There hasn’t exactly been a glut of pool-based games on the current generation of consoles, in fact the last time I recall picking up a virtual cue would be Virtual Pool 3 for the original Playstation. There have been others since of course, but none really fully captured the experience. Perhaps it’s time for a comeback. Pool Nation, the first title from new Manchester-based developer Cherry Pop, certainly looks the part. They claim it has ‘pixel-perfect graphics’, and it’s hard to argue.
Floating ethereally towards the table in an exquisitely rendered high-roller club setting (sans the people, who don’t seem to exist in this world, lending it a slightly anodyne and clinical air), the game begins. An electric piano tinkles sonorously in the background as you ready for the break. The satisfying clack of ball on ball sounds in conjunction with soft thuds as they rebound off the cushions. The ceramic spheres gleam resplendently as you shepherd them across the felt, time slowing down for a second so you can savour the thunk as one sinks into the far pocket. The physics engine is top-notch so a wide range of shot types are at your disposal, from the usual side and back spin approach to more ambitious jump and swerve shots. The camera pans seamlessly around the table to overhead at the touch of a button. In many respects it captures the quintessential ‘schmooveness’ of the game, and doubtless you’ll feel like a boss after pulling off the seemingly near impossible. Don’t worry if you accidentally pitch it off the table though; the game graciously grants you two ‘flashbacks’ per game, allowing you to undo your last shot in an emergency. A clear and concise tutorial introduces the basics of play and walks you through each of the shots in your arsenal.
The main game modes are the 8-ball and 9-ball tournaments, facing off against increasingly tricky opponents. There’s no official license so don’t expect Steve Davis to show up, it’s all wacky pseuds with paperthin ridiculous backstories here. To get the maximum rating for each game, certain tasks have to be performed before sealing the win, for example making two jump shots. It’s not essential to progress, but it’s a nice extra challenge. Along the way you have the opportunity to play bonus rounds for the chance to win new ball sets, cues and table decals. Currently all the balls are variants on the spots & stripes system, but new sets are promised via DLC soon, so perhaps we’ll get to play with red ‘n’ yellows like we’re used to. The AI difficulty ramps up quite quickly, so be warned; on more than one occasion, my break was slightly off and I had to sit back and watch my amusingly-monikered adversary clean up.
The other mode of note is the Endurance challenge, which thrusts you under the disco lights against the clock to pot as many as you’re able. New balls keep getting added as the seconds tick on, and once the table is full it’s game over. It’s tense going and less languid than pool ought to be but it’s nice to try for a change. In addition to these there are also 3-ball, Killer, Rotation, Speed and Golf modes to check out. 3-ball involves potting the first three balls in fewer shots than your opponent while Killer is the standard 8-ball setup, except you have three lives and lose one when you fail to pot. Rotation is a kind of hybrid between 9-ball and snooker, and in Speed all that counts is a faster clearance time. In Golf the pockets are numbered, and play progresses round the table with players attempting to pot into specific ones. These variants don’t really offer the longevity of the main game types, but they’re a fun aside to try in an effort to get the aforementioned bonus items.
The controls feel very smooth, with the force of your cue reliant on a deft flick of the right analog stick. Angles can be fine-tuned down to the millimetre and shot power can be locked in place so you can focus on the spin. The physics engine feels very true, and on replay you can even see the cushions contract a fraction on impact. A guide showing ball trajectory is on by default, but can be removed if you want to trust in your own instincts.
It’s not going to be your main gaming choice and it may have diminished replay value after you max out the tourneys, but this is an extremely promising first title from a new developer, probably the best the fine pastime of pocket billiards has ever looked on-screen, and is ideal for a quick blast in between your triple-A titles, or if you have a pal to cue up with, both local and online multiplayer are at your disposal. Gaming is about escapism a lot of the time, about the things we’ll never have the chance to do in the real world, but if for whatever reason you and your mates can’t make it down the boozer for a few rounds of the real deal, Pool Nation has your back.