Version tested: Xbox 360
If one more person explains what a "surprising move" this is for Rockstar I'm going to pay to have sex with them and then beat them up when I get out of the car.
Why is it surprising? Look at The Warriors. That was pure vanity. They just liked the film and wanted to do something new. Like when Simon Pegg did zombies or Travolta did planes or Jade did the marathon or Cruise did Holmes. Maybe they just wanted Deborah Van Valkenburgh's phone number. A bit like Nintendo making Brain Training because its finance director had Kawashima's book on his coffee table. Except with, you know, sexual deviancy. Which, let's face it, was bound to feature.
What's actually surprising is that nobody's bothered to try this in years. Because Rockstar Table Tennis is very, very good.
Superficially it's incredibly simple. You learn everything in five minutes, and then it takes hours to master. There's a well-worked training mode, which explains how the four face buttons are mapped to backspin, leftspin, rightspin and topspin, then talks about positioning yourself and handling smashes, serves and the game's "focus" special power meter, all the while it's giving you a taste of the pace. Do a quick exhibition match to get the feel and you're set. Everyone's played table tennis anyway so it's obvious how it all works and the game respects that.
It evolves so quickly. Timing's key, and the timings are really well judged; the harmony's such that you can usually tell when you've missed a ball before it's actually flashed past. You can feel it go. You quickly figure out that with aiming and movement both mapped to left-analogue you're going to put yourself out of position if you hold it one way too long. Player movement is deliberate and recovering is hard when you over-extend, but like the shot system it's all logical and intuitive. You never feel as though you lost because the game messed up; you lost because you didn't react quickly enough, or because you were caught out of position. When the ball brushes the net and your player lunges forward you lunge forward with them, and then if it doesn't work out you laugh or curse the sport, not the game.
Rockstar's very smartly taken a couple of things out of your hands - so you can't stab at shots that your opponent's over hit, which would cost you points in a real match, and your player simply adapts to edged balls or those that brush the net. Providing you're in a decent enough position, you'll be able to return them anyway. There's a wonderful system governing whether smashes go in or out, too. When you go to play a shot you can hold down the button to charge it up as you direct it with left-analogue, and as you do this the pad starts to vibrate. If the vibrations are mild, you'll land it on the table no matter how far you're pushing; if the vibrations are strong, you're heading off-table and need to compensate. When the hard vibes kick in just as you're about to launch a shot, it's a delightful panic.
The subtleties are quickly ingrained. You start to throw "focus" shots into play to find tighter angles on spinning returns or to add a bit of menace to a topspin forehand. You reach for the left shoulder bumper to modify your returns into dropshots. You toy with the service meter, which has two little lines moving up and down at different speeds to represent speed and spin, and even if you're rubbish at real table tennis you learn how to read the play and react to different types of shot - and before you can say "don't stop it with your foot you'll break it" you're wiping the floor with the low-end opposition.
All the systems are balanced and the graphics do their job brilliantly. To begin with you might need to keep an eye on the coloured aura of the spinning ball so you can do the mental blue=left equation and respond accordingly. After a while you just see it. You watch your opponent closely and plan ahead, figuring if you can get them to spin it this way next you can play a tight rightspin shot to catch them totally off-balance. You can't do anything that seems impossible. You can't win against tougher opposition if you don't concentrate on your footwork and timing. You pick characters to match your approach - I'm better with the Japanese girl Kumi because she can spin the ball out wide a lot better, for example, and is much better against lumbering blokes as a result. The girls are more evenly patched for pace. Push hard for a while and your focus meter tops out and you go into a sustained power-mode that speeds things up considerably; when you're both there it's intense, and so much more of a tightrope than any other racket sports videogame.
It's perfect for online play, and the online play's excellent. The pace is ridiculous, but the connection keeps up - I have no idea how it's doing it, but I never had a problem with lag or prediction or any of the other things people in my Counter-Strike clan used to complain about in garrulous antipodean. You can play ranked matches, shoot for a high spot on the leaderboard (with weekly tournament-style boards too), and failing that you can just play two-player with another pad. The only thing missing is doubles, and although that might have been nice it really didn't bother me. Given the price, you can expect a decent range of opponents to face off with too.
Also, lord, it's about time somebody gave up on all this create-a-player stuff, isn't it? Well done Rockstar. I don't care about having some alien-face-oh-sod-it-randomised peon with my name on it playing my shots. I like having a simple range of made-up players to mock. I like that Cassidy looks a bit like a mouse with devil eyes and Luc's got a rubbish ponytail. It reminds me of picking Jethro in Micromachines because I liked his picture. You don't upgrade stats. You can change shirts - and you might want to given how visibly sweaty the players get - but you don't have to care if you're not using special Adidas water bottle with the +2 spin. They don't need a rubbish pre-rolled personality. You've got one anyway! Well, you've got a personality. Personally I think you're lovely.
There just isn't much to complain about. The only thing, if I have to be mean, is that with just four single-player tournaments to bash your way through it's not going to keep you picking away meaningfully for that long - although the range of achievements to gun for might extend that a bit. It needed some silly little arcade tasks, like Virtua Tennis. I love it, but I want more things to do with my love. I want tickling as well as sex.
Even so. Some games are just about the playing. They're about contesting a 70-shot rally with some bloke on the internet and squeaking every time the ball brushes the net or you scramble to block a smash. And then laughing about it together afterwards. Table Tennis is really good at this. You can't be good unless you practice, and you can't help but love it once you get good.
Fine, it's simple. It's never going to be a £50 game, but even Rockstar knows this, which is why it costs half that. It doesn't matter. It's fun from the start until the early hours when you realise you've got to get up the next day and write the stupid review. And if you can't fit a table tennis table in your lounge (and I bloody can't), it's the next best thing. It's the sign of a great sports game when you can't think of anything you'd want to change in the next version. It doesn't need another version. If Rockstar's decision over whether to make more of these vanity side projects wobbles precariously, then we must all band together around them, shielding them from the winds. This is brilliant, whichever way you spin it.
9 / 10