It sounds like a prank: Rockstar Games, creator of the most notorious and influential video-game series of its era in Grand Theft Auto, has turned its attention to a budget-conscious, E-rated ping-pong game. No hookers to slap around, no gang-bangers to shank, and penned-in environments as modest as a bar backroom or a high-school gymnasium. And yet Table Tennis displays as much commitment to artistry as the GTA series, only it's buried in mechanics so silky-smooth that it feels like virtual reality. In a market filled with overstuffed sports titles, bogged down by superfluous career modes, trophy rooms, and mini-games, the game stands out for its rudimentary pleasures. It only needs to get two things right: The ping and the pong.
The no-frills aesthetic starts with the options menu, which invites you to play an exhibition or a short tournament. It's that or pound sand; without an Xbox Live subscription, the single-player experience doesn't add up to much. The game's Zen-like simplicity owes a lot to the controls: You move your player and direct shots with the left analog stick, and you swing and modulate spin with the right. The basic moves aren't natural, yet there's considerable nuance involved in playing well, including distance from the table, anticipation of an opponent's counter-shots, and subtle strokes of creativity and deception. And adjusting to a specific player's strengths (or seizing on your own) keeps you from going through the same motions ever time.
Beyond the game: In many ways, Table Tennis seems like a response to overproduced sports games, and nothing's more refreshing than the absence of announcers. Though a gentle voice from above will declare who's serving, the sound is limited to the hypnotic clack of ball against paddle and a little house music piped in during long rallies.
Worth playing for: With a game this fast, you only have time to react-react-react, and in a match against comparable online competition, the intensity level is astounding.
Frustration sets in when: Against power players like Jesper, a grim-faced Swede with a sledgehammer forehand, the already slim reaction time whittles to nil.
Final judgment: Table Tennis may be mocked as a spiritual cousin to Pong, but gaming experiences this pure haven't come along that often since.