Support David, click to buy via us...
Sports Champions table tennis promised to put my real world experience to the test. However on closer inspection it failed to deliver more than an indication of future gratification. Table tennis is one of the better of the six events on offer, but is ultimately unsatisfying for keen fans, especially when compared to Nintendo's older, less sophisticated ping-pong sim.
Regular readers will know that we here at GamePeople have an intense, almost obsessive passion for table tennis games including Wii-Sports Resort - even to the point of importing a prototype Wii table tennis Bat controller. Many team gaming sessions have descended (or rather been elevated) into a series of hard-fought, tense, two-player showdowns over Wii-Sports' small net. Perhaps more so than any of the generally very impressive Wii-Sports and Wii-Fit minigames, table tennis has a depth and class that significantly outstrips its seemingly humble status.
Sports Champions both is and is not Wii-Sports Resort. Both titles essentially exist to demonstrate the present capabilities and future potential of a new control system - the Wii's MotionPlus add-on on the one hand, and the PS3's Move controls on the other. However, while Wii-Sports Resort offers a truly addictive experience as well as an easy-in to the benefits and possibilities of its control mechanic, Sports Champions really only offers the latter.
When it comes to the table tennis table, probably the key strength of Move lies in its ability to accurately track the movement of the player in three axes: up-down, left-right and in-out. This ability translates well into realistic movement of the paddle in and around the table - at least, that is, until a rally begins.
While the ability in Sports Champions to move in to the net to pick up drop shots, or to step back to change the angle of, or increase the topspin on, a shot is a definite plus over its Wii-based rival, the fluidity and realism of the movement is hugely let down by the ball-striking mechanic.
While I've never taken table tennis as seriously as I might, I played recreationally through my teens and with more regularity as a postgraduate student. I'm not amazing, but I know my way around a table, am proficient at most of the shots (although I have a persistent issue with the accuracy of my backhand topspin down the line), and I certainly know what I'm supposed to do in 99 per cent of situations, even if I can't always do it. As such, just like with Wii-Sports, I came to Sports Champions with a clear expectation of how the game should feel and how my movements should translate into ping pong action.
The most important moment by far is the contact of the ball on the bat - that is where it all happens.
As other table tennis players will know, the most important moment by far is the contact of the ball on the bat - that is where it all happens. The huge difference between the way I used to play as a kid, with a grippy, pimpled bat from the 80s, and how I would now with a contemporary smooth, slick bat, illustrates this point. What is more, as a practised player, my table tennis experience tells me that the slightest change in the position or trajectory of my hand or the inflection of my wrist as the balls makes contact with the bat can completely change a shot. Unfortunately, Sports Champions' table tennis experience is significantly weakened by a fudged mechanic that governs and ruins this moment.
That notwithstanding, Sports Champions fulfils the mandate to be instantly accessible, and once you've chosen which massively and thoroughly inappropriately muscled man or slightly more realistically built woman you'd like to play as, you can immediately get a feel for how it works. However, as soon as you reach the point where you want to start hitting the ball with any intention other than to simply present it back to your opponent in the middle of the table - with any topspin, or attempt to find the sides - you hit problems with the striking mechanic. The tolerance built into this which 'assists' you to hit the ball, basically kills all sense of tactility and nuance in the controls.
The positional and directional precision is really exciting.
On the lowest skill setting, this tolerance is so large that it is possible to return a ball without actually putting the bat within three inches of it. While this might sound like it would makes it easier, it actually makes things considerably harder, given that is so removed from a player's likely real life expectations. On the highest, 'gold' skill setting, things are a little better, but nowhere near better enough.
It's a real shame, because the positional and directional precision is really exciting, but it's almost impossible for someone who plays table tennis and understands the way the contact physics should work to get a satisfying experience. There is too much weirdness that happens almost every time you hit the ball.
Another slightly more important issue is that the lack of tactility and precision during ball-striking is exacerbated by the nature of the Move controller. Unlike the Wii-mote, for example, it has no real weight, no heft to it. For me this lightness significantly exaggerated the lack of realism in Sports Champions. The combination of the imprecision of the striking moment and the lack of substance with regard to the controller left me frustratedly failing to play the shots that I intended, or to get the results that I anticipated.
The positional and directional precision is really exciting.
You may recall a recent challenge on The Gadget Show where presenters took on sports professionals at computer game versions of the sports at which they earn a living. It was intriguing to note that whereas the majority of the presenters were roundly thrashed by the pros, one with obviously no real table tennis skill was able to fairly easily defeat a rather frustrated looking England table tennis coach using Sports Champions.
My experiences with the Sports Champions table tennis game have matched quite closely that suggested by the facial expressions of the pro coach on The Gadget Show. On the one hand the game offers so much, but then almost immediately snatches it back with the other.
Perhaps there will be a future update that tinkers with the mechanic, but I hold out more hope that this will inspire other programmers with regard to the superb potential of Move for translating the precise directionality of sporting movement. Hopefully it will also convince them that more work needs to be done to get the physicality, the 'feel' of an accurate sporting experience. Maybe some of them will look again at Wii-Sports Resort and grasp exactly what makes the table tennis there such a rich and satisfying experience, despite the obvious directional and control limitations.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: