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TECHNOLOGY

Review: Rockstar serves up winning game

'Grand Theft Auto' maker shifts gears with ping-pong

By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service

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Players' movement is very lifelike in "Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis."

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Video Games
Review

You didn't buy your Xbox 360 to play table tennis.

Rather, you probably wanted all that horsepower for photorealistic 3-D shooters and blisteringly fast racing games.

But before you balk at a Ping-Pong simulation, give "Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis" a spin, and you won't be disappointed.

And when you experience the game's depth, speed and multiplayer features, you'll see why this is much more than just a pretty "Pong."

In case you've never played this leisure activity-turned-Olympic sport, table tennis is played on a rectangular surface measuring 9 feet long by 5 feet wide, with a net that runs through the middle of the table. You must hit the ball, which measures 40mm in diameter, with a racket (don't call it a "paddle"), so that it bounces on the opponent's side of the net. Your opponent, in turn, must volley it back so it does the same on your end. The objective is to make it difficult for your opponent to return the ball; if he or she fails to do so, you gain a point. The player who reaches 11 points first wins the game (if it's a tie at 10 points a piece, called a deuce, you must win by two points). Players may opt for a 7- or 21-point game instead.

In the solo mode, players compete against fictitious virtual opponents from around the world, each with their own play styles. For example, Liu Ping from China has a powerful forehand topspin, while Jesper from Sweden has a long reach and Germany's Juergen is quick on his feet. In time, you'll learn each of their weaknesses and how to exploit them.

You can play as only two out of the 11 players at the start of the game, but once you defeat opponents through the various circuits, new players will become unlocked, not to mention new apparel in which to outfit them. Players can also unlock close to 20 international arenas.

One of the great things about this game is how scalable the difficulty is. That is, novice or younger players can easily win a few rounds by pressing the green "A" button for a topspin shot and letting the artificial intelligence decide where the ball should land. But in order to win increasingly challenging tournaments, players must pick up more advanced skills such as choosing where the ball is placed on the opponent's side of the table and whether to apply a topspin, backspin, left or right sidespin, soft shot or focused shot. Plus, the longer you hold down the button during your swing, the more spin and power is applied to the ball (referred to as "charging").

Anyone who grew up with a Ping-Pong table in the basement will be amazed at the authenticity of this game's physics, as the ball responds as it would in real-life. Plus, the players look (and move) so lifelike, a passer-by may think you're watching a televised table tennis match instead of playing a video game.

The crowds in the game also react realistically, such as calling out the player's name ("Take your time, Haley!"), or when about to win, chanting "Juergen! Juergen! Juergen!" Techno music fades in after a few back and forth volleys.

Players can also log onto Microsoft's Xbox Live ($49.99 annual subscription required) to play against real human opponents. You can choose to engage in a casual exhibition match or a timed round robin tournament for up to eight players.

Shortcomings are few, but the game lacks a create-a-player option, plus you can't play doubles for two players on the same television, which would have been fun.

Overall, however, "Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis" is a highly polished, fast and gorgeous game with lots of depth. It may not sound like the kind of sports simulation you'd want beside your football or boxing titles, but it proves to be a surprisingly fun and addictive time-waster for the entire family.

Rating: "Everyone"

Score: 4.0 stars (out of 5)

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