Has it ever been fashionable to like Table Tennis? In this country sports tend to fall in and out of popularity, so one minute everyone loves football, then Cricket, then Golf, then Tennis, before everyone decides all sports bar football are boring and not worth bothering with. Still, big sporting events and a few brief weeks in the limelight can't be bad for the sports in question. What I can't remember though, is a period in my life when Table Tennis was the topic of discussion. It might be a popular activity at Scout camp, but I dare say that the UK has never been gripped by Table Tennis fever... at least not until now.
Table Tennis from Rockstar Games is unquestionably a polished title, but a big chunk of its appeal stems from the makers and not the game itself. When trying to predict what Rockstar's debut next-gen title would be, a Table Tennis simulation can't have crossed many people's minds. This is the King of controversy that we're talking about. Grand Theft Auto would have been a long shot, but a new entry in the Red Dead Revolver, Midnight Club or Manhunt series seemed ten times more likely than a game based on a sport most people call ping pong. Few developers could pull it off though, with the sport being so low-key that it needed to come from a trendy firm to be taken seriously.
With that being said, being a fan of Rockstar's previous work won't necessarily make you a fan of Table Tennis. It's a remarkably simple game to get into though, with even relatively novice gamers being able to pick up the controls within a few minutes. If you've ever played a tennis game before things will feel somewhat familiar. You have four shot buttons (or you can use the right analogue stick) that can be used to play with top spin, back spin and side spin. The longer you hold down the shot button, the more power and spin you generate in the shot. Aiming works on a similar principle. Once a shot button has been pressed the left analogue stick controls aim, with position on the table being determined by how long the stick is held in a certain direction. Hold it down for too long though, and the controller will rumble, meaning the shot has a high chance of going wide.
To add complexity, the idea is to counter your opponent's spins by returning using the same spin. While travelling through the air the ball is surrounded by a spinning colour, which indicates the spin on the ball and matches the face buttons on the controller. Playing against the spin will result in shots being more likely to loop into the air or go wide of the table. You can also throw in weaker shots to try and disrupt the flow of a rally, or deliver a powerful 'Focus' shot to give you the upper hand. Your Focus meter will charge when you power up your standard shots, and can be activated on a shot by shot basis by holding the right bumper; pressing the right trigger will activate Focus for a longer period of time. This sends the game into slow-motion and lets you pull off shots that wouldn't otherwise be possible.
Unlike a game of tennis, Table Tennis requires 100% concentration and discipline. If you're not focussed you can easily wander a few steps to the side of the table, making it easy for your opponent to put you in difficulty. It's essential that you try to remain in the centre of the table and play shots that keep your opponent moving. Trying to spot the spin of the ball is also harder than it sounds, and unless you spot it early, your fumbling for the correct button will see you miss the ball completely. When locked into a battle with a player of equal ability, games become just as much about mental agility as they are skill. The pace of rallies can be relentless and one slight slip up will waste all your hard work.
Given that Rockstar has created a wonderfully playable game, the lack of game modes is a tad disappointing. While the game has been released at a 'budget' price, it's only really budget when compared to other Xbox 360 games. It's still not what I'd call a bargain, so the basic training, exhibition and tournament modes feel a little limited. The tournament mode offers a sizeable challenge, but once completed there's little else to play for if you're a lone player. Character creation, which has become a staple of the sports genre, is nowhere to be seen, and unlockables are limited to players and new clothing. The cheaper price is a good thing, but the game really deserved a proper career mode - some mini-games would also have gone down well.
If you want to get any long-term play out of the game you're pretty much limited to multiplayer games, either on a single console or over Xbox Live. Thankfully Rockstar's net code seems well up to the job, making for a great online experience. Some noticeable lag plagued a small number of games, but performance was generally very good. Ranked and unranked matches can be played in Exhibition mode, and a Timed Tournament mode lets you play timed matches in a tournament with up to eight players. Players can also choose to sit back and watch other players compete. Sadly, it seems that the online ranking system has already fallen foul of players who quit games before registering a loss. This makes the top of the leaderboard a little disappointing, so hopefully Rockstar will address this sooner rather than later.
It's a next-gen title and it's taken eight paragraphs to get to the visuals, which just shows how impressive the gameplay is. If you simply refuse to buy Xbox 360 titles that don't look good enough to model on a runway, don't worry; Table Tennis features some of the most impressive player models ever seen in a video game, ball physics are spot on and the slow-motion effects are top drawer. Watching replays of rallies is fun in itself, simply because the players look and move in such a realistic way. The crowd doesn't look all that great, unfortunately, but they do create a good atmosphere in the arenas, hollering and cheering for the players at key points in a match. Of course, it looks ridiculously slick when running in High Definition. Who'd have though a Table Tennis game would be such a showcase title for the system?
Despite the apparent glamour attached to the game thanks to Rockstar, Table Tennis is still a niche title. If you usually have no interest in sports titles, Rockstar's effort isn't going to suddenly blow your mind. If, however, you're a fan of tennis games and fancy something that moves at a faster pace and has impeccable production values, Table Tennis is a perfect fit. The only bad thing to say about the game is that it's so entertaining that you want to be able to do more. As a multiplayer game it's an incredible amount of fun, but lone players who can't access Xbox Live will feel a little short changed.