When it comes to pool and video games you won’t find a more brutal critic than me. I grew up shooting pool from the age of seven. I had a pool table in my basement for 18+ years, I shot pool at the American Legion with my dad, and I even hustled a bit of pool at my apartment clubhouse. In the 90’s I even helped develop and write a pool game for the PC, complete with awesome 16-color EGA graphics…HEY…it was cool back then.
I’m always eager to check out new pool games and see how technology is helping to bridge the gap between a sport that is all about geometry, instinct, and finesse and then trying to translate that to precise digital inputs. Pool Nation is the latest billiards game to come to console and while it does many things right, it still fails in capturing the true essence of the sport, and I am now fairly confident no virtual pool game ever will.
Pool Nation offers all of the expected content including a lengthy 9-ball and 8-ball tournament through multiple venues. Along the structured tournament tree you’ll have periodic bonus games like Rotation, or variations of straight pool. Each game in the tournament has three goals, each worth a star, and these stars are used to unlock new events and venues. Stars are earned for anything from winning the game to performing a swerve, jump, or bank shot, or doing a run of anywhere from 4-7 balls just to name a few.
My biggest complaint about any computer pool game is playing the computer opponent. Pool is a precise game of angles and power; all calculations that the computer will NEVER miss, so anytime the computer does miss I feel it’s “letting me win” based on some arbitrary skill setting. Of course in some of the higher ranked games, if the computer does get a chance to shoot it will likely run the table. Then again, given the level of control and pre-shot setup, you only have yourself to blame if you miss a shot in Pool Nation.
My other complaint about any pool game really, and something I learned developing my own, is that there is no way to realistically capture the intuition of setting up your shot and the finesse of actually taking it with anything other than a cue stick and a real pool table. Pool Nation easily has one of the best and most accessible interfaces for setting up your shot, but in doing so takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the game. On the default skill mode your indicator lines will show you the force and direction of travel for the cue ball and the target ball including the cue ball richochet all but ensuring you’ll make your shot and setup your next. If you toggle that option to something more challenging those lines will shrink, but I found no way to remove them entirely. And I also found no way to call your shots, so "slop pool" runs rampant in Pool Nation.
The tutorial does a fantastic job of teaching you how to play Pool Nation but not how to play pool. If anything, it reveals the checklist, mechanical nature of the game where you dial in your cue angle, impact point on the ball, direction of the shot, and force of the shot. You can even lock in your power then go back and readjust all those other variables. It quickly becomes more about the variables than the actual game. To get any real sense of the game of pool you have to force yourself to play from the 3D view – none of that top-down view…that’s for cheaters – and crank every setting to its highest level of difficulty and challenge, and even then…well, you just can’t beat a real game of pool, but Pool Nation comes closer than most.
The graphics are a mixed bag, but the screenshots don't lie. The venues look okay but reminded me of those games that try to render bowling alleys when you only really care about the lanes. Once you get to the pool table things get very impressive with reflective balls, and cushy felt bumpers. By winning bonus matches you can unlock new styles of balls, cue stick designs, and decals to overlay on the table surface. There is even a slow-motion camera to showcase your more impressive shots, but only if you are playing in the 3D view.
Ironically, the worst looking part of the game are the character portraits that look like stylized mug shots of whom I can only assume are Cherry Pop employees. There is a handful of musical tracks; mostly light contemporary and jazzy stuff you might hear in a hotel lounge or elevator. You’ll probably want to play your own music or adjust your music mix levels if you decide to play this game to its completion, as you are looking at an 8-10 hour repetitive ride; even longer if you get hooked on the surprisingly addictive Endurance mode.
Given the outstanding controls and precise input system it would have been nice to have a library of trick shots you could master. I was never allowed to try any of those fancy shots on my table at home for fear I might damage the cloth if I missed, but they always looked so cool when the pros did them on TV. Attempting them in the relative safety of a video game would be awesome and possibly educational.
I had some initial fun with Pool Nation, but by the time you finish a round of tournaments at one of the venues, starting all over at a new location seems hardly worth the effort unless you are in desperate need of some achievement points. You can take turns and play with a real human if you want, but if you are looking to socialize around a pool table you’re better off doing it for real. Pool Nation just has too much emphasis on the variables of pool rather than the actual game. It’s a competent pool game and probably the most accurate one I’ve ever played…it’s just not that much fun.