table1.jpg [This special GameSetWatch report about Rockstar's special NY blogger Table Tennis showdown was rushed to us by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins, a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor - much appreciated, Sir!]

This past Saturday Rockstar held a special tournament in the downtown New York City. The game? Their new Xbox 360 curiosity, Table Tennis. The participants? Member of the local video gaming press.

First up, I've been never been a super huge fan of Rockstar's titles. I know they have a legion of devotees, primarily thanks to Grand Theft Auto, which helped to user in the era of sandbox gameplay, as well as make the world take notice that games have "matured" and so has its audience. But for whatever reason, I just don't dig banging hookers via a Dual Shock. It simply ain't my thing. Hence why Table Tennis immediately got my attention when it first hit the scene. Many were rather confused, some even irate, with Rockstar's first foray into the next generation of gaming. It looked neither risky nor groundbreaking, but clean, simple fun.

And simple's the key word here. I've somewhat become a cranky old gamer, one who find today's games too cumbersome and complicated. I just don't have the time, energy, or interest to deal with expansive worlds, emergent gameplay, or whatever else is hot in gaming today. I simply want to push a few buttons and have fun dammit. And Table Tennis looked to provide just that, to go back to what video games are (or were) all about. After-all, wasn't a ping pong simulator what helped to inspire the medium in the first place? But most importantly, it just looked easy to play.

Truth be told, despite the fact that I'm an avid gamer, I'm also a pretty lousy one these days. Hence why I'm a big fan of far less demanding, easier to digest "casual" games, which appear to be the bane of the hardcore set's existence (and like all cranky old men, my attitude is if something pisses the kids off, I already know someone's doing something right). It’s also why I wasn't automatically scared by the notion of entering a tournament for a game I hadn't even played before. Its just ping-pong, right?

table2.jpg Which is exactly what the game itself is, nothing more, nothing less. There's no superfluous nonsense, like pop music or slapped on street cred, just straightforward table tennis action. That's not to say it's drab or boring. From the get go, its intensely focused on bringing you, the player, straight and center in the thick of action, and it does so spectacularly, thanks in great part to its platform; some believe that its almost a waste to use the power of the Xbox 360 on such subject matter, but whereas all other 360 games have tried to deliver players in the midst of otherworldly, or ultra realistic visceral thrills, its crowning achievement just might in fact be simply placing the players in the shoes of someone who's means of attaining victory lies within a tiny white ball and a paddle.

When I first entered the space, everyone was busy giving the game a test drive. There were some plastic sheets strewn about that described the controls: left stick to move, right stick or face buttons to hit the ball, plus shoulder buttons to execute special maneuvers. Seemed easy as cake. As I watched a game taking place, one of the Rockstar reps mentioned that its very much like Virtua Tennis, and I could certainly see that. And given the immediate pick and play-ness of that game, I was ready for action almost immediately.

Though as drop dead simple as the controls seemed to be, it wasn't. Things were far more sophisticated that I had assumed, and I found myself struggling from the outset, with a very mild "oh great, super precise controls is gonna make something else that's suppose to be simple and fun a damn chore" anxiety attack in my head. But that's okay, because the other person I was playing with, Vlad from Joystiq, was in the same exact boat (though perhaps minus the mini-mental breakdown). We fumbled around the controls for a bit, making comments and connections as we went along. And over time, we each sorta figured it out.

After about an hour or so, it was tournament time. There would be two brackets: first players would play best two out of three matches against an opponent. Those who win advance to the next round, until there is only one left, and the losers are then placed in another bracket. They each face off against each other until one remains, then that person would face off against the victory of pervious bracket to crown the champ. Names and positions were drawn at random, and because there wasn't enough participants, myself and another person were given "byes" and automatically advanced to the next slot. My first opponent would be Fiona, the wife of Vlad. Immediately the pressure was on, because as I played, not only was Vlad cheering his wife on, but about two other friends as well.

table3.jpg In the game, much like its real-life counterpart, you basically hit the ball back and forth, though it’s more than just that of course. The key is to angle shots so the opponent can't get to the ball. Again, fairly obvious strategy to figure out. As one plays, a meter will fill up which will allow the use of more sophisticated maneuvers. But early on, I just wanted to make sure I didn't screw up therefore couldn't have cared less about performing any fancy tricks. So I ended up playing conservatively, as did Fiona, which led to a rather boring match to watch. Though the strategy worked, as I slowly pulled ahead. Near the end, I figured "what the hell" and went for a fancy move, which backfired, so I ran back to what had worked. Eventually I scored my first win. And if felt good!

While waiting for my next match, I watched everyone else's matches, and it was fairly obvious that everyone's skills were slightly improving. So I knew I'd have to bring my game up a notch if I was going to continue on to victory. My next adversary was Nick from Evil Avatar. And... he made short work of me. I scored some points here and there, but it was mostly due to mistakes on Nick's end. As comfortable as I was getting with the controls, I was still fighting with them, primarily their extreme sensitivity. In the end, I did quite poorly, but I still had another chance, as my name was added to the seconded chances bracket. So to stay in the game, I had to defeat Steve from Xbox Exclusive.

There are numerous characters in the game, representing various nationalities, and I had been using the male Chinese character, Liu Ping. It should be mentioned that they are simply amazing, and what truly brings the player into the game (as well as a fine example of the 360's abilities); every little move and display of emotion (whether it be a boastful punch in the air for a victorious exchange, or the wince of just having screwed up) is just spot on. Ping had served me well my first time around, but not so much the second time around. I was tempted to change to Luc, a French male that looked very much like Luke Wilson from The Royal Tenenbaums (right down to the head band and the big nose) that everyone was using, and winning with, but decided to stick with the man from the east.

Maybe I should have because Steve basically destroyed me right from the outset. In the middle of my first match, one of the Rockstar reps decided to give me some helpful hints. This is like telling the driver of an out of control truck who knows he's going to fly off a cliff and into certain doom when and where to turn on the turn signal. Basically, it wasn't helping. I knew defeat was inevitable, and I took it like a man.

Afterwards I simply sat around watching those who had to stuff advance on, while chitchatting with fellows losers, mostly about what had worked and what hadn't. The key to any good party game is that its as enjoyable to watch as it is to play, and Table Tennis passed that test. Whenever two players went beyond eight or so exchanges of the ball, a counter would pop up, adding to the drama. Whenever it hit about 30, everyone simply stopped what they were doing and stared at the screen, waiting to see who would drop the ball, literally. Adding to the intensity are slow-mo close ups of edge of your seat "will he make it or won't he?!" shots, which while gimmicky, works extremely well and doesn't disrupt the flow of the game. Though my favorite dramatic event takes place in the background; each stage is meticulously rendered. Again, its nothing fancy, just enough to get you there. Yet when things get really hot and heavy, it all goes away, as the lights dim and an almost blinding spotlight shines down. Plus the background techno music gets drown out by a loud hum, as if all the air is being sucked out of the room.

In the end, Steve, the guy who knocked me out of the competition, made it to the end, but was defeated by some guy from UGO. Rockstar says that they intend to hold tournaments such as this on a regular basis, and I'll be back, perhaps better, perhaps worse.