I’ve played pool in my time. I’ve never made a living doing it. I’m not even what you’d call good at it, but I’ve played it. I know the joy of hitting a shot you thought you had no chance of hitting, and I know the agony of accidentally sinking the 8-Ball. As a result of this knowledge, I am probably more qualified to review this game than I’ve ever been when reviewing a simulation. After all, I’ve never flown a star fighter, I’ve never fought off entire armies with nothing but a pistol and wits. What I’m getting at is I know how pool should feel. And Pool Nation feels slightly off.
Firstly I’ll say this right away: the game looks fabulous. There isn’t a lot to render, so the full power of the PS3 can be brought to bear on making the table and balls look their best. As you progress in the game you can unlock styles for the balls and your cue, enabling you to customize them as you wish. You can also unlock decals for the table, though why you’d want to obscure your vision of the playing surface I don’t know. The menus and presentation are both superbly done in a simple style that is very effective.
While the game looks amazing I can’t help but think that it’s much too clean looking. It is a hyper idealized look for a sport that is associated with dark bars and smoking. Where do you typically find pool tables? In the local bar near the back, under some light fixture that highlights the table and nothing else. Perhaps in your friend’s basement, beside the bar. The game feels incredibly sterile. The lack of player avatars does not help this. As you play the game in single player you face AIs of ever increasing difficulty, each of whom has a picture to show you what they look like, but all you ever see in the game is the pool cue, the table, and the balls.
This also leads to that disconnect that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Because there is no avatar for the players there is no limitation on where you can shoot on the table. Shots where you would be expected to climb up onto the table to even attempt in real life, or possibly attempt with the help of a rake are just normal everyday shots here in the game. This doesn’t make for a bad game, but it does limit the believability a bit.
As I mentioned before, the game puts you up against opponents who get more difficult the deeper into the game you get. I have no problem with this but the implementation is in need of a little tweaking. As I got farther into the single player I found myself thinking for the first time in a long time that I was playing against a computer. The illusion that many games create that make you think the player opposing you is in fact a human or at least an AI designed to find ways to lose to you were not there the further into the game you went. In the later stages it becomes very common to have the AI run the table on you, that is to sink all of the balls it is required to sink before you even get a shot off. Or if you make a single mistake the round is basically over because the AI is about to end it for you. I expect that the best pool players in the world would in fact be robotlike when it comes to play, so I’m not complaining, but the lack of those illusions really drove the point home that I was playing a computer that knew all of the angles and knew how to use them.
Now, because this is a video game, the developers did include the option to play the game from multiple camera angles and to see roughly where your shot will wind up. This can be turned off if such an option turns you off, but especially later in the game it does make things easier to know what the results of your shot will be. Continuing in this fashion, you are also given two take backs per match. Say you don’t like how a shot turned out. If you can access the menu before your opponent takes its shot you can return the table to how it was before you took your shot. I managed to avoid using this early on in the game, but towards the end of the tournaments it became abundantly clear that in order to win there could be no mistakes on my part, and so when it was needed the option was called upon.
The game isn’t just plain old billiards either. You can play in 8-Ball tournaments, 9-Ball tournaments, Endurance Mode, and in different multiplayer options as well. 8-Ball is the game of billiards most people think of when they think of pool. Stripes and Solids. 9-Ball forces you to sink the first 9 numbered balls on the table in order. Endurance mode is a weird version of Horde mode played on a pool table. You start the game with a set number of balls on the table to sink, but as time goes on more balls will appear. You must survive for as long as you can before 24 balls collect on the table and end the round. I must admit I enjoyed this mode once I figured it out. I don’t know how often I’d go back to it but it is certainly diverting.
In online you can play in ranked or unranked matches, in single matches or even in tournaments. I cannot tell you what playing in a tournament is like, but playing against human competition was an interesting experience. Where in the matches against the AI you can fast forward through shots until it’s once again your turn, in online that feature is obviously missing. So you are forced to sit and watch as your opponent lines up their shot. In real life this is known as boring, and can be endured by having a drink, maybe hitting on the waitress. In the game, though, it’s just tedious. Of course if the person you are playing against knows what they are doing you probably won’t have to wait very long, but then again if they know what they are doing they are probably going to be running the table on you, so again, tedious.
Lastly I come to the sound. The sound effects are spot on, exactly what you think you would hear in a pool hall minus the noise beer makes. And while technically quite competent, I don’t know what I did to anger these developers. The music was of the Muzak variety, and would loop endlessly. It encouraged me to pick bad shots just to end the matches quickly. Finally I just gave up and resorted to killing the music in the menus.
Short Attention Span Summary:
So there you go. Not a bad effort. Just kill the music before you kill yourself, and enjoy it for what it is.