Thank you Merge Games for sending us this game to review!
While I have never been a 'sports guy', there are a few of the lesser-known sports that I've always enjoyed, and Ping Pong is pretty much near the top of my list. It also helps that I have worked at two employers, current one included, that has a Ping Pong table available in the rec area. My day job is a Systems Administrator, so when nothing is broken, we can often spend some time at the end of the day playing Ping Pong. Over time, we've built up quite the crew of table tennis aficionados, and we play doubles (4 players, one table) usually at least once a week, for a good hour at a time. Given my deep familiarity with the real-life sport, I was very excited at the opportunity to check out a VR game, to see if it could help me get better in real life.
VR Ping Pong Pro is actually a sequel of sorts to the team's previous effort, VR Ping Pong. While that one has a low-quality graphical aesthetic, this one is much more realistic and pretty. There are several different environments, including outdoors in a city, indoors in a garage, indoors in an arcade, and a couple other outdoor locations, like what I believe to be Japan and China. The graphical fidelity is quite good, and it looks great on the Rift S. There are people walking by, background noise and chatter, birds chirping, the works. The multiplayer arena looks like a real table tennis competition hall, which is a nice touch. I am really pleased with the environments available, as they are all unique and give a different vibe.
Both you and your opponent are floating paddles; they almost look haunted. I am not much for cosmetic upgrades, but you can unlock different colors and patterns for your paddle, as well as the ball, by winning against opponents. I beat the computer a few times and got new paddles, but I haven't unlocked a ball yet. The ball has a dot on one side, so you can easily discern what kind of spin is on the ball. You can also adjust how the paddle is in your hands, with adjustment arrows from the main menu. It took me a while, but I was able to get the paddles to behave reasonably close to what I expected, if I hit the ball straight on. Spin is another matter.
Once you have been playing Ping Pong enough, you soon learn to deal with spin. With backspin, the ball can slow down mid-air, and drop long before it normally would. Returning the ball can also have a surprise result, as it can quickly drop right into the net, so adjusting your returns to compensate is necessary. Topspin is almost the opposite; while the ball can drop a little bit as it heads towards the table, when returned, it get a huge kick in velocity, as the ball wants to keep going. Sidespin can do all kinds of crazy things, like having the ball bounce back opposite to the expected direction when it lands on the table, making returns much more difficult. Dealing with and dishing out spin is pretty much required for advanced Ping Pong play, and it's basically all but missing here.
After this review was written, but before it was published, the developer pushed out a huge physics update that drastically improved the physics, especially around spin. It's way better than it was, but I still occasionally try to apply spin and it doesn't work, or it seems to have an effect, but the ball's graphic doesn't spin in any way to show what's coming. It's kind of hard to tell if it's the physics simulation, like how the ball interacts with the surfaces and air, or if it's how the ball interacts with the paddle that's the problem. It's hard to tell because without being able to apply spin consistently, I can't really prove it one way or the other. When I play the real game with my buddies at work, I often apply backspin and sidespin to keep things interesting; while it is definitely improved from how it was pre-patch, I still can't consistently apply it all the time. Also, serving is quite a challenge and I was lucky to get it over 30% of the time. I got better with more practice, as I stopped trying to make it a 'good' serve - just get it over. Backspin seems to work on serves okay, but topspin and sidespin is hit or miss.
Outside of the base single player, of which there are five difficulty levels, there is also multiplayer. I love the idea, but I was never able to find anyone online to play against. There is one suggestion that I saw on the Steam forums that I agree with: make it so that you can play against the computer while waiting in the lobby; that way, most people would be willing to wait for a competitor.
Other than the main single player games, there is an Arcade mode where you can train up your skills in certain areas. For example, there are a few scoring games where you try to aim at a target on the other side, keep volleys going against yourself, or knock over cans. One mode that I really liked was a simple variation of regular table tennis where the table is a large grid, and wherever you bounce the ball off of, that spot disappears from play. So each volley, you have to adjust and not return the ball exactly where you did it last time. I feel like it could have been even more interesting if it was permanent (it resets after each point), but it’s the beginning of what could be a really enjoyable game mode. There are three other planned arcade modes that are planned but not yet available to try.
VR Ping Pong Pro, before the recent patch, was going to be a mixed review at best. Now, it is much easier to recommend. Even still, it's not without flaws. In one sense, it’s really fun – I love Ping Pong, and it’s a nearly perfect fit for VR. The environments are really nice, and everything looks and sounds wonderful. Serving is wonky at best, but you eventually get used to it. The spin simulation is massively improved after the recent patch. I used to try to execute moves that I’d gotten down in real life after years of practice, and it just didn’t feel right. Now, it often works, though not always. With that said, if you are a casual player, or are just looking for something to play against that looks great and has a decent AI opponent, then you can’t go wrong with VR Ping Pong Pro. It is definitely enjoyable and well done. If you are experienced, I was going to recommend giving this a pass; now I can say give it a shot - it is good enough now that it's definitely worth a try.