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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Table Tennis  (Rockstar Games for Xbox 360)

By Michael Palisano

An unexpected release from a developer better known for controversy, Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis is nonetheless an addictive, challenging title that offers a surprising amount of depth and nuance. The game's physics engine is stunningly realistic, with incredibly life-like ball movement and reactions making for quite a challenge. It's simple gameplay belies the levels of nuance and challenge it offers with multiple shot types, ball spin and strategic play evident throughout. It's simple structure and straightforward presentation make it accessible, but the game's challenge keeps you coming back for more.

Taking one of the most unlikely paths in gaming history, Rockstar's San Diego studios have thrown gamers for a loop with the release of Table Tennis for the Xbox 360. While this might seem a surprising move, the game's solid gameplay mechanics, brilliantly designed controls, realistic graphics and challenging play make this more than worthy of your time and effort. While it seems an odd choice for the company, Table Tennis still has Rockstar's typical attitude, with it's spicy street feel, urban soundtrack and feel is evident throughout the design. The game offers an almost generic set of options and modes, with players able to select either a single round, tournament or exhibition play. In order to learn the basics, there's an extensive training mode which helps you master the art of ball spin, shot aiming and other techniques which are essential to beat your opponents. These tutorials are presented in a relatively simple manner, and most players should be able to get through them with little time or effort. The system is surprisingly robust, with a number of strategies that develop as you play deeper in the game. Table Tennis might sound simple on the surface, but actually playing to win makes things much more involved than simply volleying the ball back and forth. Playing against the game's selection of CPU opponents reveals a great deal of Table Tennis' depth and nuance, with the sheer number of shot styles and attacks hiding behind a relatively simple exterior.

While the game seems like just a simple game of ping-pong on the surface, there's a lot of strategy and nuance involved that makes Table Tennis truly addictive and challenging. There are several types of shots in the game, with the most basic able to be performed by pressing the A button on the controller. When you want to take more advanced shots, you can use either the Xbox face buttons or the right d-pad to adjust the aim and spin of your shots. In addition, you can adjust the strength of your shot. The longer you hold down the button or press the d-pad, the harder you'll volley the ball. Additionally, your character's charge meter also grows as you increase your lead and momentum. You need to be careful not to press too hard, or the ball will land out of bounds and bounces off the table's edge. Once you begin to build up a series of volleys, you're character will be able to perform more sophisticated moves and attacks, which are divided into several different types. When you build up momentum and adrenaline in your character, their power bar will increase. By holding down the shift button, you'll be able to perform focus shots, which allow you to make devastating attacks on your opponent. In addition, players will need to vary their shot approach with different aims, soft shots, aiming and spin, plus other moves including smashes and hard serves. Table Tennis' game system is quite realistic, and you'll need to keep your character in position at all times, usually near the center of the court. Playing the game to one side will usually leave you vulnerable to attack from the other side, giving your opponent an easy point. Adding to the game's complexity is the fact that your character can also lose stamina and effectiveness the longer a match goes on. When your adrenaline bar gets low, you can still perform some of the focus shots, but they are far less effective and easily volleyed back to you.

Table Tennis' biggest innovation is its sheer realism with its incredibly lifelike ball physics and handling. This realism also extends to the graphics and sounds, which are incredibly intense and realistic. Each character in the game showcases a remarkable level of detail, with extensive animations allowing them to move and react in lifelike manner. Their clothing also moves realistically, with extensive fabric texturing used to create an even better sense of realism in the game. Outstanding lighting effects, beautifully rendered environments and the sheer intensity of the gameplay make this one of the best-looking 360 titles to date, with a next-generation feel immediately evident. Table Tennis' surprisingly hip soundtrack gradually comes into play as you complete more volleys against opponents, increasing in volume and pace as your matches become more intense. It's a subtle effect, but it really helps to generate a unique atmosphere that brings a urban feel to what could have been an otherwise generic sports title. While it's relatively simple in approach and design, these small touches make all the difference, making Table Tennis one of the most enjoyable and cool games on the console yet.

The game's controls are immediately accessible, but mastering all of the nuances and strategies will take some time. One of the biggest challenges you face is anticipating what type of shot your opponent will serve, and which button you need to use to counter that attack. Making the game even more intense is the fact that momentum can swing quickly if you're not careful, and you can watch as a large lead evaporates quickly when you lose your concentration. The gameplay can be quite intense with the smallest errors costing you big time, so you need to maintain your focus at all times. One of the key strategies to winning points in Table Tennis is to play defensively, and wait for your opponent to make a mistake. The game's pacing and momentum makes this task much harder than it seems, especially when you're facing off against an aggressive opponent. Table Tennis' intuitive controls and straightforward play mechanics make this an addictive, challenging game, but there are other features which add to the replay value significantly.

In addition to the single player game, players can choose to battle it out against another player on Xbox Live, which adds an entirely intense layer to the gameplay. While the AI opponents are tough, playing against an unpredictable opponent who plays without patterns makes things even more exciting. Setting up games and matching with another gamer are relatively easy tasks, and most games should be up in running in a matter of minutes. Adding to the game's replay value, you can earn a number of unlockable items, including extra characters, additional outfits and venues to play on. The extra characters really open up Table Tennis and each offers a distinct playing style and approach to the game that should keep you on your best game throughout. There are also a number of other options you can choose, with three tournament modes which increase exponentially in difficulty as well. With all these features in place, the main enjoyment of the game is actually the game itself, which is frenetic, challenging and can be difficult without ever seeming overly challenging. 

Unfortunately, the very nature of the game means that its replay value isn't as strong as it could be - it does tend to become a bit repetitive after awhile, which doesn't lend itself to extremely long play sessions. The game's visuals and presentation are also quite excellent, with vividly detailed character models, realistic characters, excellent physics models and a cool urban feel that helps set the game apart from the pack. It's long term appeal might be limited but, Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis offers an enjoyable, fast moving game that's quite addictive, especially when playing online or against a friend. It's slightly lower than normal 'value' pricing makes it a solidly entertaining purchase for any Xbox 360 owner looking to wind down from some of the console's more intense offerings.

Grade: B+

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