Pool is a tough sport to sell. Watching a bunch of friends awkwardly co-ordinating the cue with their aiming skills at a real table is hard enough. But to translate this experience into a video game seems quite a stretch.
Pool Nation FX was a first in the sport for me. Despite long loading times, playing Pool Nation is worth the wait. The main menu offers numerous avenues of play, including a career mode, online multiplayer (with a friend or through matchmaking), time-based challenge modes, and a trick-shot editor.
This extensive list of options gives Pool Nation an immediate edge; for a seemingly simple sport and recreational activity, Cherry Pop Games have managed to pack a lot in here. There are stacks of sliders which affect the rules of the sport’s various game modes, such as 8-ball, 9-ball, and snooker.
Jumping into a game is easy and the loading is comprised of a walk through your chosen venue’s front door and entrance to the playing area. Learning the control scheme is a simple enough task. But helping new players with various spins and trick shots should’ve been handled better; having 10 or so screenshots with descriptors for a tutorial just isn’t good enough. As per most games, a detailed training session offering a taster of gameplay in which to learn the button layout makes more sense.
The settings have a fantastic amount of detail, and set a great tone for the match to come. A lot of work has gone into crafting the cues and the immaculate shine of the balls and tables. Players may even spot the wear-and-tear of the equipment the longer match progresses, which is a nice touch. There’s also an extensive selection of cues, balls and tables that are purchased through in-game currency, the latter of which unlock picturesque Hawaiian backdrops or a neon-lit Tokyo skyline.
The AI opponents are tough. Even on the lower difficulties they provide quite a challenge to any newcomer, which proves to be the first immediate downside to Pool Nation. After the ‘break’, where one player fires the cue ball into the others, you may only make one mistake before your opponent goes on the offensive.
Your competitor can soon pot five or six balls in a row, without fail, leaving the player staring at defeat after a only few minutes of play – and that’s on “easy”. This could be an oversight by the developers, or, for added realism, they could be saying that it only takes one error to lose a game. In any case, it’s disheartening to lose on the lowest difficulty setting when the player should be getting some confidence out of it instead.
Not only will you get incredibly frustrated by the AI’s pinpoint accuracy, but there’s one other critical flaw in Pool Nation. When playing in tournaments, there’s no background ambience, no crowd chatter, no fictional commentary; these huge venues, despite being utterly gorgeous, are completely empty. The only thing to motivate players is a continuous loop of four or five tracks – and this is where the cracks turn into gaping holes of game design. Why bother with huge casino-like arenas if there are no people there to add to the atmosphere?
Playing the World Tour is a long road and this lack of personality diminishes Pool Nation’s enjoyment immensely. Some character customisation for your ‘Pool Pro’ would have been a great inclusion, instead of seeing a high-definition cue guided by nothingness.
The matches themselves can drag on quite a bit. After progressing through five qualifying rounds and a string of knockout phases, I reached the final of my first career event. As a lowly level four ‘beginner’, I would face-off against a level 34 professional. When it’s best out of seven frames, and you’ve learned to be somewhat competitive, one match can take up to 15 minutes. There aren’t any rank-specific tournaments separating the mediocre from the skilled – another misstep from Cherry Pop Games. You soon realise that this title hinges on player confidence, and the frequent God-like skills of AI rivals dare you to switch to another game.
The feel of Pool Nation FX is one of optimism: The graphics are great and the gameplay is there, so the rest should take care of itself. It doesn’t. The game is devoid of character and, as you peel back the layers, you’re slightly underwhelmed that Pool Nation’s 12GB download has only gone into graphics. This is a title that, with a few sizeable alterations, could’ve attracted some noticeable attention to this seemingly unknown sport. Close, but no cigar.
Aspirational, but not enough balls