will take a vast amount of time and practice. Rockstar has assigned points to some very tough tasks as well as some nearly unobtainable ones. A couple of the Xbox Live ones such as winning 50 online tournaments or gaining a Trueskill ranking of 50 will take ages to grab up. Very few players will be able to attain all 1000 points for Table Tennis or afford to spend the vast number of hours to get there.

Graphics:
The most eye-popping aspect of the visuals is obviously the level of workmanship that went into the fluid animations. While the character detail is also impressive, the animations flow with an incredible ease that makes returning a front spin shot look almost effortless. Every walking movement, arm swing, and celebration animation is near perfection. Also, Rockstar took special care to put massive amounts of detail into facial expressions. Every emotion is encapsulated as a player is losing/winning a match.

Unfortunately, the surrounding environment doesn't fair as well. While the arenas usually have a good bit of crowd motion, the textures are a bit blurry and don't have the same level of detail as the players. On the plus side, the majority of your time will be focused on the table and the ball instead. The frame rate usually stays even most of the time, but it does tend to dip down at the end of a volley. Overall, the visuals are fairly impressive for a budget title.

Audio:
The musical tracks are very forgettable, but not quite annoying. The midi, techno tunes do go well with the fast paced gameplay. The crowd noise is a bit over the top though. I can't imagine any ping pong situation that would have the following of several hundred screaming fans. Actually, I prefer the ping pong hall arena that stays silent for the most part, with the exception of the paddles. The sound effects are very accurate and capture the auditory essence of a real-life ping pong game. Also, the sparse voiceovers for the grunting players are decent and believable.

Conclusion:
Rockstar's Table Tennis has really come into its own on the Xbox 360. The precise controls, fluid animations, and addictive gameplay are just a few of the things that make this game so worthwhile to play. The only drawback to the game is a lack of game modes such as create-a-player or a career mode. That being said, I have no problem recommending this one for purchase, although you may want to grab it on sale around the $30 mark. Rockstar has thoroughly convinced me that video game table tennis is a worthwhile venture and a superb, if not eclectic, addition to the Xbox 360 library.