Rockstar's second-floor party pad sits at the top of a long flight of stairs just off of Bowery in Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood. As I climbed those stairs on my way to an invitational afternoon of beer, food and Rockstar Games Presents: Table Tennis this Saturday, I half expected the door to burst open and a bunch of clowns to yell "April Fools!"
It just didn't make much sense that famously reticent, infamously too-cool-for-the-media Rockstar had actually invited members of the press to see their latest game, nevermind a lowly blogger. But for once, they're probably happy to be talking about something other than whichever version of their marquee Grand Theft Auto series has been released, been hacked, been banned, been recalled, been reissued, been whatevered.
Instead, when the door to the flat opened I was greeted by a bevvy of Rockstar marketers, three huge HD displays, and three Xbox 360s spinning a pre-release version of Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis. Turns out the game is no joke and that Rockstar's serious about seeing that the game sees the exposure they believe it deserves.
The real question is whether gamers believe it's deserving.
If you're a ping pong addict, this is another opportunity for you to deepen your involvement with a hobby you already love. This game will satisfy you because -- at least to this ping pong amateur and the two legit ping pong players I brought along with me -- it feels authentic.
That authenticity comes from Rockstar's choice to embrace realism rather than a stylized or simplified arcade style. The company is calling Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis the "first true sports simulation title" that they've ever done.
The realism is manifested in the actual movement of the ball across the table: smashing the ping pong ball doesn't make flames shoot out from it, and ping pong paddles never glow with heat or special power. The environments are carefully rendered, high-polygon rooms full of authentic detail from premiere Ping Pong brands that brand the tournament arenas to the way in which multiple light sources cause multiple player shadows.
Even character design favors the real over the sensational. The characters (seven male, four female) aren't unrealistically attractive. They look like the sort of athletes you might expect to see playing ping pong on Google Video. In fact, Kumi (pictured above) is pretty much the most attractive of the bunch, so let's just address the elephant in the room right now: don't expect Dead or Alive-style jiggle-technology in this game. There's nary a bouncing breast, halter top, or camel toe present.
That's a good thing, because the lack of flash allows players to focus on the actual game of ping pong. Though serving is still raw and unintuitive in the build that we played, actual gameplay itself flows smoothly and intuitively. Most new players in the tournament opted to use the four colored buttons on the Xbox 360 controller's face. Word is that the Rockstar crew that are actually involved in developing and testing the game generally choose instead to use the right-hand analog stick to control spin.
That's a strong indication that the game's designers nailed their stated goal of creating a game designed to be accessible to new players. My wife -- who reluctantly agreed to be dragged along for the afternoon -- actually beat me on the first game we played. She was using the buttons, I had opted for the analog stick.
That was the first in a string of defeats for me. I recognized immediately the superiority of the analog stick for ball control, but underestimated how much time it would take me to actually become facile with it. All of the finalists in the double-elimination tournament that Rockstar arranged chose to use the buttons rather than the analog stick. This makes sense. The buttons are easier to press, produce surer responses, and allow the new player to concentrate on getting up to speed on the core game.
This will allow button-mashers to dominate the early Xbox Live rankings, but we predict that those who stick with the analog stick will ultimately dominate the top 10 rankings within weeks of the game's public release. That's because the game manages to accomplish that tricky balance between ease of use and extended learning curve for those who would master it. Just like ping pong itself, the game is very easy to pick up, but similarly difficult to master. We're not sure just how long it takes to climb this learning curve, but it feels right after just a few hours of play.
That said, here's what they're hoping they address in the few weeks remaining before the game's code is frozen and shipped off to retail outlets:
- Better serving interface: At first, serving is confusing and difficult. Then it just becomes annoying. The build we played featured the first implementation of the newest serving system, and Rockstar was cognizant that it needed tweaking. We're looking forward to the final iteration of this critical component because it's not ready for launch yet.
- Online play: We were unable to test any online play component. Ping pong's intensity demands split-second timing and network code needs to be tight to avoid lag that might interfere with players' ability to respond to blistering smashes and feather-soft dinks. We're hoping that the game's responsive feel doesn't suffer in online play.
- More smack-talk: One of the most enjoyable aspects of the game is the way in which player-characters gloat whenever they score a point. The Frenchman named Luc juts his chin out and points as if to say, "'ow do you like that one, mon petit bitch?" The English character Mark is very polite when he loses, but his inner wanker slips out whenever he scores a point, pumps his fist, and hisses, "Yes!" These are nice touches -- that's why we hope that more are added to the game prior to launch.
- Achievements: Achievements were not present in the game we played. Rockstar says that the achievements they've designed for the game will actually mean something, but we'll believe it when we see it. Too many sports titles for the Xbox 360 give players achievements for very little effort (EA, we're looking at you). Rockstar says that achievements will only be awarded for significant demonstrations of player skill.
About four hours after the event started, the three folks I had dragged along with me were still eager to continue to play, and none of them consider themselves gamers; none of them own an Xbox 360 or any prior-generation console. If this admittedly small sample size has any predictive power, Rockstar's got a hit on their hands.
Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis will hit North American retail shelves on May 22nd at a price of $39.99. Four days later (May 26), European customers can pick it up for €39.99 (£29.99 in the UK).(UPDATE: Minor grammatical errors corrected.)