Table Tennis

Can Rockstar make Ping Pong cool?

It's hard to know what's more surprising, really. First off, there's the fact that Rockstar's first next-gen game isn't an open world action adventure involving lots of guns, gangsters and girls who'll do all the things you've seen on the Internet for five quid and a bag of chips.

Then there's the fact that said game is based around a sport which is far from trendy and, many people might argue, generally a bit crap. (Although many more people would disagree, but more of that later).

However, what might come as the biggest surprise of all is that Table Tennis is shaping up to be a seriously good game, as we found out when we visited Rockstar for a demo recently.

But before we get into that, let's deal with the issue of why Rockstar has decided to base their first Xbox 360 title around table tennis. The representative who's demoing the game admits that this is "obviously a huge departure for Rockstar," explaining that one of their key aims is "to make table tennis cool, because we love the sport, and since Pong there hasn't been a game that represents it."

It's not just Rockstar who are fans, either; they inform us that table tennis is in fact the most played sport in the world, thanks in large part to its popularity in China. It was the most viewed sport of the 2004 Athens Olympic games, fact fans.

So what's the best way to bring the world's favourite sport to the Xbox 360? Well, by going back to basics and taking your cues from good old Pong, according to Rockstar. In other words, by creating a game that "strips away everything" and is "just about the gameplay, nothing else."

Which is why you won't find any complex player customisation options or the like in Table Tennis. When it comes to modes, you've got four options - Training, Exhibition, which is designed for quick blasts of play and post-pub mucking about, Tournament, which sees you playing through regional, national and eventually global tournaments, and Online.

The details of that last one have yet to be locked down, but Rockstar has confirmed that you'll be able to set up and join in online tournaments via Xbox Live. There will also be a spectator mode so, for example, you can find out who you're due to play next in the tournament and watch how they perform against other opponents.

Need for speed

1

Liu Ping demonstrates his trademark pen grip.

There are 11 characters to choose from, and they all have different attributes divided into four categories - Spin, Accuracy, Speed and Power. They also have different playing styles; China's Liu Ping, for example, puts lots of spin on the ball, and uses a pen grip when holding the bat. Mark, who hails from the UK, packs a bit more of a punch and prefers the handshake grip, while Jesper moves extremely slowly but wallops the ball with a huge amount of power.

The female characters - of which there are four - tend to move a bit faster than the blokes, so it's easier for them to return some of the trickier shots. All of the players are fictitious, but their clothing and the table tennis, er, tables are licensed and feature branding from the likes of Adidas, Butterfly and Paddle Palace. All of the characters are individually designed and animated using around 30,000 polygons - that's roughly ten times the number you'd expect for a character in a game on the original Xbox.

But Table Tennis isn't about Adidas logos, character designs or lighting effects (although the lighting really is rather good, by the way, and it's cool how the players get sweat stains on their clothes as matches progress). It's all about the gameplay, bottom line, and the fact that Table Tennis - like all the best sports titles - is easy to get to grips with, but has plenty of scope for spending hours perfecting your technique.

There are two basic shots - top spin and slice - and these alone are enough if you just want to enjoy a bit of basic rallying and point scoring with anyone who's too rubbish at games or drunk to deal with anything more complex.

Depending on which shot you use, the return ball will show a coloured trail - green for top spin and yellow for slice - which indicates what type of spin you've put on it, and gives your opponent the chance to work out which shot is best to hit it back with. You can also determine the amount of spin when serving by releasing the shot button at just the right point.

Spin doctor

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UK player Mark puts rubbish old Tim Henman to shame, and not just because of his lovely big thighs.

Plus you add right or left spin to shots, and pull off what Rockstar calls "dink shots", which neatly drop the ball just over the net. This forces your opponent to lunge forward, which can result in them hitting the ball out when they return.

And finally, there are focus shots - but you can only pull these off when the conditions are right. At the top of the screen, you'll see an 'intensity meter' next to your character's name, which is red at the start of the match. To fill it up, you need to charge your shots by holding buttons down for longer; then the meter will turn yellow and eventually green.

Providing you've at least partly filled up the meter, you can perform focus shots using the right shoulder button. Focus shots are a bit more powerful and easier to hit with precision, since the speed of play is temporarily slowed down.

The intensity meter is also there to change the pace and shake up the playing field. Get your meter green, fill it up enough and you'll go into intense mode - which means your character will move faster, and return shots harder. "So if you're at that point and the other person isn't, you can really get on top of them," Rockstar explains.

"The secret is to try and charge your shots as quickly as possible to get there before the other player."

Things get even more exciting when both players are in this mode - the lights over the crowd will go down and the music will become more intense, which really does pile on the pressure. (Hence Rockstar came back from being five points behind during a deciding match to beat us into submission - nerves of steel are required, and it seems ours are made of cotton wool.)

Smash hits

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Dink shots offer a highly effective and very satisfying way to score one over your opponent.

So those are the basic gameplay mechanics of Table Tennis - but it's more difficult to describe just how much fun it is to play. When you first start playing, there's a temptation to whack balls around as hard and fast as you can, Smash Court Tennis-style. But as you get to grips with the shots and start trying out different moves, it becomes clear that more subtlety and strategic play is required - and there's nothing quite so satisfying as watching the ball you've just hit sail swiftly over the net to just nick the very edge of the table, to much groaning and often swearing from your opponent.

Rockstar explains that down their way, "everybody from the secretary to the sales rep" has been taking part in office tournaments, "and it's been very interesting because we've had a lot of people who've never played games before do very well.

"But while it's easy to pick up and play, it's more difficult to master, which is the beauty of the gameplay - you can have a great rally with someone who's never played before, but then you might get someone who's putting in great spins and using focus shots, and it's a whole new level."

Over the course of the hour or so we spent with the game, it became clear that Rockstar's right about this - and that they were right to put the focus on pure, well-designed gameplay with Table Tennis. No, you can't select what colour sweatbands your character wears, or choose their name, or earn prize money to buy new bats or choose the weather conditions or steal a car and run over a prostitute. But with a game that's this entertaining, this addictive and simply this much fun to play, chances are you won't care.

Yes, Table Tennis does mark a big departure for Rockstar - but judging by what we've seen so far, it's a move in the right direction. Whether or not this game will indeed make ping pong cool remains to be seen, but it certainly makes it fun - and all for under 30 quid.

So what's next? Will Rockstar turn its attention to other unglamorous sports - badminton, perhaps, or curling? Apparently not; they just happen to like this sport in particular. Which, having played and enjoyed Table Tennis, we can't help thinking is a bit of a shame.

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